Friday, February 19, 2016

The Power of Loose Parts Play

A Maple Syrup sensory bin at Kalamazoo Nature Center.
Have you ever wondered why children are fascinated by the box their new toy arrives in or is always trying to pick up a stick? The theory of Loose Parts by Simon Nicholson explains it well. He stated, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.” In a child’s mind, all those loose bits of string, sticks, and other “treasures” are really components for building and creating.
            Last year, my youngest son had a simple request for his birthday present: “Sticks, lots of sticks!” He knew and recognized the power of a simple loose part that is actually included in the Toy Hall of Fame. To a child, a stick can be a sword, a writing utensil, a fence post, a fairy wand, or more. The possibilities are endless. Even adults get into the power of Loose Parts Play. A couple of years ago, I was able to work alongside Patrick Dougherty who never outgrew his affinity for sticks. Today, he makes twig sculptures all over the world, using a whimsical approach in outdoor spaces. Just visit Fernwood Botanical Gardens and Nature Preserve to see Take Five! and explore how he has taken the theory of Loose Parts to the next level!
A Loose Parts Spider!
            I experience the benefits on a regular basis as I host various activities and learning experiences at Woodlawn Nature Center. We set up a Loose Parts Play area that contains shelves of sticks, pinecones, tiles, fabric, blocks, acorn caps, milkweed pods, and more. Children (and sometimes adults!) use these various pieces to make creations that explore the natural world and help them make sense of what they are learning.
            One girl had attended our Nature Preschool group on a Monday morning. Our topic was birds. She returned on Friday, visiting the Loose Parts Play Area. In her normal play, she built an anatomically correct bird out tree cookies, pinecones, pipe cleaners, and sweet gum balls. She was able to tell us about the beak, talons, wings, and body parts. In her normal play, she was making sense of what she was learning and demonstrating her understanding of the natural world around her through Loose Parts Play.
            Additionally, the Nature Explore nationally certified classroom at Woodlawn Nature Center has areas to explore Loose Parts Play. Whether children are dragging long branches to make their own Dougherty inspired twig sculpture, working together to lift a tree cookie to build a ramp, or creating a fort out of long pieces of outdoor fabric, children are able to use loose parts to create and build. This builds and strengthens their connection to nature.
Educators work together to build a vehicle
with loose parts at the
Indiana Early Childhood Convention

            Benefits of Loose Parts Play abound. Besides the imagination and creativity, loose parts play promotes cooperation, experiences using all the senses, concrete examples of abstract concepts, developmentally appropriate practices, ownership of one’s learning, inclusive play, and moving, learning, and fun! This is learning!
            Loose Parts Play generally is open-ended. Items can be combined in many different ways. There are no specific directions. The participants determine how the materials will be used. The materials can be adapted in many ways. A Sweet Gum ball may be a wheel on a car one minute, or the eye of a bird the next minute.  Richard Louv suggested, “Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.”
            What are the components of Loose Parts? Almost anything! We typically use a combination of natural materials and found objects or discards from industry. Woodlawn Nature Center is always looking for donations of items that might fit into these categories to help fulfill its mission of connecting others to nature. Some examples include pinecones, sticks, tree cookies, wooden or wool balls, sand, water, fabric, clay, picture frames, twine, nuts, mulch, stones, straw bales, leaves, boxes, and blocks. As I shared the theory of Loose Parts Play with local Indiana Master Naturalists, many remarked this is just how they used to play as children. As electronics and overscheduled lives have crept into our world, our children do not have as many opportunities for natural free play like this.
            Loose Parts Play can be set up as a station, included in the classroom as a writing prompt, used as an impromptu activity on the trail, as a pretest or assessment of learning, as nature art, in a sensory bin, and more! The possibilities are endless.
Want to learn more about Loose Parts Play? Check out the Facebook Group Loose Parts Play for ideas and suggestions. Educators and parents from around the world share how they are using Loose Parts. I will also present “Loose Parts Play for Parents” at Woodlawn Nature Center on February 26, 2016, at 6:30 pm. The cost is $3/person, with proceeds going directly to operating costs of the Center. The parent workshop will explore the theory of Loose Parts Play, explaining why children often seem more intrigued with the box than the toys we buy them, looking at open-ended toy options, and touching on how to use Loose Parts effectively in the home environment. Reservations are appreciated by emailing

Additionally, watch for upcoming programs at Woodlawn Nature Center, such as Nature Inspired Tinkering in April, Fairy Wings and Wild Things in May, Pop-Up Adventure Play and International Mud Day in June, and our regularly scheduled nature play days! See Loose Parts Quotes and Loose Parts Worksheets on the blog! 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Valentine's Day Nature Activities

We pulled some nature activities together to share at our local nature center, Woodlawn Nature Center. We had a basket of pine cones, sticks, and sweet gum balls, adding pipe cleaners, pom poms, and valentine colored yarns. The pom poms and pipe cleaners are easy for little hands to coax into the pinecones. It helps with exploring seeds and seed dispersal in pine cones as well! 

Really, this activity could be adapted for ANY holiday--just switch out the colors of the materials to match the holiday! 

It was neat to see the older kids get into it, as they brought a different level of experimentation to the loose parts. One made a bag full of acorns from a recycled mesh bag. He's planning an experiment to see how long it takes the birds and squirrels to eat them. 

We had a Valentine's book collection. To be honest, there is an opportunity for nature themed Valentine's books. I'm not sure what that might look like, but it's always nice to have themed books! I have had this "Love Bugs" pop up book forever, but it's not really science based.

We also had a station of hearts in nature. I have a set of heart shaped nature pictures from Nature Explore; however, I don't see them online. You could make some of your own pictures or from images found online. We included some nature "shape" activities to go with this center.  I like that the backs of the cards have a variety of questions, activities, movements, etc. to extend the learning on the cards. These could be brought along on a hike, staged to find on a hike, and/or used to look at/experience once a week. 

I've loved this little book, Discovering Nature's Alphabet. (aft link) We looked at the simple lines in nature the form letters/shapes.

We had another table full of Valentine's stuff, such as stickers, paper, cut outs, etc. to make your own Valentine. 

On the light table there was an invitation with tissue paper, laminated heart doilies, laminated tissue hearts, etc. 

We also worked on fine motor skills, making bird feeders with cheerios on pipe cleaners. With a little adult help, it was easy to make a heart shape to put on a tree. Other years, we have cut out cardboard hearts, spread peanut butter on them, rolled in bird seed, and hung from a tree. It was fun and easy to put this together and less messy than the peanut butter!

Part of the fun is finding a good spot to leave it in the woods! 

I think what we enjoyed most was a little heart hike. There are MANY variations of how this might be done. I laminated a variety of hearts--doilies, tissue paper, etc. I just used what I had in my Valentines box. I laminated as I wanted them to be durable over several uses and wanted to use them outside where I knew it might be snowy/wet. Here are a few ideas on using them. How might you use them? 

  • Find things you love in nature on your walk. Take a picture with the heart to document what you loved. If desired, make a book out of the experience. This would be good with an early childhood class, capturing the children's words to document the experience and caption the photo.
  • Leave a trail of hearts for others to find! Let others find the hearts on the path (schedule with another group). Leave the hearts near interesting items that they may enjoy as well. 
  • Hide the hearts before heading out to find them with your little ones. 
  • Find items in nature or outside that match the colors of the hearts. 

Happy Valentine's Day! Need more ideas? Check out ideas we've pinned on Pinterest for Valentine's Day for lots of inspiration!