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Introduction to Loose Parts

Why loose parts make a valuable addition to any Early Years setting

Are you thinking of introducing loose parts into your setting? Do you know how to use loose parts? Do you want to understand more about this type of play? Whatever your question, I will endeavour to answer it in this blog.

I became interested in loose parts a few years ago and was eager to introduce the children to a range of resources. So I began collecting and visited a resource centre in search of varied loose parts. I set up some discovery shelves, filled baskets with different parts and let the children explore, observing, guiding and talking to them. The results were amazing – highly engaged children, interested and learning so much. Although I did not switch to an entirely loose parts setting, I never looked back!

Before you begin your journey, or even if it has already begun; you need to understand the play, where it came from, what it is and why it’s used:
• Loose parts are a collection of materials, both natural and man-made.
• Architect Simon Nicholson developed the theory of loose parts play in the 1970’s. He suggested that loose parts inspired and developed creativity through offering various materials to be carried, combined, stacked, lined up, redesigned, taken apart and put back together with no directions or specific way of playing with them.
• Children have used loose parts for years. There’s a good chance that you played with loose parts as a child – stones, sticks, flowers, logs? I used to play with my Mum’s collection of buttons!
• Toys have limited flexibility with a set outcome.
• Loose parts are not limited and have no set outcome. They are open-ended. They can be used in any way the holder chooses.
• They can be used for 2D and 3D art/building, transient art, pretend play, small world and sensory play.
• Children lead their own play.

What do the children learn?
There are enormous amounts of learning that can take place:
• Aids development using a child’s senses.
• Children use self-discovery and re-discover, extending and building on existing knowledge.
• Children have deeper levels of involvement
• All of the Characteristics of Effective Learning.
• Maths – size; pattern; shape; colour; sums; counting; problem solving; quantity; position; weight; distance; compare; language.
• Personal, Social and Emotional – sharing; working alone/alongside others/together; respect; confidence; working within the boundaries; ask for help; building relationships; taking turns.
• Communication and language – expressing oneself; speaking; listening; understanding; attention.
• Physical – gross motor skills for large scale building; fine motor skills for small scale creating; control.
• Expressive arts and design – explore; use a range of materials; using own ideas; expressing oneself; experiment with design, texture and pattern; imagination.
• Understanding the world – explore; discover; use a range of materials; link to their knowledge and experiences; similarities and differences; make observations and talk about these.
• Literacy – letter formations; linking books to materials; write labels.

Offering loose parts is not a case of tipping out a box of resources on the floor. They need to be arranged to invite children over and spark their curiosity. Resources should be sorted into groups so children can easily see what is on offer. Offer loose parts:
• In baskets, on shelves, in jars or tins. The children need to be able to access the available resources easily, without needing to ask for help.
• As part of invitations to play (the environment is set up to invite children to explore, experiment, investigate, discover, touch and manipulate the materials through independent play as much as possible).
• As part of provocations (these provoke thoughts, questions, discussion, interests, creativity and ideas through various mediums – pictures, nature, an event, interests, objects, items displayed in a new way, questions).
• Rotate resources regularly to keep the children interested, motivated and full of creativity.
• Variety is key.

The role of the practitioner.
Although children lead their own play, practitioners still play a key part in children’s learning. They must:
• Support children with their choice of use for the loose parts
• Provide teaching
• Prepare invitations to play
• Provide provocations
• Guide children
• Document learning through observations and photos

Managing the mess!
For some practitioners the mess becomes too much. You need to be realistic. It takes time for children to become used to using these resources. Many children have not experienced such materials and require imagination to use them effectively.
• Have an open mind. There is often a lot of cleaning up involved as materials are transported around the setting, but this creativity should be supported and encouraged.
• Start small – offer limited materials to begin with and slowly add over time.
• Modelling – demonstrate how to get the materials out and how to put them away.
• Labelling – take a picture of the material in the basket it belongs in and tape the picture where ever it is you want that basket to stay. Change these when you change the resources.

Risk assessment.
As with all resources you use, you need to think carefully about the risks it may pose, and the ages and stages of your children.
• Ensure you have sufficient quantities to avoid any conflict.
• Items should be in good condition and regularly checked for wear and tear.
• Age appropriate resources should be available. Under 2’s will place things in their mouth but so will older children. Risk assess the children in on that day or on roll. If children are still using their mouth to explore, ensure resources cannot be swallowed or lodged in the mouth/throat.
• Items need to be suitable for cleaning after use.

Start collecting:
You do not need to spend hundreds of pounds purchasing loose parts. Most can be sourced for free from your home. Ask your friends and family too and don’t forget to ask the families using your service. To most people a piece of ribbon, an old cotton reel or bottle top are junk and will be thrown away. Ask people to collect and donate as much as possible so you have variety and can build collections. Scrap stores, charity shops and boot sales are great places to look for low cost purchases.

Now you are ready to begin your journey!

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