Spiriteds, we break from our regularly-scheduled food programming to bring you loose parts play, a topic I fervently support. I’ve written about this before, and undoubtedly I’ll write about it again: My daughters are spirited children through and through. In fact, this spiritedness permeates our family (including Mom, The Gram, and Auntie, which you can read about on our About Us page) so much, it inspired the name for this blog.
And channeling the girls’ 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.
It just 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.
A move to open-ended play
Fortunately, there were a few colorful pages in the book 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)
K-Hubs and I felt so seen! We decided it was time to give loose parts play a try in our home. If this feels familiar to you, too, then read on. You are in the right place!
Getting started with loose parts play
The sky is 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. Remember, too, this is child-led play. So you don’t need to problem-solve everything ahead of time. In fact, that’s what the child is supposed to do as they play!
Loose parts play is inclusive
Every child learns differently. I say this as a parent and as a former 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 diverse groups, to use the items however they want. Children get to make their own connections and create their own successes.
And because you customize the experience to what works for you and your family, you also get to decide which items are age, safety, and budget appropriate. When choosing loose parts, consider:
- The child’s interests. There are no right or wrong types of loose parts. Finding materials children will enjoy exploring is the key.
- Safety concerns. If children still put items in their mouth, larger loose parts may be necessary.
- Cultural meanings. Objects may have multiple or conflicting meanings across different cultures. If you adopt loose parts play in a larger group setting, think about cultural meanings before introducing objects into play.
- Your budget. Many loose parts are part of another purchase (the containers that hold the goods you buy, for example) or are low cost. Observe kids playing with items you already have before making a big purchase. Your budget my be pleasantly surprised by what captures your child’s attention!
How to organize loose parts for sensory play
At first I was a little precious about managing loose parts. I secretly hyperventilated when I didn’t recycle cans and jars. But those objects now double as musical instruments and luminaries with battery-operated candles. My girls assuaged my anxieties when I saw how absolutely delighted they were with these new “toys.”
I did ask myself two questions, though:
- Once you compile some loose parts, what do you do with them? Get out of the kids’ way. One of the benefits of loose parts play is it encourages kids to jump in and start exploring. Because there is no right or wrong, there isn’t a fear of making a mistake. Loose parts play is a delightful antidote to start-up stress and perfectionism. If something isn’t right, then it can be reworked.
- What in the clutter-stress do you do with the parts when they’re not in use? Those cardboard boxes, lidded produce containers, and margarine containers come in handy for play and for storage.
I eventually purchased small- and medium-sized clear plastic tubs with lids once I knew my girls would play with loose parts for a long time. It has been several years since we first got started, and they STILL play with loose parts, albeit in different ways than when they were younger.
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 mismatched items will do the trick.
What can children learn from loose parts?
According to the book, these sensory activities for children tap into their cognitive and emotional development. For example, loose parts play engages the following skill bases:
- Language. Children might describe the loose parts they are playing with. Then they might begin using those parts to tell a story or explain how they are going to solve a problem. The use of loose parts encourages vocabulary exploration, too.
- Problem-solving. Loose parts play encourages problem-solving as children navigate what to do with their objects of play and how to respond if their first, second, third, or more attempts to do something don’t work out.
- Critical thinking. Children build on their ideas, make connections between the play objects and the world around them, and play or problem-solve alongside each other.
- Math. Sorting, organizing, quantity, and amount, are but a few of the mathematical concepts children explore with loose parts play. Weight and volume are two other concepts children can explore.
- Art. Loose parts play is a natural addition to art activities. And by asking children to describe their art to you, you encourage language development, too!
- Science. The options are endless for loose parts play and science. One prime example is outdoor loose parts play. Nature objects are perfect loose parts.
This is but a sampling of subject areas. I highly suggest you read Daly’s and Beloglovsky’s book for more information.
Loose parts play examples
If you look at the three pictures above, you’ll see my daughter organized and integrated colorful gems, fabric swatches, and seashells by:
- Mixing and matching colors.
- Commenting on how the colors seemed to change when they were next to each other.
- And, finally, when we added seashells, she commented that the gems now looked like part of a coral reef.
When she 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 that point she jumped into storytelling about their underwater adventures. Once the sea creatures were comfortably situated in their new habitat, she then began to create her own art, in this case a sun (see images below – note: she’s telling me about her sun and how she created it). In another instance, she used blue gems to create clouds.
We added different trays and dishes to the fold, and she 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, she insisted on doing it herself.
Reverse engineering activities
Who can resist playing with bells and buttons of different shapes and sizes? Apparently, no one in our house can. 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.
Threading bells and buttons onto pipe cleaners is great for fine motor skill development and artistic development. But it’s also great for reverse engineering, too. The girls often untwist their pipe cleaners, remove the bells and buttons, and start over to make a new creation.
More loose parts play ideas
In the above left image, we see age-appropriate math concepts related to:
Our daughters used the cars and ramps differently. Our younger daughter loved to push the cars down the ramps to see which one arrived first. She explored different materials to create variety. Our older daughter wanted to control variables to:
- Make predictions.
- Time the cars.
- Manipulate elements to explore specific outcomes.
In the above right image, the girls created a makeshift bowling game, using quart-sized plastic bottles. It was 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 school party years ago, and the kids were nuts about this game! I think the kids enjoyed a game with motion and sound. As they got more and more into the game, the kids discovered the foil bowling ball made an incredible sound when it came into contact with the plastic bottle pins.
Hands-on activities galore!
If this post got your creative juices flowing, then check out these screen-free activities! The options for play are endless and integrate well with loose parts play you might already be doing!
- Gluten-Free Easy Cloud Dough
- Rainbow Rice Recipe – How to Dye Rice for Sensory Play
- Holiday Sensory Play Activities
- Spring-Themed Sensory Play Ideas
- Rainbow Sensory Trays
With loose parts as a guide, sensory play activities for children are limitless!