Play for preschoolers can be teacher-directed by providing specific things to play with such as a store set-up in the dramatic play area, or very open-ended with a bin of ‘loose parts’. Both types of play are completely appropriate and help children develop many different skills.

So, what exactly is ‘loose parts’ play?

Loose parts play involves a collection of materials and objects that children can manipulate, order, and re-organize based on their imagination and creativity. The pieces can be those found in nature such as rocks, twigs, and seed pods or things found around the house such as nuts/bolts, string, and small containers. Or several bins with a mixture of household and natural objects.

The purpose of loose parts play is for children to develop higher level thinking and problem solving skills through persistence and imagination.  When more than one child is playing with the loose parts materials, it also encourages the development of cooperation and play skills, language and vocabulary development, and fine motor skills.

Loose parts play encourages children to use their imagination and creativity to discover all of the possibilities a particular object can provide. For example a twig can be a rocket ship, a boat, part of a forest, or even a critter. And, each time a child engages with the twig, it can become something new and different. There is no right or wrong way to play with different pieces. It is the ultimate of ‘open-ended’ play!

Open-ended play offers tremendous learning, growth, and development for children through discovery, imagination, problem-solving, and persistence. The play is child centered and driven. But it is not a ‘free for all’ with no adult involvement. It is important to note that the educator does play an important role through preparation of the materials, guiding play through questions and guidance, and using observation to document the learning.

How can loose parts play be integrated into early childhood care and education programs?

Here are some ideas provided by Penn State Extension

Loose parts: What does this mean? — Better Kid Care — Penn State Extension (psu.edu)

Please remember to be respectful of the elements in nature

1. Nature Play Area

water • sand • dirt • sticks • branches • logs • driftwood • grasses • moss • leaves • flowers • pinecones • pine needles • seeds • shells • bark • feathers • boulders • rocks • pebbles • stones

2. Playground

balls • hoops • jump ropes • tires • sand • water • dirt • straw • boulders • rocks • stones • pebbles • buckets • cups • containers • digging tools • chalk • scarves • ribbons • fabric

3.Indoor Environment:

blocks • building materials • manipulatives • measuring • pouring devices (cups, spoons, buckets, funnels) • dramatic play props • play cars, animals, and people • blankets • materials • floor samples • water • sand • sensory materials • recycled materials (paper tubes, papers, ribbons, caps, lids, wood scraps, wire, foam, cardboard) • plastic gutters • small plungers • tools • art materials (buttons, spools, natural and colored popsicle sticks, beads, straws, paints, brushes)

Choking Cautions

Young children can choke on small objects and toy parts. All items used for children under three years of age and any children who put toys in their mouths should be at least 1¼ inch in diameter and between 1 inch and 2¼ inches in length. Oval balls and toys should be at least 1¾ inch in diameter. Toys should meet federal small parts standards. Any toys or games labeled as unsuitable for children under three should not be used.

Other items that pose a safety risk and should not be accessible to children under three include, but are not limited to: button batteries, magnets, plastic bags, styrofoam objects, coins, balloons, latex gloves, and glitter.

More articles regarding Loose Play

How to Integrate Loose Parts Play in a Preschool Program | Edutopia

14 Benefits Of Loose Parts Play With Examples – Early Impact Learning

The Importance of Loose Parts Play | Lifelong Learning Centres (lll.edu.au)

Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers (communityplaythings.com)