This blog post was contributed by Hilde Stroobants (UCLL, Belgium).
You have probably come across images of loose parts via social media groups and pages that boast wonderful pictures of intricate constructions and balanced mandalas, coined together with pretty loose parts. Loose parts are becoming popular elements in early childhood settings for a variety of reasons; one of them: to offer developmentally appropriate practice.
What are loose parts?
Loose parts are open-ended materials that are sufficiently attractive to children and invite limitless possibilities of manipulation and interaction. Sticks for tapping, drumming, rolling, aiming and throwing, drawing in the sand, building a camp, swinging in a sword fight and using as a broomstick or a flagpole. Wooden discs for stacking, sliding, and pretend cooking. All kinds of blocks or boxes for sorting and counting and lining up and for hiding behind. Sturdy cardboard tubes for rolling and sliding things through, for looking or listening through, for hiding things in and for waving as extensions of your arms. Glass pebbles for running your hands through while enjoying the sound and sight and the feeling of the cool pebbles slip-sliding over your hands; but also for jewels to decorate the intricate constructions you and your friends have just built. In short: any material that can be used for a wide range of purposes and that is sufficiently attractive to be picked up and manipulated by children again and again can be a loose part. In that sense, sensory materials like sand, clay, mud, water, and even light and wind can be loose parts as well.
Is this Loose Parts Play?
The children have been decorating large drawings of Christmas trees with bottle caps and glass pebbles. “I drew the trees on the chalkboard, and they decorate them as they pleased. Is this still loose parts play?”, asks the teacher. Carla Gull (2019) writes that “loose parts play includes exploration, experimentation, and creative, imaginative, and playful interactions with all kinds of variables. In loose parts play, children have the freedom to explore and combine materials, and react to complex themes and ideas that emerge in the early childhood setting.” There is a continuum between, on the one hand, teacher directed tree decoration in which a visual template or verbal instructions from the teacher direct the form the decoration will take and, on the other hand, child directed decoration that starts from the children’s interest in decorating the tree, choosing the materials with which they will decorate, the places where the decoration is placed, and when the decoration is ‘finished’. The more direction is in the hands of the child, the more we can define their activity as ‘play’.
Why loose parts play as a part of developmentally appropriate practice?
Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood does not only consider children’s age, but also the context and culture in which they grow up. In child-directed loose parts play, children meet the materials from their own developmental position.
In the block area, Charles, Mehran, and Bianca have tipped over a large tub of multi-coloured blocks. Charles is building a sturdy stable for the play horses while Mehran stacks towers. He’s building a castle, he says. Bianca collects some small green and yellow rectangular slabs and starts lining up a path in the pattern of 1 green, 1 yellow, … there are clearly more yellow slabs and soon she rearranges the slabs in a new pattern: 2 yellow, 1 green. This will allow for a longer path. When she runs out of green rectangles, she looks around in the block area. She pics up two green squares, moves over to Charles and asks if he will swap one green rectangle for the two squares. Charles is not sure. Bianca shows how the two squares are a perfect fit for the slot where the coveted rectangle is lodged. She helps Charles dislodge the rectangle; they make the swap; and each goes back to their own play.
If we observe carefully, loose parts play can make children’s different schemas, interests, abilities, and questions visible. Are they lining up, counting, sorting, stacking, constructing, patterning, …? Schemas tell us something about the insights children are developing. Are they exploring or experimenting? Do we recognize hypotheses, do they express a particular interest in a certain content, can they negotiate, do they persist, …? These questions help us get a grasp of where children are in their development. And, whatever the goal, we need to start from where they are, not from where we wish them to be.
What is our task in Loose Parts Play?
Meeting children where they are, is essential, but no good teacher simply leaves them there (NAEYC, 2009). That is why, in settings with developmentally appropriate loose parts play, adults provide loose parts and make them accessible and available. They support children’s initiatives and inquiry. They make sure children can explore and discover new insights. They look for opportunities to broaden and deepen the learning, while allowing for open-ended play and prompting meaningful connections and experiences (Gull et al., 2019). In other words: adults facilitate learning and development, without forcing them onto the child.
“A number of factors in the emotional and social domain, such as independence, responsibility, self-regulation, and cooperation, predict how well children make the transition to school and how they fare in the early grades” (NAEYC, 2009). Children who engage in self-directed loose parts play practice independence, responsibility, self-regulation, and cooperation. Carla Gull (2019) further states that “through loose parts exploration children develop imagination, creativity, and collaborative skills. The process is more important than the end product, fostering overall growth and development.”
When the toddlers in Miss Janice’s room are engrossed in filling and emptying pots and buckets of water in the water table, Janice makes sure they have access to a variety of interesting pots, pans, sieves, and funnels. Over the following days, children become more familiar with the concepts of full, almost full, empty, more and less, … When Janice adds a stand with a funnel that is attached to a transparent tube, some of the children become intrigued by the flow of the water. For them, the funnel and tube lead to a new inquiry into trajectory: where does the water go? Some of the toddlers start to understand that a downward slope leads the water down, and that when three of them together pour water in the funnel, the funnel overflows. Also, that they can point the ending of the tube in different directions and that the water makes other pots and pans move in the water table. Shrieking and giggling, they point out their findings to the others in the room. After a good bit of excited exploration with the funnel and tube, further experimentation follows. One of the children tries to stop the water from flowing down. This again leads to new discoveries and questions, deepening the learning about trajectories and the force of water. The child that has lived the implications and difficulties of aiming and stopping the flow, will later understand the workings of taps, sluices, and dams, … with an inherently practical insight that the non-experienced child will have difficulty to muster.
All the domains of development and learning – physical, social and emotional, and cognitive – are important, and they are closely interrelated (NAEYC, 2009). In loose parts play, children’s development and learning in one domain will influence and be influenced by what takes place in other domains. Teachers with developmentally appropriate practices notice these signs of development and build on them to create chances for further learning. It is what we call building a zone of proximal development.
Stories of the block area and the water table are based on observations that I made during visits at practice placements of UCLL Early Childhood Education Teacher Education students. Names of teachers and children have been changed.
Gull, C., Bogunovich, J., Goldstein, S. L., & Rosengarten, T. (2019). Definitions of Loose Parts in Early Childhood Outdoor Classrooms: A Scoping Review. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 6(3), 37-52.
Gull, C. (2017). The theory of loose parts [Blog post]. Retrieved from: http://insideoutsidemichiana.blogspot.com/2017/09/the-theory-of-loose-parts.html
NAEYC. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved from: https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/PSDAP.pdf