We hope that Loose Parts will awaken your creativity and enhance your ability to develop exciting play opportunities for children. Why so many photographs? They’re meant to stimulate your imagination and increase your joy in finding loose parts for use in play-based learning.The before and after photos throughout demonstrate loose parts in use throughout early childhood education settings (for example, dramatic play, block/construction, art, language and literacy, math, science, outdoors, sensory, music, and movement). Besides providing challenges, pleasures, and learning opportunities for children, loose parts can also awaken your own creativity. You’ll be delighted by finding the perfect loose parts to introduce to children. As educators, we’ve certainly taken enormous pleasure in unearthing loose parts for our programs. Over the years, we’ve stumbled upon an almost limitless variety of treasures. In the aisles of a hardware store, we’ve found perforated pipes and vinyl gutters perfect for enhancing outdoor play. At a garage sale, we came across a box of old wooden spools that later found a place in our art and block areas. One of our favorite unexpected finds was the set of cow bones we found along a back road. Back at the center, we buried them in the sand of the play yard, where children screamed with excitement while they discovered what they called “dinosaur bones.” If you're planning on improving your garden then why not add playground equipment today?

What’s the source of the joy we experience as we search for these items, think about incorporating our finds into children’s play areas, and imagine what the children will do with them? Perhaps we’re taken back to our own childhood. We’re certain of this: our excitement is contagious, and it’s transmitted to the children. Provisioning your setting with loose parts, even though they are humble, can be momentous. Between three and six years, children rapidly acquire new gross- and fine-motor skills. Activities using loose parts help them develop confidence in their ability to use their bodies for their own purposes. For example, children gain self-assurance as they climb, step, jump, and balance from tree stump to tree stump. During this phase, children become aware of their bodies’ positions in space, including how to move cautiously when constructing a fort or climbing on large wooden spools to attach ropes to a tree branch. Small loose parts like shells, stones, corks, and craft sticks help them develop their small muscles and hand-eye coordination. Children need ample opportunities to manipulate a range of materials to develop their fine-motor skills. Loose parts also support children’s sense of belonging, their inclusiveness, their willingness to take risks, and their passion—all critical elements in social-emotional development. While these characteristics may be evident as a result of children’s engagement in different school experiences, activities and materials that are diverse, open-ended, and unstructured best nurture children’s social-emotional growth. Marc Armitage assessed the effectiveness of a pilot study in the United Kingdom involving the introduction of loose parts into primary school play yards during lunchtime. The study revealed that providing loose parts significantly enhanced inclusion for all children and helped improve children’s relationships and self-confidence. Additionally, play with loose parts increased children’s collaboration, negotiation skills, risk taking, conflict resolution, communication, and problem solving. Adults reported that children engaged with loose parts were more occupied, had fewer disputes, and had less bad behavior than with the school’s traditional play yard equipment. Interestingly, the study also found that the adults had a better experience with their school day. Any outdoor area would be made more child friendly with monkey bars such as these.

Our experience observing different types of early learning environments also illustrates the influence and impact of loose parts on children’s social competence. One center type consists of typical play equipment: climbing structure, play house, tricycles, balls, and lots of room to run; all appropriate equipment for a center. These environments, however, are mainly dominated by children’s loud arguments, physical aggression, and inappropriate language. The teachers constantly assist with behavior challenges. Many children just run around and do not get involved in any activity, but if they do, they stay for only a brief time. Another center type has outdoor play areas filled with natural loose parts. The children’s quality of play is strikingly different. Children collaborate on using palm fronds for building forts, logs and eucalyptus bark to make enclosures, and tree cookies and rocks in dramatic play. The environment is filled with children’s laughter, invitations to join, shared purpose, and investigation. Teachers spend time in meaningful conversations with children and supporting children’s play. Our conclusion is that loose parts enhance social-emotional growth through deeper play while close-ended materials designed to be used in uniform or prescribed ways limit play potential.Learning to take risks is crucial to young children’s social-emotional development. Julia took a risk when she dragged a wooden plank over to the sandbox and angled it from the sandbox’s edge to the grass. Then she grasped the plank’s edges and pulled herself cautiously up her ramp in a bear walk. She shouted to Stephen, “Hey, don’t come over here, or you’ll be in lava!” Children benefit from taking risks in play; being overprotected can inhibit their development. When working with open-ended materials like loose parts, children take risks in moving their bodies and learning to challenge their own strength and ability. With exercise being so important nowadays, products such as outdoor fitness equipment would be a welcome find in any Christmas stocking, providing you could fit them in!