Open-ended materials or loose parts in outdoor environments offer children opportunities to engage in unique play experiences that support their curiosity and life experiences. Loose parts had their first pedagogical foundations during the 1800s. Friedrich Froebel is often associated with recognizing the importance of children having open-ended, hands-on materials. Froebel’s “gifts” were made of varying forms of wooden, geometrically shaped parts, and provided children with materials that encouraged them to combine cognitive attributes with aesthetics and object manipulation (Sutton, 2011).
Similar to Froebel, Maria Montessori believed that children required hand-sized loose parts. She too created apparatus that was used with the children as learning props to stimulate sensory perception and investigation. Children were encouraged to use the loose parts in innovative ways as part of their self-directed inquiry and deep thinking processes.
Loose parts is a term coined by architect Simon Nicholson (1971). Nicholson believed that children who have access to loose parts in their environment are empowered to think, design, create and engage in experiential learning. Exposure to loose parts contributes to children expressing flexible and divergent thinking, while building upon exploration of new ideas, perspectives, and skills that contribute to fundamental skills necessary for later academic performance.
According to Nicholson (1971), to be classified as a loose part, the materials must be movable, redesigned, put together and taken apart in a variety of ways. Loose parts may be either natural or synthetic materials or objects. Nicholson suggested that loose parts support both creative and non-creative children. Common amongst children, whether creative or not, is the desire to play and engage with their environments (Houser et al., 2016).
Sutton (2011) expanded on Nicholson’s (1971) definition of loose parts. Sutton suggested that loose parts be defined as:
Any collection of fully movable elements that inspire a [child] to pick up, re-arrange or create new configurations, even realities, one piece or multiple pieces at a time. Loose parts require the hand and the mind to work in concert; they are catalysts to inquiry. Loose parts are the flexible edge of an inviting open-ended interactive environment that allows participants to make an imprint of their intention. Experiences with loose parts provide a profound yet playful way for children to form associations between learning and pleasure. (p. 409)
Click on the words below to acquire the definitions of natural and synthetic loose parts.
Natural loose parts are defined as those materials that are nature-related such as acorns and flowers, pinecones, and stones, leaves and seeds. The availability of loose parts may be season related such as icicles and snow, piles of leaves, and sea shells.
Synthetic loose parts refers to materials that are purchased or recycled for new purposes such as aluminum foil, fabric scraps, plumbers pipe, bricks and cardboard boxes.
Natural and synthetic loose parts have common elements. To be considered a loose part, children must be able to:
the materials to support their ideas, creativity and imagination in their play. Loose parts do not have a defined purpose; rather, their purpose is undefined resulting in children viewing their potential to be used in their creative play and new options for play. Loose parts offer children flexibility in their thinking processes. Flexible thinking leads children to examine possibilities and make connections from their current knowledge and ideas with new ideas and discoveries.
Loose parts can range from simple natural materials, such as pieces of wood or small stones and seeds or plant pods, to construction materials such as pieces of wood, plumbers pipe, and water gutters. Some loose parts are found within the outdoor environment and others are gathered from a variety of sources and then placed in the outdoor environment. Loose parts are flexible, engaging and endless (Staempfli, 2009; Zamani, 2012) and provide children with a creative way to explore their world (Änggård, 2011; Byrd, et al., 2007; Staempfli, 2009).
Examine the two photos below and think which play environment offers children more options for exploration, experimentation and discovery during their outdoor play experiences.
Think about early learning environments.
- What types of materials would you classify as loose parts and why?
- How might loose parts change children’s play options?
- How do you acquire loose parts?
- How might loose parts add to children’s imagination, creativity, intrigue and challenge during outdoor play?
- What are the challenges of preparing outdoor play environments with loose parts?
Now review the slide show that illustrates loose parts that support children’s outdoor play.looseparts2-powerpoint
Use the comment box below to share your reflections with your peers..
Reflect on the following topic:
When you think about the term loose parts and outdoor play, what types of loose parts materials do you envision are important in early learning programs? Why?