Loose parts play as a pathway for learning
Families and teachers are increasingly interested in how loose parts play-based learning can be introduced to children. Researchers have found that when children engage in high quality play, they extend their social skills, language abilities, identity development, executive function, problem-solving, and academic foundations (Hassinger-Das et al., 2019). These skills, in turn, undrepin lifelong learning and well-being. In fact, according to Hassinger-Das, et al. (2019), play offers the most optimal environment for children to acquire these skills. For these reasons, teachers and parents alike often try to harness ‘play’ as a way to support children’s learning. This is commonly referred to as ‘play-based learning’.
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What is loose parts play, and how does it support learning through play?
Loose parts play involves introducing a variety of open-ended materials to support learning. These objects may include natural objects like sticks and rocks, as well as manufactured items like cardboard boxes and fabric scraps. Children are then free to use their creativity and imagination to move, manipulate, and rearrange the materials in order to create, explore, and solve problems. The versatility of loose parts means that, in order to play with them, children must engage a range of skills, including experimentation, mathematical thinking, sequencing, attention, and executive function.
Loose parts play can also be incorporated into other types of play to enhance and extend children’s learning and development. For example, children may use loose parts to create dolls’ furniture or pretend food during imaginative role play. In turn, this can support the development of language and cognitive skills, particularly those associated with improved literacy and social skills (Stagnitti et al., 2016). Loose parts play can therefore have a multifaceted impact on children’s overall development and learning.
Learning how to play with loose parts
Despite the many benefits of loose parts play, educators often observe that some children show little interest in loose parts, or may struggle to utilise the materials when first introduced. At the same time, adults often feel discouraged from actively helping children with loose parts play. This stems from a belief that ‘real’ play is only ever spontaneous and independent from adult involvement. According to this view, adult involvement somehow ‘contaminates’ play by inhibiting children’s ability to explore, create and use their imagination.
However, the belief that all children automatically know how to play ‘on their own’ is misguided. Play is a learned skill that, like language or sleep, develops over time (Stagnitti et al., 2012). Extending ‘play skills’ often require support from other people. This is likely because play is a skill that gradually becomes more complex and social over time, rather than more independent and isolated.
Educators also need to consider that a child’s past experiences will influence how children engage with loose parts play and play-based learning generally. Trauma, social isolation, neurodevelopmental differences and normal variations across cultures, all influence how children engage (or disengage) with, and make sense of the loose parts presented.
This means that, in order to benefit from loose parts play, many children will need an approach called guided play. Also referred to as ‘purposefully-framed play’ (Edwards & Cutter-Mackenzie, 2013):
guided play “maintains the joyful child-directed aspects of free play but adds an additional focus on learning goals through light adult scaffolding”.(Hassinger-Das et al., 2019)
This type of guided play features two crucial elements: child agency (the child directs the learning) and gentle adult guidance to ensure that the child progresses toward the learning goal. This involvement does not appear to diminish the benefits of play. Rather, the available research suggests that guided play results in higher levels of engagement, more sustained play, and greater depth and breadth of learning (e.g.Fleer, 2019; Hassinger-Das et al., 2019).
How to introduce loose parts with guided play
Guided play is an evidence-informed approach to both introducing and extending children’s loose parts play. This approach avoids directing children by telling them ‘what to do’. It also avoids distracting children with ‘test-based’ questioning (such as “what colour is that?” or “how many?”). Rather, adults can use guided play with strategies that prompt children to take the lead in their own loose parts play, and to gently stretch their engagement.
Provide a variety of loose parts
When children are first introduced to loose parts play, many will engage more easily with a smaller number of materials. However, if you can, include a small variety of natural, recycled and manufactured materials. By offering this sort of variety children can explore and experiment, and are more likely to discover the textures, shapes, weights and sizes that inspire them.
Model how to play with loose parts
When children are first introduced to loose parts play, many will engage more easily with a smaller number of materials. However, if you can, include a variety of natural, recycled and manufactured materials. By offering this sort of variety children can explore and experiment, and are more likely to discover the textures, shapes, weights and sizes that inspire them. Modelling in this way can help spark ideas for children who may not yet know how to relate to, or make sense of, the materials.
Use loose parts play prompts
Play prompts involve offering a challenge or idea that invite children to engage with the material. Ideally, prompts should give children a sense of direction while also allowing them to take the lead and engage with the material in a way that is meaningful to them.
The free downloadable book ‘Ten Days of Beautiful Stuff’ provides ten different examples of guided prompts for loose parts play-based learning. There are two versions of each prompt. The first version offers a problem-focussed challenge or question using imperative language.
The second version uses declarative language, which is often more accessible to some children with neurodivergent thinking or language processing styles. Declarative language is also often easier for early language speakers as well as children who have a high autonomy drive.
These prompts can be used in a variety of ways. For example, they can printed on A4 paper or cardstock and cut out. They can then be provided to children as a daily challenge. Alternatively, children can choose their own prompts to generate ideas for loose parts play. Or, educators and children alike can use these prompts to spark their own ideas, challenges and prompts for guiding loose parts play.