Loose parts play refers to the use of materials that can moved, put together, taken apart and used in any way children desire. In this post, 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. If you want to encourage innovation and creativity using inexpensive materials which maximise a child’s development, keep reading!

So what exactly are loose parts?

Simon Nicholson coined the term “loose parts” 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 Daly & Beloglovsky (2015), loose parts are…

“alluring, beautiful found objects and materials that children can move, manipulate, control, and change while they play”.

(From Loose Parts: Inspiritng Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky)

We can also describe 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.

The best thing about loose parts is that they are not expensive items. In fact, many can be collected or found for free. To help you get started, we’ve put together an ebook with everything you need to build up a wonderful collection of loose parts that can provide hours and hours of developmentally rich play.

Sign up for our community email and get our FREE ebook: Getting Started with Loose Parts.

3 reasons why you should use loose parts with Young Learners.

They encourage creativity.

Unlike most traditional toys, that arrive to the child with a pre-designed purpose, loose parts don’t have a specific function, purpose or goal. They are open ended materials that children can move, carry, combine, redesign, take apart and put back together in multiple ways 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!

They develop critical thinking and problem solving.

Loose 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 investigation, testing hypothesis, analysing results. They help our students become critical thinkers and problem solvers.

They are developmentally inclusive.

Inclusive classrooms are welcoming and support the diverse academic, social, emotional, and communication needs of all students. 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.

3 Ways to use Loose Parts to teach English!

Now that we’ve looked at what loose parts are and why to use them, I’d like to share with you 3 ways in which I’ve been incorporating these materials into my lessons to introduce and practise English.

Sensory play with gel balls to teach colors and counting.

Gel balls are a wonderful sensory experience. Children can explore different ways to manipulate them by touching, stirring, pouring and sorting with their fingers or a selection of tools. 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.

Teacher-Led Activity: Sitting in a circle, show the children what the gel balls look like before they are soaked in water. Pour in some water and then bring out the balls that you put to soak a few hours before the lesson. Pass a few around the circle, allowing them time to see and feel them up close as you elicit the names of the different colors. As a group, sort them by colour into the different cups.

Free-Play Time: Set up trays, cups, spoons, scoops, funnels and other tools so that the children can play freely with the gel balls. Monitor and encourage them to sort, compare, count and describe what they are doing as they play.

Recycled materials to teach parts of the face and feelings.

Recycled loose parts materials such as bottle tops, shells, keys and pom-poms can provide a wide range of colours and textures for children to explore, stimulating their sense of sight and touch to make endless combinations. We can use this activity to introduce or review language for talking about parts of their face and body, feelings, as well as lots of other emergent language.

Teacher-Led Activity: Sit in a circle and bring out a hand-held mirror. Pass it around the circle to let the children turns looking in it and examining their faces. Show them how you can express different feelings with your face and elicit the or teach the new vocabulary. Bring out the tray of loose parts materials you prepared earlier and model how you can use them to make a face. Ask them to guess if the face you have made is happy or sad.

Free-Play Time: Set up tables with trays of loose parts and mirrors for each child to play with. Encourage them to use the materials to make make faces but they should be free to make what they want! Monitor and interact without directing their play. Try to elicit the target language naturally as you ask them questions.

STEM Learning and the Three Little Pigs

The 3 Little Pigs is a classic children’s story and the perfect jump off point for exploring cross-curricular learning. 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.

Teacher-led activity: Sitting down in a circle, show the children the different materials and elicit/teach the vocabulary. Point to the picture of the house of sticks in the book and then the craft sticks. Get them to choose another material that they can combine with the craft sticks to make a house. Build a quick house-like structure. “Ask Is it strong?”. Nominate someone to be the Big Bad Wolf and try to blow it over. Discuss ways of making the house stronger.

Free-play Time: Now, set up tables with loose parts such as craft sticks, blocks and straws. Let the children experiment and play with the different materials, combining them in any way they choose. Have them test the strength of the structure against the Big Bad Wolf. Encourage them to recite the famous lines from the story “Little Pig , little pig, let me in”…etc. Provide lots of language input while they play, asking questions to elicit the key language that emerged during the Teacher-led activity.

Further Reading

  • Loose Parts Manual – The DIY Guide to Creating a Playground In a Box by Morgan Leichter-Saxby and Suzanna Law
  • Loose Parts: A Start Up Guide by Sally Haughey and Nicole Hill
  • Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky
  • 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


  • Claire Venables is a qualified English teacher who has been dedicated to ELT since 2001. After a decade in Spain, she moved to Brazil in 2011 where she has worked in the creation and implementation of bilingual programs in schools, the development of teacher development courses, as a national and international speaker, materials writer, active member of the National Association of Teachers of English (BRAZ-TESOL). Despite her wide-ranging experience, she is and always will be most passionate about teaching children.