How sad is it (and how frustrating) when at Christmas you go to great lengths to purchase a toy that’s all singing and dancing and your toddler plays with it for less than an hour? The trouble with some children’s toys is that they have one predetermined action or function. The toddler has to play with it in a certain way, leaving little room for their endless imagination. Where’s the fun in that?
By contrast, loose parts play is not prescriptive. It is full of endless possibilities. In 1972, architect Simon Nicholson recognised that every-day, simple materials which could be moved around, combined, redesigned, put together and taken apart in multiple ways encouraged children to engage and invent more. Take a stick for example: it can be a fishing rod, a stirrer, a tool to prod the ground with; it can float, be snapped, split, catapult something, be burnt or hidden. It all depends on the person using it and that makes a humble stick so much more conducive to creative, explorative, experimental play than, say, a fancy toy or a static, municipal playground.
Loose parts can be used alone or combined with other materials, but the important thing is that the parts should not have a defined use. And it’s easy to get loose parts play up and running because there are endless parts all around us – some are natural, some are not – in woodland spaces, on the beach and in the home. Almost all of them cost next to nothing or are free. Keeping things natural, think pine cones, stones, ribbons, wood pieces, shells, sand, water and mud. In a playground environment, we can offer digging tools, fabric, hoops, balls, buckets, water, wood slices, pebbles, straw. Indoors, there are natural sponges, coconut shells, ribbons, buttons, string, blankets, bowls, cardboard boxes, baubles at Christmas, baby squash vegetables in the autumn.
From what we’ve observed at Toddlers Inn, children endlessly invent and reinvent when they select and play with loose parts, their concentration and the length of time they are engaged clearly demonstrating the amount of fun they are having. Nursery professionals and academics understand the developmental benefits to be had too. Perhaps you’re still not sure that loose part play runs rings round most heavily marketed, expensive toys, but we hope our very own Top Ten reasons for preferring it will convince you…
Loose part play is gender neutral, the parts have not been marketed for girls or boys, so are equally appealing to both.
Loose parts can encourage children to explore complex topics such as force, balance, how sound is created, laws of motion, energy, mass, etc.
The parts are usually beautiful and natural, unlike the gaudy plastic toys children are often expected to play with.
They encourage children to problem solve.
Loose parts play encourages story-telling, prompts social interaction and promotes communication, thereby developing expressive language.
The parts can be moved between different environments such as the sandpit, from inside to outside, creating even more opportunities for invention.
Unlike toys, which are often age specific, the same parts can be used in different ways as a child grows.
Fine motor skills are improved.
Time with natural parts aids psychological well-being in children especially if the play is in a woodland space.
Children are exploring away from adult prying eyes (or think they are) which improves independence and confidence.
So, let’s select the parts and get busy!