Let Loose!

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Bits and Pieces of Loose and Lost parts are all the rage right now at Discovery Early Learning Center. Treasure hunting is what the children are calling it and it’s filled with imagination, detailed storylines, and loose parts as props to extend the narrative.

I have only noticed this way of play since I let go of providing invitations and displays of loose parts in themed baskets, trays or whatever way I was presenting the materials.Loose parts are just that, LOOSE and they are found in all shapes, sizes holding a wealth of possibilities in every corner nook and cranny of our indoor and outdoor classroom.Finding, collecting and gathering these materials is chalk full of whole child learning. When children hunt for materials they are mobile, actively engaged and working towards a goal, they assess materials for their value in their play. A game of shipwreck calls for loose parts that hold a certain set of characteristics while a game of house has a different loose parts agenda.

They use their large and small muscles to transport and collect materials building on to their script as they go. This sparks language and takes children into a sort of heightened state of imaginative play where they are embedded into the script in such a way that it feels so real.

They sort, classify, and count materials, they think critically about the alternate uses for open-ended materials and extend their ability to play symbolically, holding fast to their ideas and points of view.This process of collecting or “treasure hunting” seems to be vital to the building of their play. It’s like they build up to a climax where their reach that zone, the zone where they all buy into the storyline, they are fully in character and what seemed hard or challenging is now the possible, what seemed above their physical and developmental potential becomes second nature.

It takes time, it takes space, and it takes adults who do not feel the urge to over organize.We can provide a pretty array of loose parts for children to play with and explore, or we can design spaces using the loose parts concept in all areas of the space allowing children to explore parts that are truly LOOSE.

So what does this mean?

  • Allow children to mix and move materials from one area to another
  • Allow materials to travel from inside to outside
  • Provide creative tools for transporting ( bags, boxes, buckets, baskets)
  • Don’t feel the need to arrange or display loose parts perfectly.
  • Let loose parts at play stay at play ( no sorting at the end of each night)
  • Provide loose parts with a variety of properties ( size, shape, weight, purpose etc)
  • Replace closed-ended toys with open-ended loose parts.

The benefits outweigh the mess!

Language development

While at play with loose parts children have to share their ideas, the uses and purpose of each part and how it works in their play scenario. They have to build the play script part by part as new materials are collected and introduced to the play.

Mathematical concepts

As children gather a variety of loose parts they are having real life experience with “stuff”. This naturally supports sorting, counting, classifying by characteristics such as size, color, shape or purpose. Children embed mathematical ideas and data gathered from the hands-on experience with these materials.

Scientific concepts

Large loose parts require creative ways of transporting. This often beckons scientific thinking, simple machine creation, and testing of ideas and theories. concepts such as gravity, balance, weight vs strength, textures and more!

Physical development

Loose parts play is PHYSICAL running, digging, lugging, balancing, and sorting.   Children are active and a-buz as they collect and play with large and small loose parts.


Loose parts seem to generate a hive mind type of play, a play where children are all collecting, piling, scripting and engaging in the same developing play scenario. This type of play develops a sense of connection and almost an unspoken agreement to keep the play alive. Large parts require many children to work together, share ideas and set plans as a group. After reaching their goal they rejoice as a group allowing their collective success to pull them closer as play partners.

Meeting natural urges in play

Children’s natural urge to collect, connect, position, contain and transport are met through loose parts play.

Social concepts

When children play with loose parts they are met with the task of sharing their ideas, contributing to the narrative and accepting the points of view and contributions of others. They have to compromise and negotiate.

Imaginative play

Loose parts provide endless possibilities. Children play symbolically as blocks become telephones and boxes serve as spaceships. Loose parts come alive when met with the imagination of a child.
Here I have compiled a short list of loose parts to get you started! The possibilities are endless!
Natural Loose Parts
  • Rocks
  • Bricks
  • Logs
  • Leaves
  • Sticks
  • Large branches
  • Dirt/sand/water
  • Shells
  • Pine cones
  • Bones
  • Corn
  • Corn cobs
  • Tree cookies
  • Small and large logs
  • Bamboo cutoffs
  • Seagrass
  • Mulch
  • Hay bales
  • Nuts
  • Seed pods
  • Sea glass

Other Loose Parts

  • Blocks
  • Wooden bits
  • Marbles
  • Tires
  • Large pieces of lumber
  • Buttons
  • Tubes
  • PVC pipes
  • bottles, cups, jars, buckets
  • Boxes
  • Shoes
  • Rope
  • Balls
  • Bowls
  • Hose cut offs
  • Dominos
  • Board game parts
  • Bike parts
  • Keys

So let loose with LOOSE PARTS PLAY and watch as your children develop as players and people.

Kisha Reid is the owner and director of Discovery Early Learning Center: A
Place for Childhood a wonderful play-based program located in Poolesville
Maryland. She has been in the early childhood field for 27 years and continues to actively work in the classroom with children 3-5 years old. Her passion for authentic childhood has led her to found an advocacy group called Play Empowers which focuses on promoting developmentally appropriate play based education for young children.

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Jeff A Johnson

Nice article. I’ve loved watching loose parts in action when we’ve visited your program.

David Cahn

Kisha is like Obi Wan Kenobi in my book. Love seeing pictures from Discovery. Kids there are so lucky to have a place where they can truly own their play and it doesn’t have to take back seat to adult ideas of tidiness and mess.