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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Principles for Loose Parts TEACHING - young children

This extends my thinking about loose parts play to how loose parts can be incorporated into our teaching as well. Teaching and Play are two different threads. Play is the warp thread that we weave teaching in (the weft thread) - play and learning can occur in both the warp and weft threads of Original Learning, but teaching only exists in the weft threads.

Here are the principles... which at the end of this post I revise...

  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

  7. Didactics

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 it multi-levelled?

  • Sensory - how does it feel, smell, sound, look and taste (and 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 later in 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 and/or permit?

  • Are the parts respectful - we have 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 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 reciprocally with nature?

  • Ephemeral - utilising 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 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 so they can explore themselves at play?

  • Pedagogy - how do the parts enable the children to learn various concepts. Do we have options for the children to notice weight, density, size, (whole, half, quarter etc), gravity, floating, sinking, and other verbs connected to maths and the natural sciences. Do they provide opportunities for art making, design, story-telling and communicating ideas and opinions, language development etc.

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 the playworker role 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.

In our teaching roles we can use the loose parts to tell stories with, to demonstrate science activities, as part of maths lessons etc. This might enable us to make the lessons/teacher directed activities more enjoyable and/or more concrete (understandable), but it is not play regardless of how fun it is, and it doesn’t matter how many loose parts we use we cannot convert our teaching into play. Our aim is to create a learning flow, which can feel almost as pleasurable as play flow - and as the children slip into learning flow we can become facilitators to sustain it. If we are lucky the children (some or all) take it into play, and then we take on the role of playworker and strive to not interfere.

As an educator we can support play and learning flow by adding loose parts to the periphery of the play/learning. Without interfering we have added an extension/possibility or new direction to the play that the children can choose to use or not - in the expected/anticipated way or not. If we inform the children of the part, or how to use it, we have moved back into our facilitator or teacher roles depending on how we communicate or demonstrate.

Involving the Children

Listening to the children and asking for their advice 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).

Part of our teaching time should be reflection time with the children. Creating a forum where children feel safe and brave to participate. Some children might be quiet in larger groups, but are full of ideas and opinions, so finding a variety of opportunities to be involved is important.

Teaching the skills children need to be involved is also important.

  • How to self regulate, to listen to the ideas of others

  • How to articulate ideas (help with language)

  • How to think critically and creatively

  • How to respond to critique/feedback from others

  • How to give critique/feedback rather than criticise (and I have found young children are capable of doing this as part of discussions where we have created a space for not always having to agree with each other, but that listening to understand is more important)

  • Providing knowledge and experiences need to make informed decisions.

  • Time to practise

  • Opportunities to create a community of learners rooted in trust and care.

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 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.

As teachers it is our responsibility to ensure that children feel not only safe, but also brave. It is the teacher's responsibility to always be kind, and allow the children to practise being kind. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create environments of belonging through the design of the physical spaces as well as the social and emotional space.

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 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.

Our time for teaching should be about providing the information, facts and time for skill-building that children need in their play, and to make sense of the world, express their opinions about the world, and to imagine a future/possible (or impossible) world and their role in it. We curate the loose parts for this, as well as teaching children about multiple uses, different perspectives and a variety of techniques so that children do not align themselves with the idea that there is only one way to do everything, that making mistakes is a bad thing to avoid rather than a part of process of learning and creativity, and that changing your mind is a sign of weakness rather than a natural occurrence when finding out new information, assessing it and changing your mind if that makes most sense to you.

The openness of loose parts can offer opportunities for you to do this. Through play, activities and dialogues with and about them.


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. We sit or stand on a chair 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 if we begin to use/play with it… 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.

It is also important we talk to children about the sustainability of the parts we are using, and the choices we are making. Discussing topics such as why we don’t collect every acorn that has fallen from the tree, and how the acorns are a part of the ecosystem that we belong to too. That we can both negatively and positively impact our own ecosystem through our choices, actions and awareness.


I use this word in its European sense - yes, depending on where you are in the world this word has a completely different feel - in the English speaking way of interpreting it - didactic is about instruction, and does not feel very positive at all.

But from a European interpretation it refers to the




Of teaching and pedagogy.

And I think these are very important questions when thinking about teaching with loose parts. We should reflect:

  • What are we using/offering? What affordances do they offer? What are the possible outcomes? What are the possible risks? What are the benefits? What are they dangers? What rules/guidelines are needed for the activity?

  • How do the loose parts support/scaffold/enhance the learning? How did the activity work - as expected or not? How did the children use the parts? How do I need to support/scaffold the children so they can all participate safely and bravely? How are the parts dangerous? How do the loose parts benefit the children? How can I minimise risk without compromising the adventure/wonder/curiosity?

  • Why do the loose parts support/scaffold/enhance learning? Why do we use these parts and not other parts? Why this combination? Why did it work as expected? Why didn’t it work as expected? Why did the children use them in this way? Why did I consider the parts dangerous?

Then we should analyse. What is the significance of these loose parts in the children’s learning and the way they use them, and how it impacts their play, learning and development?

And make plans - is there a need for more self regulation practice, thinking about consent, access to facts and stories, different/more/less loose parts, or maybe the group should be smaller, larger, or a different space (inside/outside/excursion) to be able to enhance, extend or provide more time for repetition or going back to basics.

These reflections will help you design for the children’s autonomous play - the materials, the space, the time, the permission; as well as future plans as both teacher and facilitator roles - what books to read, what places to visit, what activities to offer, what materials to source, what facts to share, what skills to practise, what emotions to self regulate, what adventures and challenges are appropriate etc. (and then the how and the why)

Loose parts are so much more complex than having a bunch of stuff on shelves. They require an educator to be

  • brave to overcome some/all of their fears that unnecessarily limit children’s play and learning

  • unhurried so that adult agendas don’t prevent the real learning from unfolding

  • open to see all the possibilities, affordances, benefits and risks and know how to connect this to the pedagogy

  • competent at doing balanced benefit/risk assessments so that it is as safe as necessary without compromising the adventure or the child’s ability to wonder, gain knowledge, imagine possibilities, interact with the world, make mistakes and recover from them, be curious, make their own risk assessments etc

  • trusting in the power of play, and that the play can inspire our pedagogy. We should absolutely not be hijacking children’s autonomous play for pedagogical reasons. And trusting in the competence of children.

  • knowledgeable about play - to know when to interact (which includes being hands off) when to intervene (to maintain safety, inclusion and belonging) and how to avoid interfering

  • kind - it is always our responsibility as an adult to meet the children with kindness - in all three of our roles - teachers, facilitators and playworkers. We should have an attitude of curiosity in what the children are doing. We should emit a sense of permission so that children feel they can test things, but equally feel safe to admit things when they go wrong. Creating an environment of care and professional love (see Jools Page) where every child feels accepted and nurtured is paramount.

On reflection, these words - brave, unhurried, open, competent, trusting, knowledgeable and kind - could/should be considered the principles of the act of loose-parts teaching.

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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