Loose parts play refers to the use of materials that can moved, put together, taken apart and used in any way children desire. This post is for anyone who wants to bring innovation and creativity into their lessons using inexpensive materials which maximise a child’s development.

Today, I’d like to share what I have learned about loose parts through extensive reading on the topic but mostly through my own teaching experience. I’ve loved the change that this type of activity has brought to my lessons.

So what exactly are loose parts? The term was coined by Simon Nicholson way back in 1971. He was an architect from Britain and the author of an article called “How not to cheat children: The theory of loose parts”. In it he described loose parts as.. “open ended materials that can be used and manipulated in many ways”.

For the Oxforshire Play Association lose parts are “alluring, beautiful found objects and materials that children can move, manipulate, control, and change while they play. In addition, we can define loose parts as objects that a child can combine, redesign, sort, put together or take apart… and here’s the important part, without any specific instructions or interference from an adult. This means that the ways in which children use these materials are only limited by their imagination!

In contrast, toys such plastic fruit, puzzles, toy cars, flashcards, which are wonderful additions to a classroom, would not be considered loose parts. Can you guess why not?

Well, store bought toys like these arrive to the child with a pre-designed purpose. A plastic banana is a plastic banana, and a toy car is a toy car. There is no need to stretch the imagination. However, if you give a child a pile of stones, they can become anything that child can imagine. A piece of cake, a motorbike, a pet, or a flying dragon!

Most teachers have a limited budget to spend on classroom materials, therefore, it is important to make choices that are going to maximise our students’ development. The best thing about loose parts is that they are not expensive items. In fact, many can be collected or found for free.

Here are some ideas of what you can start collecting to build up a wonderful stock of loose parts that can provide hours and hours of developmentally rich play.

So why use loose parts with Young Learners? Here are just a few ideas.

Loose parts encourage creativity.
If you read the research on creativity in early childhood, you will find that most writers agree that creativity is something that can be encouraged or stifled by the school system. Creativity and divergent thinking is also something that is highly valued today in today’s world. Creativity in childhood leads to innovation in adulthood. So, as educators I believe that we have the responsibility to ensure that we are providing and environment that stimulates a child’s creativity. Play is a fundamental aspect of this. Think of the example I gave earlier with the multiple ways that a child might play with a stone. Loose parts play is exactly the type of activity that encourages a child’s imagination, creativity and innovation.

Loose parts develop critical thinking and problem solving.
Lose parts play often encourages children to ask the question “what if”? What if I pile up all of these blocks? What if I turn this into a flower? What if I take this apart? What if I fill this up? Or mix these together? This kind of inquiry leads to investigations, testing hypothesis, analysing results. They help our students become critical thinkers and problem solvers. These are all skills which will need to succeed in the job market in the future.

Loose parts are developmentally inclusive.
Because there is no right and wrong with loose parts play, they can be used successfully by children of all ages, abilities and proficiency levels.

Now that we’ve looked at what loose parts are and why to use them, I’d like to share with you 5 ways in which I’ve been incorporating these materials into my lessons to introduce and practise English. You can download my lesson plans for these ideas.

Ideas to Use Loose Parts to Teach English

Gel balls – Gel balls are a wonderful sensory experience. Children can explore different ways to manipulate them by touching, stirring and pouring. It will help them develop their fine motor skills and hand eye coordination as they use their fingers to try and pick up and sort the balls by colour. These experiences will provide a highly engaging context for them to hear and use vocabulary for talking about colours and counting in English as well as lots of other emergent language.

Collage Faces – Collage materials can provide a wide range of colours and textures for children to explore, stimulating their sense of sight and touch to make endless combinations. Recognizing the unique features of each person’s and observing how we can move our faces to show how we are feeling is a milestone in child development. These experiences will also provide a highly engaging context for them to hear and use vocabulary for talking about vocabulary for talking about the parts of their face and body, feelings, as well as lots of other emergent language.

Making 3D Structures – This classic children’s story is the perfect jump off point for exploring cross-curricular areas. By using different loose parts to build 3d structures and testing their strength against wind forces, the children are developing math, science and problem solving skills as they play.

It’s not a Box– This lesson will stimulate a child’s creativity and provide a wonderful opportunity for emergent language to take center stage. They target vocabulary is anything that they children come up with while they play the game, making the language learned in this lesson more personal and, therefore, most likely more memorable. The story that this lesson was inspired by can also provide a context for teaching or revising more specific language such as proposition of place, verbs and negative sentences.

My Favourite Pizza – In this cross-curricular lesson, the children will get to talk about their favourite pizza toppings and compare them with those of their peers. The foundation concepts of statistics are introduced through learning about surveying, graphing and interpreting results. The use of loose parts in this activity stimulate creativity and provide a hands on way of introducing the target vocabulary.

Further Reading
How Not To Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts by Simon NIcholson
Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly & Miriam Beloglovsky
Not A Box by Antoinette Portis

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