Loose Parts in the Primary Classroom

Loose Parts in the Primary Classroom

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The term ‘loose parts’ refers to the resources used to support learning and teaching through play. Identified as ‘variables’ by Simon Nicholson (1978), loose parts are any items children can use in their play that can be moved, manipulated, combined with other loose parts, or unpredictable in their use (Armitage, 2021). These loose parts can include but are not limited to:

  • natural resources (shells, sticks, feathers, rocks, mud, and sand)
  • recyclable or repurposed resources (fabric, electrical wire, pipes, bearings, broken appliances)
  • commercial toys (Lego, sports equipment, marble runs, wooden blocks, Play-Doh)
  • real-world resources (spades, shovels, hammers, power tools, porcelain tea sets)
  • large parts (planks of wood, tyres, chairs, ladders, rope)

Loose parts are also important to embedding environmentally sustainable approaches into play (Casey & Robertson, 2017). The reuse and recycling of unwanted home, trade, and business scrap encourage the wider school community to engage in and build awareness of environmentally friendly behaviours. In return, the variety of often unusual donated loose parts stimulates children’s creativity and innovation in their play.

Why loose parts?

Loose parts contribute to rich learning environments that are dynamic and easily manipulated by children to enable them to invent, construct, tinker, and to play. Play spaces that remain static or unchanging do not support the development of children’s ownership of the environment. When children feel a sense of ownership of their environment, they are likely to be more engaged and motivated to explore further in their play. By providing the opportunity for play spaces to change, teachers can respond quickly to these learning opportunities as they arise within the play. There is a significant body of evidence (Hyndman, Benson, Ullah & Tellford, 2014) supporting the benefits of playing with loose parts. These include:

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  • increased rates of physical activity
  • increased rates of social and cooperative play
  • increased levels of creative and imaginative play
  • higher rates of communication and negotiation skills with peers when used in an outdoor space (Maxwell, Mitchell & Evans, 2008)
  • a range of curriculum learning outcomes

When children are presented with junk and loose parts, they engage with a learning environment that is variable, flexible, and adaptable. This promotes creativity, innovation, and cognitive ability through social connection and creating and solving problems. When using loose parts in play, children are required to reach consensus and agreement with their peers about how these loose parts will be used in the play. They engage in high levels of social connection as they enter into explanation and negotiation around the use of loose parts. Where children do not agree, teachers can support the children to work through a disagreement to reach a favorable outcome so that their play can progress further. A well-resourced play environment with a wide variety of small and large loose parts also enables children to develop a wide range of complex skills, from fine and gross motor skills through to higher executive function skills such as planning and prioritising, task initiation, and flexible thinking (Hyndman et al., 2014).

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An example of loose parts play

Dan, Lucas, Sam, and Oscar were observed playing with a mixture of large and small loose parts directly outside the classroom on the deck. These included some small tyres, planks of wood, buckets, pipes, funnels, marbles, thread cones and counters. Sam and Oscar suggested they build a tall structure, like a tower, and began placing the pipes and planks of wood together in a criss-cross manner. Dan and Lucas contributed to the construction and talk began of ‘blasting off’ into space, and how the structure resembled a rocket ship. The pipes were transformed into fuel lines for the rocket ship, and the buckets repurposed to collect the marbles and counters, which were reimagined as the ‘fuel’ by being run down the pipes. Oscar had an idea to create a seat in the rocket ship, but did not communicate this with his peers, instead choosing to begin moving parts in the ship without their knowledge. A heated discussion ensued, and Oscar needed to explain his idea at length before the others understood and accepted his suggestions. Oscar found a lid from a rubbish bin and showed the others that this would be a useful steering wheel for his rocket ship. As the others began to visualise Oscar’s idea, consensus was reached and more ideas grew, with other loose parts (bottle tops, buttons, counters etc) being added to the rocket ship as the ‘control panel’. Eventually, three of the players managed to fit inside the rocket ship, with one working the fuel lines on the outside, at the instruction of the space ‘crew’.

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The play described above is an example of the way in which children regularly interact with small and large loose parts, and how the creative process unfolds because of the materials’ unpredictable nature. In this play, the children were able to draw on their knowledge of space and rockets, and develop, discuss and share ideas with each other to reach a consensus about their play. They then problem-solved the use and adaptation of these resources for their play needs. They were able to enter a world of fantasy play, building on a narrative and using their existing knowledge as well as their imagination to create a rocket ship. They used oral language skills to share this imaginative vision, and Oscar learned the importance of communicating his ideas clearly so that his peers could understand his desire to create a seat in the ship. Because the motivation and engagement were so high, when disagreement occurred, they were able to work through this in order to stay focused on their intended play outcome.

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The example above describes a situation in which children draw on existing knowledge, in combination with access to loose parts, to create and explore their ideas and knowledge in their play. Loose parts are also useful in introducing new knowledge to children as they play. Teachers can introduce unusual loose parts, in combination with other resources such as books, videos, or artifacts, to motivate children to engage in new learning. This approach is commonly recognised as providing an invitation to play (Haughey & Hill, 2017) with loose parts. For example, teachers can introduce the idea of fossils and archaeology to children who have a strong interest in digging in the sandpit, by burying different unusual and odd loose parts in the sandpit for children to find. Once the treasures have been located, the teacher can support the children interested in investigating what these objects might be, how they might be dug up carefully, and what the job of an archaeologist may involve. While children are continuing to dig, the teacher would draw upon new loose parts, in combination with other appropriate teaching resources, to introduce new learning to the students as they play.

Loose Parts in School

Schools that integrate play pedagogy into their daily classroom timetables should ensure students have access to small and large loose parts consistently during the times they are able to engage in play. The wider the variety and accessibility of loose parts in the classroom environment, the more creative and innovative students will be in their play. When children have the freedom to use resources that have no prescribed agenda, they will modify the resource for the specific need they have in their play.

To ensure there is a wide variety of loose parts readily available for play, teachers will need to carefully consider how to select these resources for the play environment, how to gather them, and how to store them when not in use. When play is occurring during class time, students should have access to loose parts, both inside and outside the classroom. If possible, loose parts are a useful addition to morning tea and lunchtime play. However, the decision to have large loose parts available during the shared play breaks is an individual one, as schools need to develop clear systems for the management of shared resources, including who is responsible for returning them to their stored location, and the management of any breakages or misuse of the resources. It is important to ensure students are taught to respect loose parts as a school and/or classroom resource, not unlike school PE or classroom learning equipment. This ensures fewer loose parts are misused, damaged, or broken during play.

Loose parts are, by design, multipurpose and multi-use resources. Therefore, there is no need to differentiate types of loose parts and different age levels of students engaged in play at school. When children first begin school, the way in which they use the loose parts will reflect their developmental level of play and play schema. As children mature, they find new and different ways with which to engage with often the same loose parts that their younger peers also have in their classrooms. Teachers of senior students should be encouraged to continue to offer a wide variety of loose parts that support their students’ schema and interests and observe the different ways older students use these multipurpose and open-ended resources.

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Selection of loose parts for the play environment

Teaching through play requires teachers to make strategic decisions about the use of the learning environment. Before selecting loose parts and preparing the learning environment for play, it is important to observe the children in the classroom and at play to gather information related to the types of play occurring in the environment, students’ own interests, and student schema (commonly referred to as play urges) (Brownlee & Crisp, 2016). For example, if students demonstrate an interest in constructing forts or huts outside, teachers can use this information to inform what and how they will resource this play. They may provide large building loose parts, such as planks, rope, pallets, tyres, ladders, and blankets. Students who engage in exploratory play or demonstrate a digging schema might be supplied with real (as opposed to plastic) shovels and spades and a variety of loose parts to dig up or bury in the sandpit.

A useful resource that links the provision of loose parts with observed schematic thinking can be found here. The benefit of using loose parts is that they can be incorporated into a variety of types of play and in response to many different schemas demonstrated in play. The following items might form a basic loose parts resource kit to enable play to occur. From here, through observation, teachers can add varied loose parts as students have more opportunity to engage in play in the classroom setting.

Small loose parts Large loose parts
wooden blocks large wooden planks or pallets
material/fabric tarpaulin or large sheets/blankets
handbags, scarves, shoes, hats, belts tyres
clothes pegs, cable ties cardboard boxes
shells, acorns, sticks, rocks cardboard tubes
play-doh, clay or similar PVC pipes
small cardboard tubes, pipes

buckets, large containers for water/sand/mud

dinosaurs, animals, cars, soft toys shovels/spades
small containers, spoons, trays

 

Gathering loose parts

Loose parts differ from traditional ways of resourcing learning at school. Given that many loose parts can be donated or collected for free from the wider community, the only significant barrier to providing plentiful and varied loose parts is the amount of time teachers have to spend in gathering these resources. Here are some tips for engaging the community and students to better understand and provide these resources for play:

  • Share photos or videos to school newsletters or social media to inform parents about what loose parts are, and how students will use loose parts during their play.
  • Set up an area at school where donations can be dropped. This should be an area away from children so that any donations can be inspected and prepared prior to including them in the learning environment.
  • Contact local trade companies such as builders, plumbers, and electricians and discuss how they could donate offcuts of material or unwanted supplies to the school (rather than incurring a cost to dispose of them).
  • Plan for one or two afternoons a term, where a ‘staff loose parts hunt’ is organised in lieu of a staff or team meeting. Make this a fun event, perhaps offering prizes or an incentive for staff to find the most unusual or weirdest loose part to include in school supplies.

Bear in mind that the resources tend to become worn or at times broken, so the gathering of loose parts will be an ongoing process. Schools need to ensure they have a plan for how they will initially gather and then monitor and replenish these resources to ensure they remain fresh and interesting for students in their play.

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Storage

Loose parts must be easily accessed and managed by students as necessary in their play so, where possible, they must be readily available as play unfolds. When not in use, loose parts can be stored as small and large resources in designated areas. It is not recommended to invest time in separating and storing resources in boxes according to the theme as it can add extra organisational time, and often adult themes do not match those of student play. Here are some useful tips for storing loose parts when they are not in use:

  • Use lidded boxes for small loose parts that are not easily broken. These lidded boxes can be stacked and moved to a classroom wall. When needed, they can be placed in the centre of the room with the lid off and attention is drawn to their availability for play.
  • Store breakable resources (such as tea sets) or commercial resources that need to be grouped (such as Lego or Marble Runs) in an area where children can easily access them. Consider having these at eye height or lower in the classroom.
  • Large loose parts such as cardboard tubes and PVC pipes can be stored upright in garden wheelie bins. These bins do not take up significant floor space and can be wheeled inside or out depending on where they are needed for play.
  • Large loose parts such as tyres, pallets, and other such large equipment can be stored outside (if safe to do so) or in a purpose-built shed. Many schools are now investing in shipping containers or garden sheds to house large loose parts that can be locked away after school hours.
  • Trolleys or old suitcases are useful to transport large loose parts from their storage area to where they are needed in the play. Teachers can assign this responsibility for setting up and packing up the play environment to older students where appropriate.

Summary

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The provision of suitable resources for students to use in their play is a critical decision facing teachers wishing to support increased opportunities for play at school. The quality of the play resources correlates with the subsequent quality of play observed in the learning environment. Teachers will be making decisions about how they resource their environment on a daily basis, in response to the learning needs they observe in their students’ play. To assist with this decision-making, schools are encouraged to draw on their wider community to support the provisioning of small and large loose parts and to help build understanding around the power of loose parts in the play process. Careful storage and management of the loose parts need to be considered, taught, and consistently reinforced in order to preserve the quality of the loose parts in the environment. Furthermore, the ongoing resourcing of loose parts involves an investment of time by teachers that requires careful planning and support to ensure the resourcing of play does not become an insurmountable barrier to quality play pedagogy.

References

Armitage, M. (2021). The ugly side of loose parts [Webinar Presentation]. Melbourne, Australia: Malarkey Playwork.

Brownlee, P., & Crisp, K. (2016). The sacred urge to play. New Zealand: Good Egg Books.

Casey, T., & Robertson, J. (2017). Loose parts play: A toolkit. Edinburgh: Inspiring Scotland. Retrieved from: https://www.inspiringscotland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Loose-Parts-Play-web.pdf

Haughey, S., & Hill, N. (2017). Provocations: A start-up guide. Fairy Dust Teaching.  Retrieved from: https://www.mlfmonde.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/ProvocationsStart-UpGuide-1.pdf

Hyndman, B., Benson, A.C., Ullah, S., & Tellford, A. (2014). Evaluating the effects of the Lunchtime Enjoyment Activity and Play (LEAP) school playground intervention on children’s quality of life, enjoyment and participation in physical activity.  BMC Public Health, 14(1), 164-180.

Maxwell, L.E., Mitchell, M.R., & Evans, G.W. (2008). Effects of play equipment and loose parts on preschool children’s outdoor play behavior: An observational study and design intervention.  Children, Youth and Environments, 18(2), 36-63.

Nicholson, S. (1978). How not to cheat children: The theory of loose parts.  Landscape Architecture, 62, 30-34.