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Loose Parts Play is the Real Brain Booster That Fancy Toys Pretend to Be

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Read Time: 5 minutes

The phrase “loose parts play” can sound a little stilted, as if some schoolmarm couldn’t bring herself to say, “Just go out and play with whatever junk you find!” 

And yet, maybe the loose parts movement really needs that extra layer of legitimacy to help adults start to recognize it as the brain-and-body-building superstar it is. 

The people promoting loose parts play know it helps develop abstract thinking and problem solving. Plus it’s not going to break the bank, since you can likely use what you have at home already. And it doesn’t require you, the adult, to organize and run it because the whole idea is: it’s unstructured — or rather, it’s structured by the kids as they play. So here’s a little primer about what it is and how to dive in:

What exactly are “loose parts” — and how can adults encourage loose parts play? 

Peter Gray is a psychologist, cofounder of Let Grow, and author of Free to Learn. He writes about the value of play and especially how important free play is for kids. In this Psychology Today article, he writes that play “is a means by which children develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. It is a means of creating and preserving friendships. It also provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavors.” 

Play is vital to the health and development of children. And one great way to get it going is loose parts. But what are they? “Loose parts” describes anything — natural or synthetic — that a child can incorporate into their play in a way that they choose. This article from Penn State Extension gives a good overview. Loose parts can be moved, carried, combined, re-designed, lined up, and taken apart or put back together in multiple ways.

Some examples of loose parts include cardboard and tape, recyclables, lids, rocks, rope, wood, fabric, ramps, kitchen items, and art supplies. The possibilities are endless and abundant, leaving lots of room for kids to use their imagination! 

Loose parts don’t always have to be ‘stuff,’” says Carla Gull, educator and host of the podcast Loose Parts Nature Play. She has been a leader in the loose parts play movement for years, and she says this type of play might also involve kids experimenting with light, shadows, wind, electricity, words, and so much more.

Loose parts play should be fun, creative, and not adult-led. 

Loose parts are not items you need to pick up at the store. Most people find that you can use what you already have available—check out this article from Fairy Dust Teaching, which features great examples. Use this as an excuse to send kids rummaging around in the basement, or junk drawers. Encourage them to see what they can find to make and create. It’s also a great reason to go explore nature. In fact, one of the easiest ways to get started is to get kids outside, take a nature walk, and collect natural materials to incorporate into play. Kids can combine these materials with recyclables and other items found around the home or elsewhere. 

I’ve seen this work with my own kids. We have a large bin full of random LEGOs at our home. My kids love LEGO sets and build them independently. When they are finished, the sets inevitably break at some point. Then they eventually end up in this bin, where they become items for creative play. I am endlessly amazed at what my sons create with these random LEGO pieces. Sometimes, they even combine them with other materials and use them in ways that I never would have considered. These LEGO pieces are absolutely loose parts. When my kids play with them in these creative ways, it’s a form of loose parts play.

I love seeing this. This method of play is just that—play. It does not require a series of steps to reach an ultimate goal. There is no right or wrong way to play with loose parts. 

So, how can you motivate kids to use loose parts and unleash their creativity?

Parents and teachers might need to take a step back. 

Loose parts play comes naturally to many children. However some may be reluctant and look to adults to show them how to play or experiment the “right” way. 

I find that many children have been told ‘no’ for a long time and have many restrictions around their play,” says Gull, who adds that the “experimentation aspect of loose parts potentially diminishes over time as a result.” Giving kids permission to play and use materials in any way that they choose provides them freedom and unleashes their confidence. 

For kids who are still reluctant, give them a prompt. For instance, my sons are really into challenging each other. So as the parent, I like to challenge them instead. I might suggest they figure out a way to make a bridge out of items they find around the house, which would incorporate STEAM and encourage their creativity at the same time. This doesn’t mean I would give them directions as to how to make a bridge.

With loose parts play, it’s up to kids to choose what materials to use and how to use them. Adults can encourage experimentation and acknowledge the efforts being made, but they shouldn’t do it for them. If you’re looking for other ideas or like-minded adults, join the Loose Parts Play group on Facebook. The members are really inspiring. 

In a world that seems to be preoccupied with the latest and greatest, loose parts play helps us remember that kids don’t need fancy, complicated toys for entertainment. Their natural curiosity and experimentation require only loose parts—and for adults to take a step back and encourage creativity.  

Thanks to Donna at Dee Dee in Wonderland and Kirsty of My Lovely Twins and Me for the photos for our main image. See more of their great ideas on Instagram.

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