Sunday, April 24, 2016

Loose Parts Inspired Toys

I often hear the plea from mothers that the grandparents are not buying toys they really want for the children. Typically, the culprit is a toy that makes noise, uses batteries, is "stuffed", or can only be used one way. Many parents are asking for a different approach to gift giving. Enter loose parts play! A note to grandparents: please listen to the parents of your grandchildren on ideas for good toys for the children, especially if they are asking for toys that inspire creative, imagination, and STEM concepts. If they are not asking for this type of toy, please share the joy that can come from this type of interaction with loose parts.

Choosing Loose Parts Toys

Purdue's Engineering School came up with an Engineering Gift Guide, with the guidelines above in choosing toy to inspire engineering principles in children; however, they also can work VERY well for loose parts play. Great guidelines! The following quote inspires me! I love the natural aspect of it, but sometimes feel the need to buy a present. 

Loose Parts Toy Suggestions
  • Blocks--Blocks can be a basic for any type of loose parts exploration. A basic set I like is the Melissa & Doug 60 Piece Standard Unit Blocks. These can be used in many ways, adding extras like sweet gum balls, plastic animals, and buckeyes for more impact and diversity of choices. Also, consider adding on rainbow or other wooden "stackers", as well as peg dolls.  Wedgits are another fun building block with endless possibilities that span a variety of ages at our house (infant to adult). 
  • Tegu Blocks--These smooth finished magnetic blocks are a wonderful way to use blocks. You can explore magnetic properties and make an endless variety of creations with them. Here is a smaller set, though I salivate over the larger sets. We have two of the smaller sets--my husband was intrigued by these and plays with them as well!
  • Anything Magnetic! There are many great magnetic sets appropriately sized for whatever age child you might have. We have many options, such as the magnet sticks with a ball. We started buying these before we had kids as we enjoyed playing with them ourselves. We also enjoy the Magformers. The Magnatiles are also a great option. We got the Picasso brand which is nearly identical for less cost. We got more after our initial set. :-) I especially like these combined with a light table. We also just have plain old magnet options as they can be used in a variety of ways. Here are a couple of other magnet set options: Magnets and More and Fun with Magnets. I like having the magnet sticks and Magformers in separate grab and go containers (like a bag or basket) as they are great entertainment in church and other activities that are a little harder for my younger kids to sit through. I'll take them to basketball games to keep the 3 year old busy and all the 4th graders start swarming around me to play as well. One boy asked me where my toys were when I didn't bring all the extra kids to a game! They really enjoy them at different levels as they grow. 
  • Pattern Blocks--As an educator, I have been around pattern blocks for many, many years. These manipulatives are great for sorting color, size, and shapes. They are good for learning about fractions, tesselations, patterns, and other mathematical concepts. They are also good for just building! I love watching younger children use them in a very different way, stacking them rather than making the patterns. I prefer the wooden pattern blocks, with a big box left over from my teaching days. We also have a magnetic portable set that can be nice for travel. 
  • Building Sets--Classics like Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, Legos, K'Nex, etc., are great basics. I often get these at garage sales for less than $5/set. A couple of pieces may be missing, but they work overall. Other sets, such as Keva and Kapla or even a Jenga game with missing pieces are a great option. 
  • Marble Runs--We also really enjoy marble run blocks that can be manipulated in many ways. There are both wooden and plastic options out there. There are even magnetic marble runs for the front of the fridge! There is something about watching marbles run that is just fascinating!
  • Electronic Sets--As my children get older, I find they want a little more adventure. Electronics is a good way to bring in more adventure. Many offer interchangeable sets that can be used a variety of ways. We particularly like SnapCircuit sets and littleBits. Littlebits are one of my favorites as they are very easy to use and can be built in so many ways! Read my review of them here. Make your own sets with a variety of LED lights, batteries (be careful with little ones with button cell batteries), wires, battery holders, wire cutters, popsicle sticks, wood cutters, low temp glue gun, pieces of wood, motors, and more! I find my "builder" child loves to have access to all of this stuff! I also really like the Electric Stick and the Energy Ball. These are not exactly loose parts, but they are a fun tool to explore circuits and how they work. I like having children all put a hand in the middle, grab someone else's hand, put the other hand in, and grab another person's hand, making sure the Electric Stick or Energy Ball is between two hands--it completes the circuit through all those people! We clap hands or give high fives to complete the circuit as well. 
  • Gears--It's really neat to see how gears work together to move. Being able to reposition and move the gears allows for exploration. We have this set and like it. 
  • Connecting Kits--There are several options for these. We like these: flower building kit, Bristle Blocks, Waffle Blocks, Building Discs, Color Clix, Brain Flakes,  etc. 
  • Realistic Animals--If I could only have natural items plus one other toy--this would be it! I LOVE having realistic animals from our region. We've sampled many of the "Toobs" and other sets, but my FAVORITES are the Safari Incredible Creature line. They are larger, very detailed, realistic, and with plenty of options of animals in our area. We love the eagle, soft-shelled turtle, bullfrog, flying squirrel, etc. You may also enjoy my post on ways to inspire animal play here
  • Fort Kits--My sister-in-law and brother pulled this together for our kids and we love it! Sheets, rope, clothespins or other clamps, etc. Pretty basic stuff that combine together for fun results both inside and out! 
  • Books to Inspire--Check out my list of Loose Parts Play inspired books! These are a great place to spend quality time building qualities of imagination, creativity, perseverance, and tinkering. 
  • Slinky!--I had to add this in after seeing it used in so many ways. I actually got it for my husband for Christmas. He said he had never had a metal one, just the plastic ones as a child. He and the kids have been enjoying experimenting with this! I couldn't believe our $3 toy was such a hit!  

Special gifts do not have to be purchased. They can be carefully curated for impact. Try making a Tinkering Station for a loved one interested in building. See my links above for some of the electronic and tool options that have worked well for us. 

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