Step Away from the Plastic: Loose Parts Play in Early Years

Nursery Jobs London

By Kelly Littlewood

‘Have you ever noticed that if you leave old junk lying around, kids will almost inevitably play with it? Whether it be old cardboard boxes, wooden pallets, pieces of wood, old tires [sic], bits of rope or string, kids will use their imagination and ingenuity to make something. This may make your garden look like a junkyard sometimes, but the experience for the kids is invaluable and it will keep them occupied for hours. Don’t try and direct the kids in their play just let them get on with it.’

How Not To Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts (S Nicholson, Landscape Architecture 1971)

The theory of “loose parts” was first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970s. Nicholson believed that it is the ‘loose parts’ in our environment that will empower creativity. He further argued that the degree of inventiveness is directly proportional to the number of variables in it.

In the last couple of years, ‘loose parts’ or ‘heuristic’ play has taken the early years by storm as the never-ending imaginative possibilities allow children to learn in their own unique ways. So, what is loose parts play you ask? How can we implement this into our nurseries’ continuous provision? How does this all link with the learning and development of young children?

What is loose parts play?

  • Can be natural or synthetic materials – small or large e.g. stones, twigs, wood, crates, fabrics, tyres, logs, boxes, bottle tops, pinecones, corks, tubes, containers, wooden rings, buttons, bangles, guttering, flowers, leaves, conkers, shells, cork tops – the list is endless!
  • For younger children, creating discovery boxes/baskets/trays are a great way of making this type of play developmentally appropriate.

The impact on children’s learning and development.

Take this scenario, a group of pre-school children are playing outside and a practitioner notices that they are trying to pick up logs of different sizes. When the practitioner asked the children why they are moving the logs around the garden a child shouts “we’re building a den!”

Loose parts play has the ability to combine all areas of learning with or without the intervention of an early year’s practitioner.

  • Communication and Language – negotiating ideas, pre-positional language.
  • Personal, social and emotional – taking into account the views of others, sharing resources
  • Physical development – carrying and lifting objects of different weights.
  • Knowledge and understanding of the world – knowing how to use different resources.
  • Mathematical development – negotiating space, size and shapes,
  • Literacy development – writing up ideas and drawing up designs.
  • Expressive arts and design – deciding on resources.

Food for thought…   Top Tips for embedding Loose Parts in your setting;

  • Have no defined use and practitioners must support the children when they decide to change the shape or use of them. It is the role of the practitioner to be the observer, mediator, supporter, and facilitator.
  • Be accessible physically and stored where they can be reached by children without having to ask the playworkers. The children should know that they can use them whenever and however they wish.
  • Include children in the daily risk assessments of these resources. This provides them with the opportunity to learn how to safely engage with these resources and begin to identify/manage their own risks.
  • Be regularly replenished changed and added to.

Whatever ‘loose parts’ you add to your environment, just remember it’s not about what the children do with them but about the learning that takes place!

If you are interested in working in Early Years register your CV here.