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Interacting and exploring with loose parts, such as rocks and sticks, has always been a part of children’s play. In more recent years, these materials have become common tools in early childhood learning. In 1972, architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts-the idea that loose parts (materials that can be moved around, reconfigured, and tinkered with) create infinitely more opportunities for creativity than single purpose materials and environments. These loose parts can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, taken apart, and put back together in multiple ways. These materials can become anything the child wants them to be and the possibilities they provide are endless.

Here are just a few of the many long and short term benefits of engaging with loose parts.

  • spark the imagination
  • encourage cooperative play
  • support problem solving
  • are readily available and inexpensive or free
  • promote wonder and curiosity
  • are an easy way to bring the outdoors in
  • are applicable to all ages and aptitudes
  • foster cross-curricular learning
  • promote abstract thinking

Loose parts to explore and manipulate are readily found all around us and can even be random bit of things. The outdoor environment, especially, offers an exceptional number of materials to bring inside for exploration.
Among the many options are: stones, rocks, sand, gravel, fabric, twigs, wood, baskets, boxes, beads, empty spools, shells, seed pods, toilet paper rolls, and paper clips.
Ideally loose parts play takes place in an environment that also facilitates and fosters creativity. Nicholson states, “Children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.” The design and layout of a space and the furniture it contains can, not only, support experimentation but can also play an important role in the discovery experience.

An engaging learning environment that incorporates loose parts will have:

  • many options for seating with surfaces to explore materials such as, cushions on the floor, benches that can double as a table, low shelving that can be used as a surface to explore materials, tables at different heights
  • open-ended furniture-benches, play stands for dramatic play, movable seating
  • items for exploring loose parts-nature/sensory tables and sorting trays
  • easily accessible storage-baskets, bins, movable open shelving

Exploring with loose parts in these child-centered environments will provide infinite opportunities to develop critical thinking skills while fostering a lifelong love of learning through questioning, creating, and discovery.

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