What are Loose Parts?

You may hear this term on Pinterest or at your child's school. What are loose parts? And how do they benefit your child?


What are they?

Loose parts are used during play.  The parts are open-ended, meaning that they can be used in endless ways.  A blue pebble can be a piece of candy for a tiger, or it can be arranged with other blue pebbles to form a river.  The possibilities are as far reaching as the child's imagination. 

Loose parts can be any item that can be moved and manipulated. The simplest things are the best.  These can be recycled items (bottle caps, cardboard tubes, scrap pieces of wood) or items found in nature (rocks, pine cones, shells).  You can also purchase loose parts (it is all the rage currently, but for good reason).  You can incorporate toys you already have at home.  In the invitation above, you see plastic animal figurines.  If a child has difficulty taking the loose parts beyond sorting, you may want to add animals, dinosaurs, or cars to extend the play.


Origins of Loose Parts

In all honesty, I am not sure who coined the term "loose parts." I do know that many educational approaches use loose parts during their daily routines.  I was blessed with the opportunity to visit Reggio Emilia, Italy last spring.  It was amazing.  I have had the dream of visiting the world renowned Reggio schools since my first days teaching preschool.  

The teachers in the Reggio Emilia schools provide children with what they call "intelligent materials." Paola Strozzi says, "If we value the children's desire and pleasure in carrying out investigations, either by themselves or in groups, then we must make sure that the sorts of materials we provide allow this to happen"(Giudici, Rinaldi, & Krechevsky, 2001, p. 67).

Types of Loose Parts

Just look at these gorgeous provocations (invitations) in a preschool classroom at the Malaguzzi Center. I encourage you to zoom in and look at the "intelligent materials" more closely.  What do you notice?
I hope you see a variety materials that can be used in open-ended ways.  But I really hope you see the simplicity of the items.  Many of these might be items that you already have at home. There is nothing fancy about any particular item by itself.  The beauty lies with what children are able to do with the parts. Strozzi says, "...materials that do not impose a direction but that pose questions and elicit hypotheses and the desire to experiment," (Giudici et al., 2001, p. 67).

I hope you are feeling inspired in your ability to gather loose parts for your child.  Loose parts can be small or large.  Smaller items like pebbles, popsicle sticks, and legos work fine motor skills. Larger loose parts work gross motor skills.  These giant yard Jenga blocks make great loose parts.  So do pieces of PVC pipe and cardboard boxes.

Appropriate for All

If you stick around long enough, you will hear me talk quite a bit about developmental appropriateness.  In order for an activity to be deemed developmentally appropriate, it must take into consideration 
  • the child's developmental and learning needs
  • the child's individual needs
  • cultural appropriateness

Providing children with loose parts does this.  Children of different ages and different abilities will use loose parts in different ways.  This is what we want!

I gave my 23 month old daughter and my 4.5year old son the same loose parts.  My daughter enjoyed pouring the loose parts onto the tray (she brought the corn cob over). 

After she emptied the box, she independently sorted the parts back into their compartments. You can watch her in action below.

My son created pretend worlds for the animals using the loose parts.

When I asked him about the rocks on top of the house, he told me "those are staples to keep it sturdy."

Brickston spent about 30 minutes creating his home for his pony, Rainbow Dash.  Below is his final creation.

Loose Parts Can Build Social Skills

This is one of my favorite reasons to do any type of play invitation.  I love seeing how children are able to use their social skills.  My two children each had their own tray and worked with the loose parts independently.  This is called parallel play when children play with the same things beside each other, yet they don't interact.  Quinlan continued to watch Brickston as he built his house for his pony.  By the end of the play session, Quinlan built this...
Do you see the tables?  Do you see the tiger and the shark eating something?  I know they were eating because she made the "yum yum" sound and smacked her lips in imitation.

Most often the best teacher in the room is not the adult, it is the other children.

Did you know that everytime you attend a Branch and Blossom Atelier play group session, your child will take home a block?  You can paint it or color it or leave it plain.  My hope is that these blocks will inspire you to begin a loose parts collection for your little learners!

Giudici,C., Rinaldi, C., & Krechevsky, M., eds. (2001).  Making learning visible.  Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

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