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No Toys Required!

An introduction to the magical world of loose parts play.

Do you feel overwhelmed by choice when it comes to children’s toys? Many of us do, and we often over compensate for our indecision by offering our children too many. But what effect does this have on our children? There is now evidence to suggest that clutter causes anxiety and stress. If we feel overwhelmed by our messy homes, how can we expect our children to play and learn in them? Having worked with children in a play capacity for the past 20 years, first as an early years teacher, then as a mother, childminder and home educator, I consider myself a play specialist. What if I was to suggest that you don’t need toys, or at least you don’t need very many at all?

It’s been suggested that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet (Dell Inc, 2017). How do we prepare our children for a future that we cannot predict? Whether this statistic is true or not, I believe that the key to success in the future is going to be creative minds, and the way to encourage creative minds is through loose parts play.

So, what are loose parts and how do you play with them?

Have you ever found yourself mindlessly rearranging pebbles and shells on the beach? This is loose parts play. Loose parts are materials that can be moved and manipulated, that children can control and change while they play. Loose parts can be found in nature, such as seeds, pebbles and shells, or they can be man made, out of natural or synthetic materials, such as bottle tops, buttons and beads. Children of all ages (and adults too) are drawn to loose parts play as the potential possibilities are infinite. There is no right or wrong way to play with loose parts. Children will carry, combine, redesign, line up, take apart, and put loose parts back together in endless, creative ways. For example, a stick can form part of an enclosure, or it can be a bridge, or a fireman’s pole, or part of an obstacle course, or a sausage... whatever the child imagines and creates.

What are the benefits?

There are many, many benefits to loose parts play. Loose parts are sustainable, encouraging you to recycle, reuse and repurpose materials for play. Loose parts play fosters rich and engaging creative play in children, building confidence, independence and resilience. Children are active when they play with loose parts, and they become more absorbed in this type of play than with most other conventional toys because the possibilities are endless. They are busy working on all areas of development, through play, without the need for any adult intervention.

Let me give you an example. Recently my daughter built a ‘butterfly factory’ out of loose parts, with a ‘furnace’, ‘conveyer belt’ and ‘packaging area’. She was able to demonstrate her understanding of how a factory works through her representation with loose parts. While building, she talked about her ideas, using language to organise her thoughts and testing out some of her new vocabulary in context. She’s not yet able to read or write, but she’s much more likely to be able to write a description of a factory having had this experience. Mathematical concepts included sorting, ordering, counting, shape and space. She was working on her fine motor skills by balancing and placing small parts, and her gross motor skills by moving around her work, stretching and squatting. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, she was enjoying herself and following her own path of inquiry, and we all know that this is how children learn best.

Where to source loose parts for play?

The most interesting loose parts can be found for free in nature. Pine cones, seeds, pebbles, shells, sticks etc. can all be gathered when you are out and about on your adventures in nature. Just be mindful that you gather in an ethical and sustainable way and do not remove too many pieces from one location. Seashells in particular serve a purpose in our oceans, and removing them can be detrimental to the environment. Never collect shells that are still in the sea, and check those on the beach for living creatures. Similarly, in our countryside and woodlands, do not pick things that are living, or gather materials that could be food for our local wildlife. In some places it is illegal to take things home from nature, so be sure to check before you gather.

Your rubbish and recycling box can be a great source of loose parts. Cardboard boxes, toilet roll tubes, bottle tops, jar lids, yogurt pots etc. can all be repurposed for play. Be sure to give your rubbish a good clean before giving it to your child, and consider each item for safety and suitability. Some smaller items could present a choking hazard to children under 36 months, or those inclined to put things in their mouths.

Your local community – if you work with children, it can be helpful to enlist the help of your families. Post a notice asking for the resources that you need/want. Similarly, you can get your own family, friends and neighbours to contribute materials. Junk drawers are often full of rich treasures.

Charity shops and car boot sales offer all sorts of interesting and authentic resources for play. Egg cups, coasters, old necklaces that can be cut up, scarves, trinket boxes etc. can all be incorporated into imaginative play.

Crafts shops, DIY shops and pound shops – wooden pegs, buttons and beads, curtain rings etc. all make interesting additions to your loose parts collection.

Scrapstore – for clean and reusable scrap waste materials from businesses

Our favourite toys and resources for supporting loose parts play:

Water – in the bath, sink, paddling pool or just with a bucket, water play provides so many rich learning experiences. Add bottles of different sizes (transparent and opaque), little pots, a jug, a funnel, a whisk, a teapot and cups. A drop of food colouring, a sprinkle of environmentally friendly glitter, a touch of washing up liquid or bubble bath, and play will be further extended.

Sand – you will know from your own experience of trips to the beach, how children become absorbed in sand play. Wet and dry sand offer very different learning experiences, so it is great to offer both at times. Adding loose parts such as pebbles and shells, glass gems, pine cones. When the sand is dry, provide your child with a sieve and some pots for sorting. Your children will have tidied up the sand pit without realising it.

Cardboard boxes and other large packaging – just give your child a box and see what they do with it. Children have the best ideas. You can cut holes for doors and windows, or provide paint, pens, tape and stickers for creating. Polystyrene packaging makes especially interesting small ‘worlds’.

Mirrors and frames – a vertical mirror on the wall behind a play space creates a different perspective for play. Mirrors on the table provide an interesting work space. An old picture frame with the glass removed can invite a child to create within it.

Natural building blocks – these are by far the most popular resource in my childcare setting, and are one of the few resources that I strongly recommend investing heavily in. Buy the largest and best quality set that you can afford. Ours are played with every day, with the addition of new and interesting loose parts.

Role play kitchen – inside, outside, large or small, a kitchen area for play is a great resource. Add water, sand or mud, or all three. Offer real dried foods such as rice, oats, pasta, quinoa, lentils, or for those still inclined to put things in their mouths, dry cereal, popped popcorn, granola. Provide your child with out of date herbs, spices, loose leaf tea and play will be extended further.

People – little people are an invaluable addition to your collection as children are then able to create small ‘worlds’ to imagine within.

Loose parts play can also enhance play with animals, dinosaurs, cars and trains. By adding a basket of loose parts to any of your child’s areas of interest, play will happen. This is the magic of loose parts play!

If you would like to give loose parts play a try with your child, but are not sure where to start, I'd recommend one of my seasonal loose parts collections. This is the Spring collection photographed below. I paired this with a few other elements yesterday morning, and Bean played creatively for over an hour. I have just a handful of these left. You can read more about it, and order one here.

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