Wondering what to do with Loose Parts?

For the past 20 years, I have engaged in a journey to explore play and Loose Parts. I have researched the application of Loose Parts in early childhood ecosystems. I co-authored four books and wrote a fifth book on Loose Parts. I have prepared and coached hundreds of educators to curate and infuse Loose Parts into early childhood ecosystems. I have designed Loose Parts ecosystems and have discussed the topic with multiple educators. I have designed, prototyped, and tested a Loose Parts Method course. 

I do not consider myself an expert because I keep learning, and my curiosity grows every time I encounter a new Loose Part or watch how children play with them. However, I am constantly baffled by how the understanding of Loose Parts has deviated from the original concept. 

I read many of the questions and posts in the different Loose Parts groups. I have seen misconceptions and misunderstandings that keep emerging. I also see a genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about the power of Loose Parts. Hopefully, I am writing this post not to answer the questions, but instead, I hope I can provoke your thinking. 

Loose Parts To Celebrate the Holidays – Once you use Loose Parts to support an adult idea, they are no longer unpredictable items that support children’s play. Instead, we are telling them what to do with them. You may think that they can still use the Loose Parts in any way they want. Still, the reality is that by selecting a holiday to guide the exploration, you have invited them to explore the Holiday and not explore their imagination. When we use only colors that correspond to a Holiday, are we not limiting the use of other Loose Parts that do not match the specific color. 

There is also a more significant issue about celebrating Holidays without understanding children’s culture. Holidays can exclude children. If Loose Parts are designed to support play, they need to be inclusive. I know that there are many feelings and emotions about this topic. I hope that you take the time to understand the importance of creating equitable and inclusive ecosystems and a more responsive approach to the holiday dilemma.  

Ask yourself

  • What are the cultural values of the Holiday?
  • Is the holiday exploration inclusive of all children? 
  • Does the holiday exploration limit children’s creativity?
  • What are the commercial values introduced by the holiday exploration?
  • How will the holiday exploration enhance children’s play?

Loose Parts to Teach an Academic Concept: Loose Parts are meant to support children’s sense of wonder and curiosity. When we include an adult teaching agenda, we take away opportunities to discover and learn. Instead, observe and identify what the children learn in their play without adult guidance. 

Ask yourself:

  • Do I need to use a worksheet with Loose Parts for children to understand a math (language, science, etc.) concept, or can I identify the concept as children freely play with Loose Parts?
  • Will teaching a specific concept limit children’s knowledge and capacities?
  • What do I value about children’s play and learning?

Anything Can Be a Loose Part: If this is true, we would not have to look for items to place in the environment. Every toy could be used as a Loose Part. When we intentionally select and infuse the Loose Parts in the ecosystem, we begin to see the shift in children’s play. Curating Loose Parts and combining them with other educational media can offer a variety of play possibilities for young children. When I select Loose Parts, I consider the affordances. An affordance is not a “property” of an object. Instead, affordance is defined in the relation between the user and the object. Affordances are action possibilities once the Loose Parts in discovered. Children perceive affordances differently than adults. For example, a rock for an adult may be an object to paint or to use in decorations. For a child, a rock may be something they can wash, keep as a friend, throw or build with, or have magical properties. The affordance will vary by the interaction of each child with the item. Reflecting on the affordances and expanding play possibilities requires more thinking than just placing all types of objects into the environment and calling them Loose Parts.

Ask yourself:

  • How will this Loose Part increase the possibilities for play?
  • What other objects can be combined with the Loose Parts?
  • How open am I to let children explore the affordances of the Loose Parts without guidance? 
  • How do I control my need to have an expected outcome when I select Loose Parts?
  • How will children’s culture, experiences, language, and knowledge influence the object’s affordances?

Food as a Loose Part: I want to share my values as a starting point. I invite you to define your own. Food is a commodity not afforded to everyone. We have many hungry children and families and would benefit from eating the pasta, beans, or flour used in play dough. 

I have heard many responses when I discuss this issue: 

  1. The pasta and rice had expired and could not be made into food. (why did we let them expire). Is this type of mentality not afforded to only people with economic privilege? 
  2. Families can’t cook bread with flour because they have no oven (then make the bread and serve it as a snack or send it home with someone who would enjoy it). 
  3. Food is excellent as a Loose Parts for babies (there are many other Loose Parts that are great for babies). It just takes time to ensure that they are safe. We tested every item in Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play for Infant and Toddlers.

We can go on and on about this issue. It all comes down to your perceptions of equity and social justice. I see my work as an advocate of inclusive and equitable ecosystems. I want children to know that not everyone has the same access to food. I hope you will join many of us who keep addressing hunger and inequities in early childhood education. 

Ask Yourself: 

  • Who are the children, families, and people that belong to the ecosystem?
  • How will the use of food impact children’s understanding of privilege and power? 
  • What other messages may I be sending children when they play with food? 
  • How do I use this opportunity to deepen children’s understanding of equity and social justice issues?
  • What other Loose Parts can I add to the ecosystem to stimulate children’s senses? 

Glue and Tape with Loose Parts? Once you tape or glue the Loose Parts, they are no longer loose. When children revisit their work, they engage in more complex play. They can go back and prototype and redesign. They can discover a mistake and fix it. We live in a consumer society that requires a final product. Children are also consumers and have bought into the idea of completing a project and taking it home. You can take photographs as they construct or work on a project. They can use the photographs as they continue to explore and ideas. 

Ask yourself:

  • How does using glue or tape limit children’s ability to revisit an idea?
  • How can I support children’s permanence needs without including glue or tape?
  • How do not using glue or tape increase the affordances of Loose Parts?
  • What other items can I have in the environment to support children’s need to connect objects (connecting schema)?

How Do you Control the Mess: The answer goes back to your idea of messiness. I consider creativity messy, so I have a high tolerance for it. Focus on the play and create opportunities that allow children to explore freely. Use baskets where the children can keep the Loose Parts and move them around as needed. Be intentional when curating the Loose Parts and the educational media you place in the ecosystem. Fewer carefully curated types of Loose Parts, but larger quantities to explore. I guess the question about controlling mess requires you to ponder your educational values further. 

Ask Yourself:

  • How will I organize the Loose Parts to allow for messy play?
  • What is my tolerance for messiness? 
  • What do I consider to be messy?
  • How does my tolerance for messiness limits children’s exploration?
  • Who can help when it comes time to clean up?

How do we keep children safe: Once again, reflect on your personal “Risk Compass.” I prefer to take care of the hazard and support the risk. In other words, when I curate Loose Parts, I assess the affordances and consider whether or not they outweigh the risk. I learned to stay close and observe to help when the child needs it. I know this is not easy when you have so many children. It is also not impossible. Many programs have successfully taken care of the hazard to allow for the risk. There is less need to micromanage when you have children engaged and in the “flow.” Many myths have emerged to support individual understanding and comfort with risks. Make sure you learn the licensing and regulations. Differentiate them from a personal perception of risk. Become knowledgeable on the rules and laws that guide and early childhood system. 

Ask Yourself:

  • What is my risk compass? 
  • Is the risk real or my perception of risk? 
  • How do I take care of the hazard to allow the risk? 
  • Is licensing, regulations, or insurance policy preventing risk-taking? If the answer is yes: 
    • what type of risk is allowed?
    • Where in the regulations does it state the type of risk Loose Parts involve?
    • How did this idea of risk start in the ecosystem?
    • Can the rules be re-interpreted to make them more inclusive?

Where Did You Get Tha Loose Part: Every time someone asks that question, I remember my mentor Bev Bos. She would invite educators to go beyond asking where she bought or found an item. Instead, she asked them to think about its purpose and how children’s play is more complex when the item is infused into the ecosystem. I guess it goes back to the idea of intentionality. I can give you a list of Loose Parts and where I purchase them. That is the easy part. The more complex question is. How will the specific Loose Part support children’s play and learning? 

Ask Yourself: 

  • How will the Loose Part support play in my ecosystem?
  • What is the purpose of an item, and why do I need to infuse it into the ecosystem? 
  • Is the Loose Part I like something that connects to my environment, or is there something similar that I can consider? 

Loose Parts are open-ended: This was an AHA moment for me when I heard Marc Armitage during the Loose Part Summit. He considers Loose Parts not open-ended because the children may have an end in mind. Instead, they are unpredictable. When I see Loose Parts as unpredictable objects, I see more possibilities. The term open-ended has become a buzzword attached to many ideas and things and has lost its initial intent. I have even heard the word connected to open-ended guided play, a contradictory term. 

Ask Yourself:

  • How do I define open-ended materials?
  • How do I define open-ended play? 
  • How can I support children’s play with unpredictable materials such as Loose Parts? 
  • What makes Loose Parts Unpredictable?

What can I do with this Loose Part?: The question is not what the adult can do with the Loose Parts, but what affordance will the Loose Part offer children. It is hard to let go of our ideas and intent. However, if we want to support children’s sense of wonder, we must let go of our thoughts, expectations, and ideas. 

Ask Yourself: 

  • What strategies can I use to stop introducing my ideas to children?
  • Where can I learn more about the importance of giving children the ability to explore without adult guidance?
  • How do I define play, and wonder? 
  • What can I do to support children’s interests and ideas?
  • What can I learn from the children?

What can children do with this Loose Part: You do not know. Remember, Loose Parts are unpredictable. Be ready to be surprised. 

I am optimistic that I will continue to find more questions and misconceptions about Loose Parts. The essential thing is that your curiosity is parked. Now it is time to reflect and find complex answers to simple questions. Or, why not ask more questions about more complex questions. After all, when we ask, we learn. When I discover a new Loose Part, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What affordances does the Loose Part offer children? The sticky point here is to avoid responding to what we think children will do. Instead, focus on exploring the Loose Parts and analyzing for affordances. 
  • Where in the ecosystem can they initially be placed? (remember children will move them)
  • What educational media can they be combined with to increase the possibilities of discovery? 
  • How will you document children’s interests and engagement with the Loose Parts?

This paper is just a start. I will continue to listen and document other questions and ideas that emerge, and perhaps together, we can shift the dialog and come to a deeper understanding of children’s play and the use of Loose Parts.  

Do you want to learn more? Register for the Loose Parts Method Course

You can email questions to: miriam@playfultransformation.com 

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