Children’s Play Types and Learning that Evolve with Loose Parts

Topic Progress:

course7-lesson3-topic2-photo1Often, early learning teachers choose loose parts for the harmonious, safe play they believe children should experience.  Taking this approach may mean that loose parts such as sticks are eliminated from the array of loose parts provided in the environment, primarily because early learning teachers have concern for weapon or gun play. Yet, there are many positive reasons why children benefit from having access to sticks as part of their loose parts materials. For example, listen to the conversations that children have when engaged in weapon play. Children will take turns being the good and the bad guys. This contributes to children learning about morality – they learn about what is right and wrong and good and bad. Weapon play leads children to take on roles to “save” people and they become the hero in the play episode. They re-enact roles such as police officers and firefighters as part of their play. These are all positive attributes of play.  Environments that support children in having loose parts that align with their play episodes helps children work through fears, gain insight from different perspectives, and learn how to treat their peers in kind and caring ways. As suggested by Flannigan’s (2015) findings, gun or weapon play with loose parts has many developmental advantages including increasing children’s physical activity and curiosity within their play options.

Outdoor play environments with loose parts stimulates a wide range of play types including dramatic, constructive play (Änggård, 2011; Ridgers et al., 2012) and creative play and  promotes inclusive play among children. Think about how loose parts could contribute to a variety of play types during the early years. Then click on each photo to review examples of how loose parts influence dramatic play, constructive play, creative play, social play, and inclusive play.

Click the caption below each photo to learn more about how loose parts support children’s play.


Dramatic Play

Dramatic play supports children in exhibiting an imaginary role or when they use objects, such as loose parts, to represent an imaginary idea (Maxwell, et al., 2008).  Loose parts contribute to dramatic play outdoors, due in part to the unstructured nature and flexibility of the materials. The more flexible the materials, the more options children have to exercise imaginary play that is influenced by the materials.  For example, when children have access to white sheets, the potential for children to create play that includes goblins is increased.  Maxwell et al. (2008) identified that children in outdoor environments with a variety of loose parts have more dramatic play than those play spaces that either do not have loose parts or where the loose parts are limited in scope and flexibility.


Constructive Play

Constructive play is goal oriented by definition and involves the use of materials that may be manipulated to create something (Zamani, 2012; Flannigan, 2015).  Construction play generally includes at least two actions with loose parts such as stacking, rearranging, assembling, disassembling, drawing and creating (Maxwell et al., 2008).  Constructive play with loose parts in the outdoor environment is strongly influenced by the materials and the roles of adults.  Environments that are free from adult goals support children in leading their play. This freedom contributes to children constructing items needed for the play by using their own control and creativity, without dictation from an external source such as adults (Ridgers et al., 2012; Schwartz & Luckenbill, 2012). Loose parts that support constructive play increase children’s expression of ideas and opinions to others through the use of language, role modelling and observations. Having a variety of loose parts in the environment contributes to children exhibiting skills such as negotiating, sharing and self-regulation skills. Through loose parts and constructive play, children increase their knowledge about space, scale and complexity (Maxwell et al., 2008), all of which are foundational skills necessary for later mathematical and scientific academic knowledge.


Social Play

One of the main features of loose parts is that they offer children less structure on what they can play with and interact with (Shim et al., 2001). Because of their openness and flexibility, loose parts encourage children to engage in higher levels of social interaction and peer play.  The increase in social interaction that naturally occurs with children using loose parts contributes to them developing skills needed to relate to other people by understanding different points of view, values, ideas, ways of doing tasks and sharing in the play process (Gleave & Cole-Hamilton, 2012).


Inclusive Play

Outdoor play environments with loose parts support children in being able to invent and play in an imaginary world.  Open-ended loose parts offer children with various skill levels opportunities to plan for and maneuver their play options. Children are less likely to be alienated or bullied for using an object in an inappropriate way (Doctoroff, 2001), because open-ended materials have no right or wrong attached to them.


Creative Play

When children are exposed to outdoor play spaces with intriguing loose parts, inconstant and unstructured play evolves.  Unique and different loose parts contribute to children being required to continuously use their creativity and imaginations to construct spaces and objects that fit to their interests (Flannigan, 2015).