Loose Parts

I am not a saver. I mean, I love to get rid of things because clutter stresses me out. I am telling you this so that you’ll understand that loose parts play is not something that has come naturally for me, and dare I say something I have resisted a bit. And while I consider myself to be moderately creative, I don’t naturally have a gift for looking at an object and imagining all kinds of uses for it. By no means am I looking to discourage you from this process, but I just want to put it out there in case you, like me, cringe at the idea of these parts and pieces ending up all over your house.

What do I mean by loose parts? Anything can be loose parts really–paper towel tubes, egg cartons, tops from baby food pouches–the sky is literally the limit. I have ended up with a mixture of found and purchased items for loose part play, and I tend to lean more towards natural objects.

What’s so great about loose parts? They foster creativity and curiosity. Because the point of loose parts is to have no preconceived notion of what to do with them, they are inherently creative. And since many loose parts are either natural objects that inspire investigation or found objects, children are naturally drawn to them.

Start small. When you begin introducing loose parts, start with one type of object, and then build from there. Putting a handful of items on a tray gives them a boundary, and (hopefully) keeps them from wandering too far. 

Don’t direct play. I will put out a tray or two, and offer only the direction “these stay on the tray (or table)”. That’s it. I give only parameters I need to, and then leave the rest to their imagination. As simple as this seems, it’s really hard to resist offering a little bit of help, or adding in an idea. And that’s not the worst thing ever, but the goal here is that the learning is child-led. Allowing space for trial and error and creativity is when the best learning happens. 

Pay attention to what sparks interest. Does your child want to dump and fill? Or take things apart and put them back together? Do they want to inspect the items? Sort? When you’re in tune with what has captured their attention, you can provide other similar opportunities to build on what they’re naturally interested in. 

Tinker Trays. This is a beautiful way to group items together for exploration. I found my frame on marketplace for about $10, and my sweet husband (for whom I am always dreaming up projects) attached a back. Some of the items were things I saved or had on hand (buttons, wine corks, bottle caps, acorns, shells) and others I sought out (wool balls, wood rings, clothes pins). This is not something I leave out all the time, but rather pull out when I’m able to supervise a bit.

When I introduced my children to the tinker tray, I told them that what they took out needed to go back to the same place, and that all the items needed to stay on the table. The first time, I let them explore the tray separately. My two-year-old son initially wanted to explore all the items one at a time. He would hold an object, and then put it back. He was drawn to the glass beads and set a handful of them on the table. He was also fascinated with the pebbles, which he then used to sprinkle as “salt” on the beads.

My five-year-old daughter first touched almost all the items separately, identified the ones she knew, and asked about the ones that were new. I asked her what she thought they were before telling her, because I wanted her to feel free to be creative with everything. I loved how she differentiated the different types of buttons (some with holes and some with “stems”). 

Have fun! I hope this serves as inspiration to start (or continue) your exploration with loose parts. I have found it to be a source of creativity for me to find and keep objects I think the children will enjoy. 

Leave a comment below with your favorite objects for loose parts play!

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