How to Incorporate Loose Parts at Home

Above, the student begins to build a tower with tin cans, wooden boards, and plastic screws.

Examples of Loose Parts

Loose parts are natural, upcycled, found, or purchased materials that are open-ended and non-prescriptive. The beauty of children’s play and learning through loose parts is the way in which the same materials can be used over and over while taking on a different meaning, purpose, or relationship to other materials through a child’s imagining of different stories, settings, or incorporation of other items. There is often overlap between  loose parts and collage materials, but the absence of adhesive in loose parts lends an impernance that allows them to be reimagined and reinterpretted constantly. Loose parts can be easily introduced at home with materials you likely already have in the house. What may look like an ordinary object to adults is, for children, an exciting and limitless treasure to be used in their play. 

Examples of loose parts you may have at home:

  • Recycled: Cardboard tube, boxes, bubble wrap, cork, buttons
  • Flexible: Fabric, yarn, ribbon, loofah, doilies, paint samples, wrapping paper
  • Reflective: Tin can, metal utensils, keys, springs, mirror, nuts and bolts, crystals
  • Natural: Sticks, pinecones, seed pods, leaves, driftwood
  • Miscellaneous: Puzzle pieces, dice, Legos, pvc pipes, wheels

Presenting Loose Parts

When introducing loose parts to children of all ages, the presentation of materials and organization is key. By presenting these items in a purposeful, curated, and aesthetically pleasing way, these everyday items are elevated from junk to treasures. It’s helpful to use containers to more easily organize the way in which you present these items to your child. Containers can also be objects you already have at home and may inspire you to re-imagine new purposes for quite a few items you have laying around!

Examples of containers for organizing and presenting loose parts:

  • Trays
  • Baskets
  • Assorted sized and shaped clear containers
  • Lazy Susan or divided turntable
  • Jars
  • Cigar boxes

Less is more -- start by offering 3-4 different types of loose parts, and see what your child does with the materials. Gradually add additional materials to deepen their play and extend their use of the materials.

To get started, search through your house for objects you aren’t using, but might evoke creative thinking in young children. For children three years and older, invite them to help you search. Look through their bedrooms for toys that are missing pieces, in the recycling bin, or take a family walk through the neighborhood. If your child brainstorms ideas for  materials they specifically want to include and that you don’t have at home (for example, bottle caps), the neighborhood listserv is a great place to post wish lists.

Above, the preschooler pressed loose parts into a slab of clay to make impressions.
Above, children use clay to make loose parts stand straight up. A preschooler shares that “unicorns are walking towards the castle.”

By incorporating this type of play at home, children are encouraged to build on developmental skills in a deeply meaningful way that is age appropriate and authentic to their thought process, interests, and personality. “Through pretend and symbolic play, children expand their vocabulary and make connections between an object and what that object is called. This is an important step towards reading and writing,” explains Daly and Beloglovsky (p.149). Skills connected to science (cause and effect, natural world) math (patterns, counting, shapes), engineering (inquiry, investigation), and critical thinking are all strengthened through loose part play. As children’s skills develop, their use of loose parts will evolve accordingly, strengthening the ability of this play to be continuously re-introduced without being repetitive. And not only does the power of loose parts lie in what your child learns, but also in what you will discover about your child while listening to how they describe, engage, and imagine an extraordinary world from the ordinary.

Loose Parts 3 by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky, page 149, Redleaf Press, St.Paul MN, 2018