Choosing Loose Parts for Outdoor Play Environments

Topic Progress:

Appropriate play space and materials contribute to children learning about their natural world.  For example, when children have the right loose parts, they engage longer in the play episode and often will repeat the play as a way to work out or refine their new ideas.  Think of children using large rocks to create bridges for their toy vehicles to drive under.  Having a variety of sizes and shapes of rocks available contributes to children scaffolding and connecting their learning of bridge building from their block experiences to rocks. When children have access to flat rocks and large stacking rocks, their play options are extended, as are their opportunities for creativity and spontaneity.  Early learning teachers choose loose parts with intent based on the observations, discussions, and interests of children.

Think about what criteria early learning teachers could use when choosing loose parts.  What questions or considerations would you use in your decision making?  After you have thought about what criteria you would use, click on the words below the graphic to view five core questions that guide decisions about what makes an effective loose part.


Questions to ask when thinking about what makes a good loose part:


Flexibility refers to the flexibility of the item.  How flexible is it?  For example, how might fabric be used in the dramatic outdoor play area and how might it be used differently in the construction area to change the play experience?


Adaptability refers to how the item can be used and reused in different ways.  How might the same item be used in different ways and in different forms?  For example, how might plumber pipes be used near the water area and how might that change if there is an area with marbles or balls?

Children’s Competence

Children’s competence refers to the ease with which children may use the loose parts.  May they manipulate the material or do they require teacher support?  For example, how easily can the children move the large rocks from one area of the playground to another?  Are the rocks the right size for the children’s strength and experience in using them?  Is it safe to allow the children access to the rocks?


Availability refers to the availability of the item.  Is it something that can be gathered, replenished and reused easily or is there limited access to the material?  For example, how easy is it to replenish pine cones versus large cardboard boxes?  How does the availability influence when and how the children have access to the loose parts?


Sustainability refers to the durability of the loose part.  May it remain in the environment over several days or must it be stored after each play episode?  For example, what is the durability of plumber pipes as opposed to fabric cushions?  How does the sustainability influence children’s play from one day to the next and the extension of play episodes?  May they build on the play from the previous day or must they start over?