Spiriteds, we break from our regularly-scheduled food programming to bring you Sensory Play Activities for Children: Loose Parts. I’ve written about this before, and undoubtedly I’ll write about it again: Toodle and Twinkle are spirited children through and through. In fact, this spiritedness permeates our family (including Mom, The Gram, and Auntie) so much, it inspired the name for this blog. And channeling Toodle’s and Twinkle’s energy levels is a WHOLE THING in our house. In the event you are constantly seeking out ways to channel your child’s energy levels, you might find the concepts of “loose parts play” and sensory play activities for children rather fascinating. But, I’m jumping ahead a little, so let me back up.
Autoimmunity is also a whole thing in our house. To address it, we look at physiological and emotional health. Stress management, work-life balance, and emotional well-being are as much a part of the process as are food, supplements, and medicines, as necessary. It so happens, the girls love STEM activities, so we asked our beloved librarian for suggestions on STEM and sensory play ideas. She came back with a boatload of books, God love her, and we jumped in. One in particular, Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky, caught K-Hubs’ eye. I, however, wasn’t convinced. The book comprises countless photos for how to play with everyday objects (loose parts) in unconventional ways, and I thought, This is all so obvious. Duh.
Morgan, bless your ever-lovin’ heart, but you are all kinds of incorrect here.
Fortunately, there were a few colorful pages that caught my eye. So I casually perused them, you know, for a few suggestions. And then I was hooked. ABSOLUTELY HOOKED. Full of sensory play activities for children, Loose Parts takes the guesswork out of finding ways to satisfy a child’s natural curiosity, all without breaking the bank. Why do children prefer the box the toy came in instead of the toy itself? Daly and Beloglovsky have an answer. “Once they’ve mastered the key function of an object – using the button to make a figure pop up or climbing a ladder, for example – they [children] are ready to move on. The intrigue and challenge are gone.” (p. 6)
This describes Toodle and Twinkle to a T. The girls’ awesome toys are super-cool for a few days, at which point the girls discard them ready to tackle the next challenge. Loose parts, on the other hand, provide unlimited combinations of play and discovery. It’s virtually impossible to exhaust all the different ways to use loose parts. The sky is also the limit on what qualifies as a loose part. Loose parts include but are not limited to:
- Cans of all sizes and shapes
- Washers, nuts, bolts, and magnets
- Paper of all shapes, sizes, textures, and consistences
- Paper clips, pencils, sticky notes, and other office supplies
- Beads, buttons, bells, pom poms, pipe cleaners, ribbons, and countless other craft supplies
- Fabric swatches, scarves, capes, sheets, towels, and shawls
- Cans, pails, buckets, tins, and plastic containers of all shapes and sizes
- Toilet paper, paper towel, and wrapping paper rolls (also, the wrapping paper is pretty handy, too)
- PVC pipes, gutters, and other tubes/tunnels (the book includes notices for safety precautions on some of these items)
- Glass dishes, mason jars, paper cups, muffin tins, muffin cups, and other kitchen items
- Rocks, sticks, tree cookies (sawed pieces of tree trunks), leaves, and other nature items
- And, of course, cardboard boxes of varying shapes and sizes (which are also helpful for storage, if like me, you are slightly allergic to clutter)
As you scroll through the list above and the photos in this post, you might say, “Yeah, but Morgan, I don’t have THAT thing you have or what the book suggests.” That’s okay. I don’t have everything the book suggests, either, nor do I plan to get everything mentioned. Sensory play activities for children are about using what you DO have, and adding to your collections over time. Once I started thinking about what qualifies as a loose part, I began to see just how many loose parts there are lying around my house.
Furthermore, every child learns differently. I say this as a parent and as a college and continuing education instructor. What is right for one learner may not be right for another. Loose parts play allows each child, even within groups of siblings, to use the items however they want. Toodle and Twinkle often use the same loose parts in completely different, but often complementary, ways. And because you customize the experience to what works for you and your family, you also get to decide which items are age and safety appropriate.
But I asked myself two questions. One, once K-Hubs and I compile some loose parts, what do we do with them? Um, get out of the girls’ way. They will discover how they want to use these new toys. It only took a few seconds for both girls to jump in and start imagining.
And, two, how in the HAIL do we store all this stuff because mama’s allergic to all kinds of clutter. Spiriteds, I once threw away my college transcripts before the internet was really a thing and before I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I placed A LOT of phone calls across the country to retrieve transcripts dating back to high school and for an educational journey which took place in the same state, simply because I couldn’t stand to have a few papers in a filing cabinet. #Oops.
Those cardboard boxes of varying shapes and sizes come handy for play and for storage. Everyone’s living arrangement is different. We have a dedicated shelf in the basement. At first I was a little precious about it. I secretly hyperventilated at not recycling cans and jars, which now double as musical instruments and luminaries with battery-operated candles. But Toodle and Twinkle assuaged my anxieties when I saw how absolutely delighted they were with these new toys. As a side note, because the options are endless, you don’t need large amounts of loose parts to make the concept work. Even a few boxes of items will do the trick.
Not only do they play independently and together extremely well, but the girls also ask for television a whole lot less. Their stress levels are lower, their excitement is greater, and they seem to feel more in control of their environment. Furthermore, according to the book, these sensory activities for children tap into their cognitive and emotional development. For example, loose parts play engages language, problem-solving, critical thinking, math, art, and science skills, to name a few. It absolutely makes sense to me now why Toodle and Twinkle thrive in some learning environments but not others. What seems like such obvious and over-simplified play is actually pretty intense, but highly enjoyable, learning. I was an absolute skeptic who has become a firm believer. So let me show you a few more ways we are using loose parts in sensory play activities for children.
Twinkle first organized the gems by color. According to the book, sorting and organizing based on characteristics is part of a foundation for math among other subjects and skills. From there, Twinkle got more creative, mixing and matching colors, commenting on how the colors seemed to change when they were next to each other. Finally, when we added seashells, Toodle commented that the gems now looked like part of a coral reef. When Twinkle came back to these loose parts a few days later, she brought along some under-the-sea creatures we found at a local dollar store and made them part of the coral reef, too, at which point she jumped into storytelling about their underwater adventures.
Once the sea creatures were comfortably situated in their new habitat, Twinkle then began to create her own art, in this case a sun. In another instance, she used blue gems to create clouds.
We added different trays and dishes to the fold, and Twinkle was quick to point out the sound varied from dish to dish when she dropped the gems in each one. She also became more independent as she played. When I offered to help her pick up a few dropped gems, with a clear picture of what she wanted to do, Twinkle insisted on doing it herself.
Who can resist playing with bells of different shapes and sizes? Apparently, no one in our house can. Fortunately, these bells (also found at a dollar store) are loud enough to be appreciated without overwhelming the ears of everyone who walks by. And you can never go wrong with buttons. The girls happily thread buttons and bells onto pipe cleaners for what seems like hours. A neighbor girl came over to play one evening and instantly gravitated to this combo of loose parts, too. Sensory play activities for children don’t have to be complicated to be successful.
I have shown you many of the same items in the last several photos, which may feel redundant. However, loose parts is all about repurposing what you already have and building on it. If your children prefer different loose parts, color schemes, or activities, run with it. You’ll still reap the benefits because sensory play activities for children are just that: for children.
Here, we are beginning to look at age-appropriate math concepts related to construction, investigation, and correlation. For Twinkle, who is still a preschooler at the time of this post, we don’t worry about the accuracy of the ramps or using similar materials and changing only one variable. For now we are simply getting familiar with high-level concepts. Toodle, on the other hand, as an elementary schooler, is much more interested in controlling variables, making predictions, timing the cars, and manipulating elements to try to create a specific outcome. Both girls use the same materials differently.
This makeshift bowling game, using quart-sized plastic bottles, is the dark horse of the whole loose parts approach to sensory play activities for children. Stemming from a Creative Galaxy episode, we used wrapping paper, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes to create the pins. We then used several layers of foil to fashion a bowling ball. Spiriteds, we hosted a second-grade party, and the kids were nuts about this game! I think the kids enjoyed a game with motion and sound. As the kids got more and more into the game, they discovered the foil bowling ball made an incredible sound when it came into contact with the plastic bottle pins.
With loose parts as a guide, sensory play activities for children are limitless!