Loose Parts and Early Childhood Development

Supporting Cognitive and Fine Motor Development

Loose parts are open ended materials that invite children to combine, stack, move, line up, take apart, assemble and organize. They range from found natural or up-cycled items to purchased items and the variety of material adds to the richness of children’s interpretation and experimentation. Open-ended materials, including loose parts, encourage a child to develop their own ideas for using them, rather than assigning prescriptive purposes or pre-imagined ways of play to those items. While the initial prompt, or presentation of materials, is curated by the adult, the play itself is directed by the child, creating endless possibilities of how a child or group of children interpret the selection of materials.

Children use loose parts to assemble their own creations, tell stories through their arrangements, and create their own rules. By leading their own play through this exploration, they build independence and self confidence, develop their imagination, and experiment with dictating their play. “To meet challenges and opportunities of the future, today’s children must become critical and creative thinkers, intelligent problem solvers, and good communicators. These skills develop when they tinker with loose parts,” explains Daly and Beloglovsky in their book, Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. Vocabulary is formed through collaboration and conversation, as children work together to manipulate open-ended materials, which makes loose part exploration an inherently language-rich play.

Play Possibilities with Loose Parts 

Let’s pretend that you offer a tray of corks, sea shells, and scrap pieces of fabric… What ideas come to mind as possibilities for play? 

A child playing with shells and corks
  1. An infant lifts the fabric into their lap. They put corks and shells on top of it, and then lift them off. He then puts the fabric on top of the shells and corks, looks around and lifts the fabric up. 
  2. A toddler rolls the corks on a piece of fabric. They try to roll the seashells, but they don’t move. 
  3. A two year old picks up a large piece of fabric and puts shells inside. They close it up with their fist, shake it around, and listen to the sound. Another two year old does the same by putting corks into a piece of fabric and shaking it. “Loud” says the child with the seashells banging together. “Quiet” says the child with the corks banging together.
  4. A preschooler lays out many pieces of fabric to cover a large portion of the floor. They lay the seashells down, pick up a cork, and pretend to hop from one shell to another. Another friend joins, picks up a cork, and they begin to race across the shells.
  5. A pre-kindergartener sees the loose parts displayed, and turns to a small group of children and says, “I went to the beach for vacation, can you help me build a beach?” Other children join and arrange more fabric by color, blue for the ocean, beige for sand with additional shells, red, yellow and orange for houses. Corks are added for people and soon the children are jumping and rolling the corks through the neighborhoods, creating a beach community, adding details as they recount something from a past vacation.

Constructing with loose parts is a meaningful experience for children of all ages. Through open-ended play, infants learn about object permanence and that materials exist even when they cannot be seen. As toddlers experiment with movement, they connect speed and velocity to the same materials on different surfaces. Preschoolers tell stories and recreate ideas with loose parts, allowing them to make decisions for themselves and to see their ideas come to life. Using loose parts in collaboration with play supports language development, problem solving, and critical thinking.