The loose parts theory was proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970’s. In essence, with relation to childrens playscapes, it is a means by which children can create their own toys from a variety of components. Modern toys are filled with all the bells and whistles that you would expect current tech savvy kids to enjoy but they lack one fundamental element that has only disappeared from play in the last few generations. Slowly our children have needed less and less imagination to partake in play, the toys do it for them and as we all know play is the childs’ work, it is how they learn about the world around them so therefore this can be detrimental to their critical thinking skills and stunt their creativity in ways previous generations did not have to deal with.
Having said that, balance is key and none of us know the future. I believe, by taking back, at least in part, that key element of imagination and making it the focus of some of the modern childs play, the loose parts theory encourages young learners to think about new ways to interact with the world around them and fosters creativity via design in abundance.
I’d also like to bring your attention to some of the most successful loose parts toys in existence. One is Lego a long standing physical toy that is endless in its creative potential and the other is the modern on-line game Minecraft, the creative and collaborative digital platform for many young modern learners. Both of these toys encompass the idea behind loose parts so no need to hate on your Minecraft or Lego obsessed kid okay. I can promise you they are learning vital skills that may end up giving them an edge later in life. 😉
Here are some great ideas to bring loose parts theory to your preschooler. Please understand that presentation is important.The collections need to look like they are worth exploring and be inviting enough to spend some time at. I recommend a table that doesn’t need to be packed up or a corner on the floor with some cushions to make it look comfortable and inviting for indoor collections. Other collections such as cubby house gear need far more space, use your own judgment as to wether or not you wish to create a cosy space or an open space for each collection. It’s really about what works best for you and your children. Extra resources such as related books can also be added to collections to enhance the materials and give further ideas but realistically should not be the focus. I’d also pay attention to the type of lighting the collection is set under. Natural light for nature collections is best whilst setting up a laser or a glow in the dark playscape is better done in a darker room. Collections should also be accessible in open containers that work with the materials and enhance them or are practical storage for the collection long term. Ideally you want to create an overall atmosphere.
*Natural loose parts*
When collecting items for this loose parts experience keep the focus on texture and perhaps even scent. The goal of this is to think outside the obvious and create something new from the random bits and pieces that nature provides freely. I highly recommend going on a hunt for these loose parts yourself in backyards and playgrounds wherever you hang out. Extra bits can be purchased by visiting interesting places with your children (some of which would be an adventure in themselves) such as gem shops and local markets. This collection should include things such as dried lichens, feathers, dry leaves, pine cones, gum nuts, seed pods, small thick cut twigs, wood cuts circle, semi precious stones, river rocks, coral, driftwood, sea shells, sea glass, whole spices, legumes, wooden beads, coconut twine, woven vine balls (deco supply store). All these items can be combined with clay or glued together in wonderful ways or be arranged to create patterns on a mirror or tray. One idea is to print off mandala pictures from the web and use these as a reference for your children to create nature based ones of their own. Take photos from above to preserve their creative efforts. Also be sure to debug any of the backyard or park items BEFORE bringing into the house. Never know what will happen if a spidie comes out of a pine cone into your preschoolers hand, especially in Australia. Keep it safe and respect the environments creatures too.
*Physics/science loose parts*
Mirrors, lenses, prisms and a low wattage laser (or maybe a few in different colours) can keep a preschooler or even an older child amused for hours. (This is a great one to set up with siblings of different ages, you might even find it fun too. Do it in a semi dark area to add excitement. The goal is to figure out how to bend and refract the laser light, say, to a particular spot, or get it back to focusing after refracting it. Show them how it all works then let them move parts around on a table top or cardboard box where the laser is fixed or vice versa. Another great thing to examine with laser light is how it behaves when it travels through (slightly cloudy, to see the beam clearly) water in a fish tank, What happens when you point the laser at the underside of the surface of the water? What happens when there are regular waves on the surface? You could also use a square vase to see how light bends through different density substances. Another way kids can interact with and learn from light is to make your own light table and use coloured transparent resources to explore interactions between colour. Counters and beads, x-rays or transparent tiles and glass stones (purchased from craft stores) can be used to explore light interaction. Try thinking three dimensionally too. Get plastic, transparent items from your kitchen cupboard such as cups or coloured lids, stacking them like blocks to create lit up rainbow castles as playscapes for peg people or other loose parts characters that your child has designed.
Second hand stores are your friend, look for different colour LED’s, wires and anything that moves or can make a noise when electricity is applied that you can rip out of other devices or better yet, let your child figure out how to extract bits if you deem it safe. Also its a good idea to invest in some rechargeable batteries and have some blu-tac to stick things together on hand. Remember the salt in play dough is also conductive, (depending on the quantity of salt in the mix) this can make for some interesting creations.
Metal bolts, nuts and magnets are great for exploring how magnetism transfers between objects (you could paint them to make them more interesting or you could be tricky and include some non magnetic materials to explore this physical difference between substances)
*Themed loose parts*
Fairy themed loose parts
One great way to incorporate loose parts into your childs playscape if they are new to it is by taking an existing theme in their toys and expanding on it. This example uses a fairy theme. Things like glass wishing stones, marbles, fake flowers, felt balls, play silks, wooden pegs, pop sticks, craft toothpicks, yarn scraps fabric scraps, Beads, buttons, bottle caps can be used to home existing fairies or small woodland type characters. You can even make and paint up some clay mushrooms or create a felted playscape. Let your childs current interests guide you.
Cubby house building and character play loose parts
Sheets, pegs, rope and your dress ups box. Bring it indoors for some rainy day fun, you could even host a sleepout and cook some special food for the event. Another idea is to have short logs en-mass for outside to build walls with similar to giant blocks, just pick a light weight wood for saftey reasons.
Garden box theme loose parts
Let your kids do the weeding for you, no joke this works. Get a big under-bed style plastic box or old fish tank and fill it part way with dirt, put a few rocks and collect some twigs to make a miniature garden, now all it needs is the trees and bushes (aka weeds) plant them water them (watch out, that’s really messy fun.) Make rock pets with googlie eyes to live there and get grubby. Literally whole days play right there and it cost you the use of a container of some format and probably a load of washing. 😉
TIP: One way you can make your preschoolers loose parts collections appealing to an older sibling is to get your hands on a good microscope. This works particularly well with nature collections. Slide em up and check em out micro stylee. Extend it by bringing in some artistic skill and create a microscope sketch book full of their discoveries. Always a fan of some sciencey fun.
I hope you have enjoyed this article on loose parts in your childs playscape. If you have any other great ideas for loose parts collections, please do share in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.