Loose Parts - What are they and how do we use them on our playground?

"The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences." -Loris Malaguzzi

written by Stephanie Davis, preschool teacher

One beautiful morning last week, the preschoolers set out on an artistic exploration of Loose Parts. Set out on the stage of our playground, was a collection of beads, buttons, baubles, stones, flower petals and herbs. The goal was for students to create an individual piece of artwork using these materials inside a small cylinder. Their individual piece would then be placed onto a large piece of paper to create a collaborative piece of artwork - a loose parts mandala. Preschoolers worked on these pieces of artwork for three days, cutting herbs to fit into their pieces, traveling in small groups to collect more natural materials, and arranging and rearranging until their final product was completed. The finished collaborative mandala is a feast for the eyes, representing Breakwater preschoolers through their expression of color, texture, arrangement and design.

Loose Parts are described as items that have no definitive purpose. They can be used, reused, arranged and played with in an infinite number of ways.  They can be used alone or with other Loose Parts for the purpose of creative, imaginative and open ended exploration.  They are items that children can manipulate in whatever way they please and for whatever purpose.  On a beach, loose parts are sand, shells, water, driftwood, rocks.  In a forest, loose parts are sticks, stones, dirt, fallen tree limbs, leaves. Loose parts offer children endless opportunities for play.  They encourage critical thinking and creative problem solving because there is no right or wrong way to use them.  Through loose parts play, children become divergent thinkers.  By observing loose parts play, teachers can gain understanding of a child's willingness to think creatively and take risks.  

On the preschool playground are several wooden boards.  The boards have been placed randomly in the gardens, against the fence, in the houses.  These wooden boards are some of the children's most prized play things. They have been used individually and collaboratively, from building and construction to imaginative play.  They shift purpose by the moment and have enhanced the play of every child on the playground.  These wooden boards are bridges over raging rivers and walkways for animals.  They have been cars, boats, surfboards and seesaws.  They are built into tents, houses and roadways.  One morning, students discovered that the boards could be put into the large wooden teepee to create beds, stairs and platforms.  They are desks for school and safe places to sit while riding out wild storms. 

When lying on one of the wooden boards inside the teepee, a preschooler imagined herself in a house lying in her bed: "The storm is coming so I locked all the windows and shut the doors.  But the storm is strong.  The house is sinking but I closed all the windows so the crabs won't get me." 

These wooden boards are a perfect example of the importance of loose parts play.  Through the use of these wooden boards, children are engineers.  They use the boards to create sets and props for their imaginative play.  They have been used in negotiations.  Children are constantly problem solving about when, where and how to use them. 

On a typical preschool playground, children slide on the slides and swing on the swings.  They climb and run.  By adding loose parts to the playground, an engaging atmosphere is created where open ended play is paramount.  Creativity is valued over repetition.  There is value in all the ways children play, of course, but with the use of loose parts, children become the masters of their play.  A day on the playground is never just the same as the day before and will not be the same tomorrow. Loose parts play is something we value hugely in preschool at Breakwater. The children continue to amaze us at how many different ways they can see and use loose parts.  We are blown away by their creativity, imagination and constant drive to explore, discover and manipulate the world around them. 

For more reading about the theory and importance of Loose Parts - click here and here