Introducing Loose Parts in a Play Environment

Written by Becky Williams – Early Childhood Educator and Wooden Toy Maker     @Chickadeeswoodentoys

Tennessee, USA


I remember the first time I heard the term "loose parts".  In my mind I thought of parts and pieces broken, lost, or missing from their appropriate box or game. Since then I have learned and seen how wrong that thinking was.  While the term Loose Parts has become second nature to me, you may know these toys as bits and pieces, odds and ends, little things, and even clutter.  My hope is to share my understanding and excitement so that you too can see the benefits of Loose Parts in your child's play.


What are Loose Parts?

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Loose Parts def. - materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways.  Loose parts can be natural, recycled, or synthetic materials.  Loose Parts are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials. The versatility of these materials provides children with endless ways to create and explore. 

It is helpful to think of loose parts as something that will encourage children to use imagination and creativity on their own terms and in their own unique way.

Many Loose Parts can be found in your kitchen, craft room, or garage.  Some Loose Parts can be purchased very inexpensively at dollar stores or second hand shops.  Nature walks are perfect for finding and discussing natural loose parts. 


Introducing Loose Parts


Start small.  When introducing loose parts for the first time, plan to start small.  Both you and your child can easily become overwhelmed with too many options.

If this is your first time incorporating loose parts into your children's play, you may hear questions like "What is this for?" or "What am I supposed to do with these?".  Answer these questions with "They can be whatever you want them to be.” or “How would you like to play with them?"  Give examples of what you would do with them in a small world setting or a building experiment.

Playing with your child will help them to feel confident to make choices and independent decisions.  You will both quickly warm to the idea of loose parts in the play environment.  The goal is to encourage creativity and imagination.


Using Loose Parts in Play:

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The wonderful part is allowing the children the freedom to investigate the materials, choose how they would like to use them, and take them to any area of the classroom or playroom.

A few areas where you could introduce loose parts:

  • Playdough Invitation

  • Sensory Tray

  • Block Center

  • Small World Area

  • Home Dramatic Play

  • Sorting Activity (size, color, number, beginning sound, etc.)

  • Outdoor Sandbox

  • Arts and Crafts

  • Nature Study

And on and on!

Loose Parts are yet another tool for Open Ended Play (click here to learn more) and Play Based Learning (click here to learn more).  They provide endless opportunities for creativity, critical thinking skills, imagination, problem solving, fine motor practice, gross motor practice, and so much more.  I think you will find that children are naturally drawn to Loose Parts, and you will quickly see the benefits of Loose Parts in a play environment.

The Importance of Open-Ended Play in Early Childhood

Written by Sarah Wallace, Early Childhood Educator @poppyspreschool

Virginia, USA


As the wise Mr. Rogers says, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, but for children, play is serious learning.” Play is often referred to as the work of childhood. So, as parents, teachers and caregivers, how can we foster and promote healthy play for children? One answer is open-ended play. 


What is open-ended play? 

There are many different types of play in early childhood. Open-ended play can be described as play that gives children the freedom to make choices with no limitations or rules while they play. In open-ended play, children can make their own decisions and there is no right or wrong way to do things. There are no specific outcomes and it is all about the process (as opposed to the end product). Open-ended play is about having fun and laying a healthy foundation to develop a love of learning. To promote open-ended play, you can give children open-ended learning tools to play with. 

My four-year-old son recently showed us a great example of what open-ended play can look like. I hear, ‘Hey, Mama, come look! We are pretending the big box you gave us is a drive-in movie theatre! Here’s where the movie screen is and here’s where we sit. Can we have pillows to make it cozy?’ He turned a cardboard box into a drive-in movie theater using his imagination! 


Why is open-ended play important?

Open-ended play is very important in early childhood development. It promotes imagination and creativity in children rather than restricting them with guidelines or rules. It also helps children learn problem-solving skills by acting out pretend scenarios. It enhances their vocabulary skills and helps with social-emotional development. Open-ended play helps children engage (and stay engaged) in play and helps them to love learning. In my son’s example, he was using the cardboard box to imagine a real life scenario that will help him navigate real life scenarios in a healthy way later in life. He was also using planning and problem-solving skills, both of which are important to develop in early childhood. 


How can I implement open-ended play? 

Here are ten examples of open-ended learning tools you can easily implement at home or classroom: 

  1. play dough

  2. variety of dress-up clothes (even Dad’s old clothes can be fun)

  3. blocks, such as Brain Blox 

  4. art materials such as markers, crayons, paint and a blank sheet of paper

  5. peg dolls or loose parts (Check out Montessori learning tools)  

  6. sticks/rocks

  7. cardboard box 

  8. animal figures

  9. magnet tiles

  10. sand, mud (mud kitchens are so fun!) or dirt


You can help your child get started by prompting with questions like, “What can you make?” Or, “I wonder what would happen if we did this...” Or, “What can we imagine with these?” You can even pair two open-ended tools together to keep children engaged. For example, add animal figures to your blocks, or sticks and rocks to your sand or dirt. There are many other examples of open ended play tools...these are just a few! 

Screen time (games, videos, etc.), coloring books and activities with lots of directions are not examples of open-ended learning tools. 

Observe children make a ‘campfire’ out of sticks and leaves; become a ‘fireman’ wearing an old apron or create a ‘rocket’ made of blocks. Keep play simple and let children’s imaginations take over and soar!

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Less is More! Tips on Toy Rotations


Melbourne, Australia

A picture of our playroom. @ zaras_ play_ tribe

A picture of our playroom. @zaras_play_tribe

What is a toy rotation?

Toy rotation is exactly that, it is rotating toys. Moving toys out of children’s sight for a period of time then bringing them back. It sounds simple and it is. Move unused toys out of your little ones space and put it somewhere that they will not see it, for at least a few weeks – if not longer!


How do I do it? 

1.     Gather all the toys from your child’s play space.

2.     Make group piles. You can sort them into groups such as games, arts and crafts, building, cars, books, imaginative play, stuffed animals etc.

3.     Now choose a couple of things from each category and put it on display. The rest – goes away! If you are worried because it doesn’t look like much, give this article a read. Less is more!

4.     When putting the ‘rest’ away put it somewhere out of sight. You don’t want your little ones to be able to see it or have access to it.

5.     Decide on a rotation schedule. How often will you rotate the toys? I usually rotate every 10 – 14 days. You might like to do it weekly, fortnightly, monthly or just when your little one gets bored!

6.     When you come to the end of a rotation cycle, simple rinse and repeat! Of course you can keep out the favourite toys but put the ones that have been ignored away and bring back something else.

That’s it!

You do not need fancy toys. You do not need the latest and greatest. You just need to be mindful about which toys and how many you are giving them access to.


Why should I rotate toys?

I have found, when we started rotating toys Aidan and Evie are now less likely to become over-whelmed and over-stimulated. Even better than that, their attention span is longer and the depth of their play has increased (read a blog post from a parent’s experience with minimizing toys here). They don’t have access to many toys so they play with the toys they have to their greatest capacity.

Each rotation is like a new set of toys, most of the time there is nothing new in a rotation but for them it feels new and so exciting!

Quick and Easy Pretend Play Area Your Children Will Love


Montreal, Canada

Pretend play (imaginative play/ dramatic play) is a great way for children to develop a wide range of skills while using their imagination and having fun.

Children can make sense of the world around them by acting out scenarios and situations in real life. Dramatic play gives children opportunities to practice taking turns, sharing and problem solving.  They can express and communicate a range of emotions while engaged in dramatic play. They also are developing their vocabulary and language skills as they play.

Veterinarian’s Office Pretend play

An example of a really fun, pretend play area that you can easily put together and your children will love is a veterinarian’s office.

You can add things like stuffed animals, sheets and towels, doctor tools, lab coats, bandages, band aids, pillows, chairs, cardboard box cages, books about animals and veterinarians, etc. You can even have the children help you find everything you need around the house. Setting up the dramatic play area is half the fun!

Once the veterinarian pretend play area is all set up, it’s time to play!

Tips for Pretend Play

When you are ready to set up the pretend play area, here are some helpful tips:

-You can include almost anything in your dramatic play area. Some good items to start with are clothes, costumes, hats, shoes, scarves, boxes, baskets, dolls, stuffed toys, blankets, paper, writing and drawing materials, cash register, old toys, dishes, masks, jewellery, books, etc.

-Keep it open-ended. The goal is to encourage the children to use their imagination with the materials provided.

-The dramatic play area can be set up anywhere, from under a table, in a tent, on the couches, playroom, or even in a corner of the bedroom or basement.

-The pretend play area should be changed regularly with different props and toys to keep children interested and encourage new ideas and ways to play.

Pretend Play and Cognitive Development

High-quality pretend play is also thought to help promote some aspects of a child’s development, including theory of mind which is important for social interactions and to help children analyze and interpret other people’s behaviour (for a review article on pretend play click here).

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