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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Principles for Loose Parts PLAY - young children

The reason why I specify young children for this principles for Loose Parts Play is that I think it differs from how older children will use loose parts when it comes, mostly, to our adult way of thinking, and teaching. There is a separate blogpost for Principles for Loose Parts Teaching - which you can read here, which repeats much of what is written in this post but extends the thinking to the teaching part. But I wanted a space that just focuses on the play. Learning can happen in play (and when curating spaces I think it's fine/important that we think about that) but adult teaching and instruction does not belong in play... because the moment we do, we transform it into something else. And while I think it's important to interact and guide and teach children - it is vital we don't confuse joyful, play-like teaching for play.

anyway... here come what I feel are/should be the principles for creating spaces for loose-parts play.

  1. Curating the stuff.

  2. Being open to the possibilities

  3. Involve the children

  4. Create Safe and Brave Space

  5. Sense-making, Meaning-Making and World-making

  6. Sustainable

Curating the Stuff.

The thinking behind the loose parts - what to make available, what kind of combinations. Taking into consideration

  • The ease of using the stuff - how challenging do we want to make it? How accessible is it? Is it manageable for all the children, or does it exclude some? Can it be used individually, or does it require teamwork? Is the difficulty multi-levelled?

  • Sensory - how does it feel, smell, sound, look and taste (is it safe to put in the mouth)? Does it provide opportunities for heuristic exploration?

  • Connection - how do the parts connect with each other. Do they enhance the possibilities exponentially? What is the construction-ability and creative potential? check out the word "affordances" at the end of this post)

  • Beauty - how do the parts add to the aesthetic of the space? Is it an adult, child or play aesthetic? And how do these differ and overlap, limit or permit?

  • Are the parts respectful - have we considered stereotypes and appropriation to ensure that what we provide is non-oppressive, non-offensive while at the same time subverting ableist mindset (yes mindset here… we strive for mindflex - an openness that understands and accepts everyone)

  • Activation - do the parts activate the whole body, both gross and fine motor skills.

  • Nature - do the parts allow the children to connect with nature, and build a positive relationship with the natural world that we are a part of, rather than nature being an endless resource for us to use as we will?

  • Ephemeral - utilising loose parts that are temporary like water, snow, shadows, light and rainbows.

  • Interest - do the parts enable the children to use their interests to motivate their play?

  • Flexibility - can the parts be used indoors and outdoors? Or have equivalents that can enable children to continue their play in both environments.

  • Meaningful and relevant - are the parts connected to the context of the children? Do they allow the children to explore meaningful, real world issues that feel important to them, or that, through teaching, expose them to experiences so they can explore themselves when at play?

Being Open to the Possibilities

Our own adult attitude has a massive impact on what parts we select and how the children may use them.

  • If we are overly imbued with pedagogy then there is a risk that loose parts become a teaching tool with specific ways to use them, rather than the intended open and creative play opportunities.

  • If we are overly imbued with a sense of danger then there is a risk that loose parts become seen as dangerous and restrictions are put upon them.

  • If we are overly imbued with a sense of tidyness then there is a risk that loose parts are seen as messy and chaotic and restrictions on how the children may play with them are made.

  • If we are overly imbued with a sense of getting it right then there is a risk that the children’s creative use of them is impinged by the fear of them doing it wrong, or the teacher thinking it needs to be done in a certain way.

Being open to the possibilities means enhancing our observation skills to see how the children are using the parts in order to understand better how to curate the loose parts (see above points). In Original Learning I advocate educators taking on three roles - teacher, facilitator and playworker - all three roles can engage with loose parts. As playworker we only intervene to ensure safety (and we need to really work with our own personal fears and bias about adventurous play here) and also strives to avoid interfering. Much of the playworker role is observing to understand the children’s autonomous play. At times we will engage as facilitators - playing with the children with the loose parts, offering bits of advice to ensure all children can access the play, and to scaffold children when needed. As teachers we can use the loose parts in the adult-led activities. What I feel is important is that there is adequate time for children to be autonomous with the loose parts.

Involving the Children

Listening to the children and asking for their opinions about the set up of the indoor and outdoor space is important. Listening can be through observations of their play, and then discussing together the documentation and what the children feel might enhance their play, or what was causing it to be problematic (not enough parts, too many parts, the wrong parts, the wrong space etc) and contributing to ideas of how to solve it. The children can be involved in collecting materials - recycled stuff from home etc. As well as thinking about which spaces will work best for different kinds of loose parts play (role play, construction, experiments, risky play etc).

Create Safe and Brave Spaces

To be able to play and learn every child needs to feel safe and brave. This means optimal loose parts play is found in environments where the children feel cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically safe. Helping children communicate their needs, listening to understand, and having the courage to test things out are vital for all kinds of play, including with loose parts.

To feel free and brave to experiment and explore with the loose parts children need to feel they have permission from the adults, that they know they will receive encouragement rather than reprimand.

It also means that for children involved in destructive loose parts play get the support and understanding they need so that they are not being corrected, but that their play development is scaffolded without compromising safety and well-being of others (see my post Destructive Play)

The spaces should be inside and outside with a variety of surfaces - height, texture, sloping, access to water etc that can add to the complexity of the play (difficulty of constructing, the rolling of materials down stuff, dropping stuff from heights, floating, sinking, pouring etc). There should also be adequate space for big play like throwing, spinning, swinging, crashing, speeding, rolling etc.

Spaces that allow for mess without stress are also important to create a freedom for play exploration.

Sense-making, Meaning-making and World-making.

The loose parts that we curate should enable the children to make sense of their world, to express opinions and ideas, as well as imagine possibilities. Here the pedagogy flows freely within the children’s play. And if we observe, we will notice what the children are curious about, what they already know, how they express themselves, what skills and knowledge they need to enable them to discover more and express themselves easier - that is when we can design teacher led activities using loose parts to enhance this process.

The children’s play, when it is their autonomous play, is always relevant and meaningful to them. As play responsive educators this is what we should be striving towards in our teaching too - meaningful, relevant and joy-filled learning activities.


We should always be asking ourselves about the sustainability of the loose parts that we are curating. What do we already have? What can we find that can be upcycled and re-used? When purchasing new items we need to consider

  • how does the part enhance and connect with the things we already have

  • how is it made (how much energy, what kind of materials, are they sustainably sourced?)

  • where is it made - trying to source as much locally to reduce transportation

  • can it be recycled, re-used, upcycled etc?

  • do we really need it?

Sustainability is economic, social and ecological. It is the combination of all three. Sometimes being fully ecological is simply not affordable, so we do the best we can. Sometimes we make choices. But as I wrote in my book, The Original Learning Approach,

“The richness comes from what the materials afford, not what you can afford”

So looking at the affordance of the loose parts is a good way to evaluate the possibilities for play.

Affordance: the quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used. For example a chair is something that we sit or stand on because those affordances are fairly obvious (once we have learned to sit that is… chairs are no use for sitting for babies!!), but chairs can be used in other ways too… to prop a door open, as a table, a hiding place, something to throw, to push (I have seen soooo many toddlers do this!!) - it can be put on its side, or upside down and new possibilities can open up - maybe as a pretend spaceship or boat. If mixed with other materials like fabric it could become a fort, with imagination to escape the lava etc. Affordances can be obvious and less obvious, but also desirable and less desirable depending on the situation. Throwing chairs might be undesirable in a classroom, but if it protects you from being attacked it is suddenly useful. So context is also important.

From a sustainability point of view, selecting items that together exponentially increase the affordances is a smart approach. Just having lots of stuff doesn’t guarantee that you increase the number of affordances, it might just increase the number of items to do the same number of things with.

This is why it is important to reflect on how we curate the stuff. Which brings us back to the beginning

This post was inspired by Carla Gull’s post on loose parts which she created rooted firmly in Nicholson’s theory of loose parts (the link to his work is available in her blog post which you can find here).

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