Tuesday, May 16, 2017

30 Plus Ways to Approach Loose Parts Play!

The term “loose parts” has grown in popularity recently as educators and parents have rediscovered this timeless approach to play. Loose parts play can be as simple as finding a stick and using it in play or it can take a more complex approach to open ended landscapes. The term “loose parts” became popular with the Theory of Loose Parts by Simon Nicholson.  He advocated for movable items in outdoor play settings in his work as a landscape architecture. Today, the term is fairly ambiguous with some guiding principles: open ended materials and lots of options. See a post about quotes about loose parts here and the basic premise and resources here.

While the guiding principles remain consistent, there are many ways to approach loose parts play. I choose to take a more inclusive approach allowing for different interpretations and applications of the term, as it is rather “squishy”.  Some of these may overlap but I found them unique enough to list separately. Here we go! 
  • Treasure Baskets—A well curated basket is perfect for infants and toddlers.  Think of textures, safety, and opportunities for exploration. Scarves, textured fabrics, mouthable wooden blocks and other items, large, smooth shells, etc. are great additions.
  •  Small World Play—Create a miniature world with lots of loose parts. This might be a specific habitat of local animals, a fairy garden, or other miniature type world. 
  •  Faces—Faces can be made in so many ways! We make them out of clay on trees, draw a circle on concrete and use natural items, or use found items inside a frame or a circle. Try the books Let’s Make Faces with this approach. Seriously, the sky is the limit with making faces with loose parts!

  •  Ramps& Balls—We love ramps and balls as it allows so much STEM exploration and it’s just plain fun! I watch gown adults and older children making more complex configurations. See how we made our own ramps here.
  • Blocksand Add Ons—Blocks are a standard loose part. I like adding more elements to the mix and non-standard options to extend the play. We often have bins of acorn caps, shells, sticks, walnut shells, and other items near the block area for additional play opportunities.  Read my post about block play here.
  • Playdough/Clay—Playdough and clay are such a great base material for molding, stamping impressions, building, connecting, and experimenting with textures. Both playdough and clay have a unique feel. There are many recipes available for playdough; we like this one. Clay is such a neat natural substance. We enjoy using clay to make “faces” with natural elements on trees outside. My 10-year-old son makes and sells play dough and loose parts kits at Pop Up Handicrafts locally. Look for nature.play.dough.                                                        
  • Sensory Bins/Experiences—Sensory bins can be a shallow tub, a dishpan, a pie plate, or a larger sensory bin in a school setting. While they can be filled with any loose parts, here is a simple “formula” that can be followed. The possibilities are endless! Sensory experiences may include playing with pea gravel, sifting hands through sand or soil, etc.
  • “Junk” Jars and Junk Play—Loose parts play can be as simple as allowing children to interact with “junk” in their own way. You may do this by collecting junk in a big jar. Junk could be unneeded items, extra screws, netting from oranges, scrap wood or fabric, etc. Larger “junk” could be leftover building materials old tubes, etc. Children can create and build with the materials. This would be a classic of how we grew up scavenging for junk in abandoned lots or similar to the storyline of Roxaboxen.
  • Adventure Playgrounds—Playgrounds full of loose parts are popping up various places such as The Anarchy Zone in New York, designed by Rusty Keeler. Think of the junk jars and junk play with a permanent place with a little more adventurous offering. Trained playworkers staff the space. Find playwork training at Pop Up Adventure Play.
  •  Pop Up Play—Pop Up Play can be similar to junk play or adventure playgrounds; however, it is typically for a short time period, such as a special event or weekend. Pop Up Adventure Play has a great resource on how to set up pop up play in your area--find it here, with volunteer training and checklists here, and mini kit here. Gather staple materials, get the word out, use simple training with the adults, and have fun playing!
  • Build It or Loose Parts Parties—Have a party on a specific loose parts theme. Loose parts play can also be incorporated into just about any type of celebration or party. Whether it is having loose parts out as a centerpiece that people can play with, having specific open-ended play opportunities, or having a whole Build It party, play is meant to be a part of celebrations and parties. Here is an example of using loose parts in a pirate themed party, a fairy/wild thing party, and International Mud Day
  • Seasonal Activities--Loose parts can be a great addition to holiday parties or seasonal activities. Read about loose parts with Valentine's Day, Halloween, etc. 
  •  OutdoorClassrooms—Having specific spaces set aside or outdoor play can be very beneficial. In the outdoor classrooms I have developed, loose parts are the “layers” that make the outdoor space work with space
  • LooseParts Toys—Some toys are more opened ended and have a loose parts vibe. Check out my list here. Think magnetic blocks, moveable marble runs, fort kits, etc. If Grandma insists on buying a birthday present, send her this list!
  • Grab& Go Kits—Create small bags that easily can be taken to use while out and about, waiting for dinner at a restaurant, during quiet time, etc. See some examples here. Here is another example of a robot tinkering kit.                                      
  • Curated Collections—There are so many beautiful trays and carefully created collections for loose parts play. There is intentional design in choosing items that work well together. Nora Ryska’s work at Montessori Restore or the Loose Parts and Loose Parts 2 (aff links) books by Beloglovsky and Daly are good examples of this.
  • NatureArt/Land Art—Several great artists, such as Chelsey Bahe, Patrick Dougherty, and Andy Goldsworthy. Natural materials are used with artistic elements to create nature play scenes, whimsical stick creations, and just for the moment nature art. Mandalas are a fun and easy way to explore loose parts!                                                                           
  • Found Objects—Sometimes you just “find” stuff to create with. This can be wood scraps, boxes, plastic cups—really, anything!              
  • Classroom Project and Sort— As shared in the book, Beautiful Stuff (aff link), some classrooms have sent each child home with a bag to fill with loose parts. The bags come back in, the students discover the many treasures, talk about ways to sort them, categorize them all, and then use them as part of their creations and play.
  •  “Station”, Areas, Zones—Many classrooms, both inside and out, divide the area into different areas or zones. Loose parts may be unique for each area, such as rocks, dishes, spoons, pinecones, water, mud, and herbs in a mud kitchen outside. Stations can also be set up with specific loose part invitation.
  •  Part of Décor—One way we have incorporated loose parts is just part of the décor. Think of colorful scarves hanging from hooks or a zen sand garden with manipulatives.  This last Christmas we had a printing tray filled with loose parts and holiday baubles. Everyone around the table interacted with the loose parts before and after dinner as well as during down times while the materials were out. 
  • Invitations /Provocations/Activity—Some people separate these terms out, but I find they are largely similar. A collection of loose parts might be presented in a divided tray with mirrors, frames, or an “invitation” to play with the items. Here are several examples
  • Architecture—This could include fort building (inside and out), making stages, tents, rooms within rooms, interior design, etc. Thanks for broadening this category, Belle!
  • Cardboardand Cardboard boxes—Cardboard is plentiful and easily manipulated. The classic cardboard box is a great example of the diversity of how cardboard can be used. Not a Box is a great book to use in conjunction with this. See my post on using cardboard as a loose part here.
  • Challenges—Sometimes, especially as children are in older elementary and beyond, giving a somewhat loose, yet directed challenge may be needed to tie loose parts into a curriculum need. The materials are still open ended and there is a lot of freedom, but it may be using loose parts to create the Great Lakes, manipulative to show word problems, etc. In this example, children use loose parts to create wind born seeds that they tested in the wind tube. 
  • Collections—Buttons, buttons, who has the buttons? Think button or nature collections. These are sorted, categorized, and used for building and creations. The books, Sort It Out and Grandma’s Button Box, are good books to go with this type of loose parts play. 
  • Tinkering—One of my sons loves tinkering! He likes taking things apart and using them in other creations. Duct tape, wire, and paper are his best friends! Here is one example of a robot tinkering kit.  Rosie Revere Engineer and The Most Magnificent Thing are great books to pair with this. 
  • Spontaneous—Sometimes loose parts play is totally spontaneous when we find things while out and about and use it as play. For example, my children turned a receipt and wind from their breathing into a game while waiting for dinner one time. We take advantage of those moments by having a loose parts mind set.
  • Obstacle Courses—We love child made obstacles courses. These can be made with natural elements in the yard and rearranged infinite numbers of times. We have a couple of large bins full of random things, such as pool noodles, crates, wooden planks, hula hoops, traffic cones, rope, and more. We pull these out as additions for obstacle courses that will be different each time we use these loose parts. 
  • Extensions of Learning—Sometimes, loose parts may be used in conjunction with more formal learning. We made loose parts woodpeckers which morphed into cavity houses and other creations. We might also extend literacy connections into our loose parts play.
  • Scavenger Hunt—When we were studying eggs, we went on a loose parts egg hunt.  Each egg was filled with various loose parts, in this case natural. Next year try an Egg Hunt for Easter with other loose parts. Specific hunts for loose parts items can also be a fun way to explore the space, such as finding 5 rocks, 3 leaves, 6 sticks, etc. and then making a creation out of them. Children could even make their own loose parts scavenger hunts. 
  • Natural—Nature provides so many opportunities for loose parts play! We might stack rocks while on a hike, build a stick “fort” near a downed log, draw in the sand, etc. Read about seeds as loose parts or discovering loose parts while waiting on soccer practice. 
  •  SeniorPlay Trays—I love these loose parts trays designed for retirement homes. The open-ended options become spring boards for discussion and memories, offering engaging and sensory rich experiences for seniors.
  • Light Painting--We found this inspiration after watching The New Creatives. Basically use a light source like a flashlight or wand and use a prolonged exposure on a camera to capture the "trace of the light. It's addicting and fascinating to experiment with light! Other "light play" may include light tables, overhead projectors, shadow play, etc. 
  • Magnetism--There are many magnetic "loose parts toys" we enjoy, however, we also like to explore magnetism through iron filings, a variety of magnets, ferrofluid, and magnetic slime. Read about our experiences here. Great way to explore loose parts with the older crowd. To me, it also models how exploring items and properties of materials can be a part of loose parts play within elementary school and higher before buckling down with designing an experiment and such. We need time for discovery. 

What other approaches to loose parts play might you add to the mix? How do you like to use loose parts in your setting? 

Having a variety of approaches and tools in the loose parts tool box can lead to richer, loose parts filled outcomes. More creativity and imagination is always good!

Michelle Thornhill organizes loose parts play differently, around different schema, such as transporting, connecting, trajectory, etc. She has a great resource here.

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