My Evolving Thoughts On Loose Parts

I have been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and then yesterday, I read this fantastic post by Diane Kashin on The Environment As The Third Teacher, and I was finally inspired to blog. There are many different components to Diane’s post, but the parts that have me thinking the most are her comments on “loose parts.” I’ve had a love/hate relationship with loose parts. I love the idea in theory. I’ve seen incredible photographs on Instagram and Twitter that show how students have used various items — from pieces of bark to various coloured gems — to create elaborate pictures, to engage in storytelling, to demonstrate math learning, and to share thinking with peers. The documentation examples in Diane’s post align with ones that I’ve seen before, and they make me think of what is possible when it comes to “loose parts.” But then I see what’s happened in our classroom …

My partner, Nayer, and I have loose parts incorporated in all areas of the classroom. We’ve tried to limit plastic toy options and use more loose parts. It’s been a struggle though because the rich dialogue and creative play that we saw in other people’s photographs and videos weren’t happening in our room. 

  • There was a lot of dumping. Maybe dumping is learning. Sometimes students dumped containers of gems into the tires to create different sounds, but without adult questioning, they rarely considered the amounts or types of gems to create different sounds. The excitement came more from the dumping and mixing of materials than from a purposeful use in them. At the end of the day, I felt as though more time was spent cleaning up than experimenting, reflecting, and learning.
  • Students avoided these materials. We put loose parts in containers around the classroom, but often, these were the items that were overlooked. Our most popular items were the plastic toy garage, the train track, the cars, and the plastic people. Sometimes we tried to combine the loose parts with the plastic toys, but often the loose parts were dumped to the side, and the students continued playing with the plastic items instead. 
  • Modelling didn’t help. We thought that the students might be unsure about how to use these items, so we decided to model some options. We played with the students. But we found that when we sat down with the loose parts, we had very few students that joined us (contrary to other times when there were always many), and when we stopped playing, the students did too. It’s almost as though they struggled with extending this learning on their own.

Over our months in the classroom, we’ve stepped back, and we started to reconsider loose part options and watch the children closely to see what they gravitate to for loose parts.

  • We noticed that the large pieces of flooring are always popular. Students use them in conjunction with the blocks to make houses, but they also use them to create roads, racetracks, bridges, and ramps. Putting different tape options around the room has also gotten the students to look at how they can attach these pieces to each other as well as to other items, and this has changed the dynamics of the play.
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  • Wooden blocks have also become loose parts. Students use these blocks for building, but also for creating skates, holding items up, and supporting the ramps and bridges that they make around the classroom. The free flow movement of these items has almost changed how they’re used because now the students feel comfortable taking them to different areas in the room and using them in different ways. 
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  • Little loose parts work best in play dough and in the sensory bin. We tried to place gems and rocks all around the classroom, but children rarely used them for anything more than dumping. When put near the play dough and in the sensory bin though, these items seem to be used in more purposeful ways. In conjunction with muffin tins, strainers, and cups, these loose parts are often used for cupcake toppings, jewel collecting, and food items. Maybe location matters.
  • Wooden puzzles become loose parts. I never would have thought about this one before, but one student in our class realized that the top of the wooden puzzle fit perfectly inside a doll’s mouth. She used the puzzle piece as a pacifier. Pretty soon others were doing the same, and now these puzzle pieces are often used for dramatic play. Sometimes what we need most is a leader to show others some loose part possibilities.
  • A box of recyclable materials is always beneficial. Months ago, we started to collect cardboard pieces and small containers. Students are now using these more to create ramps, buildings, and musical instruments. They will sometimes also pick an item from the bin to use in other areas of the classroom as they need it. There are so many different uses for recyclable materials!

When it comes to loose parts, I wonder if schema matters. I think about those students that have only had a limited number of life experiences. If the purposeful use of loose parts comes from children realizing the infinite possibilities for a single item, do students need more background knowledge to make this happen? How do we build this knowledge so that loose part play becomes meaningful and purposeful? I wonder if this happens over time in the classroom, but also with the use of modelling, and the other experiences that we provide for students throughout their time at school. What do you think? What have you experienced?


6 thoughts on “My Evolving Thoughts On Loose Parts

  1. Hi Aviva – Diane and Cindy here. We are working together this week in Australia! We loved your blog post and it’s thoughtful reflections about loose parts play. In terms of dumping, this is developmental and part of schema play (transporting and enveloping). We can see that dumping may be a concern if there are too many loose parts making it difficult for tidying. Thinking intentionally about loose parts and their place int the classroom, the amount and the types might be a good direction for you. Smaller bins with fewer items purposely positioned to encourage schema play with observation might lead to new insights. Dumping is natural and is an interest for many children – perhaps looking at what is available in the sand and water table to contain the dumping. Another idea in the block centre is a pulley system and a bucket where loose parts can be dumped to enhance block play. It is okay that they don’t want to sit down with the loose parts the interest in the room seems to be the full body play. We wondering about the plastic garage and whether something more open ended such as blocks or cardboard boxes might promote more imaginative play?

    • Thanks for your comment, Diane and Cindy! I really like the chart that you tweeted me that talked about schema. I think that it gives me a different way to view the play, which is important. The small items in the water bin and playdough seem to work well. I do like the pulley system idea. Hmmm … This could link with the children’s interest in dumping. Your suggestion about the box instead of the plastic garage is a great one. I wonder if this could be true instead of the plastic doll house as well. These will be things that I can talk with my partner about this week. So much to consider …


  2. Hello Aviva,
    Your post has had me thinking all afternoon! Couple of thoughts…and you’ve likely explored these possibilities already. I have found that deep storage bins seem to invite “dumping”, and students tend to be more selective and intentional with materials when items are stored in shallow trays. Like you, I’m wondering if part of the struggle between the loose parts and plastic toy options is a matter of prior experience. In September, I noticed that my grade 1 students gravitated towards the familiar and the concrete in their play. They often chose to play with toys that they had used before, probably ones that they had at home already. Comfort with the familiar, with items that already formed part of their schema, likely played into this. But, conflicts often developed over particularly prized items (the Lego people, the wheels, particular dinosaurs, trucks, dolls, and so on), and the mess and muddle that resulted was horrible. The games that resulted seemed particularly vicious too, and that worried me, so I gradually removed these pieces from the shelves. At times, I felt quite guilty doing it, but I found that open-ended materials came to be used more creatively once students had time to explore them. I’m thinking about your questions, and also thinking ahead to starting afresh in September. Right now, I’m wondering if I need to start with just a few resources on the shelves so that we can explore their possibilities rather than be overwhelmed by too many choices. In terms of “loose parts”, I may need to be cautious of oversupply as well. I find myself collecting far too many items when a smaller collection might suffice. Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ruth! I do find that many of the containers we have and can find to purchase are all quite deep. We’ve tried a smaller number of items in each, and that seems to help a bit. I still think that the smaller loose parts work better in certain areas of the room (e.g., the water bin, the play dough), and even though students can move them around, they don’t tend to as much.

      I also like your thoughts on “less is more.” I would agree. That said, I worry that if there’s not enough out, students may feel restricted in what they can create, which could lead to other problems. I can see this depending a lot on the individual students. Maybe some of this comes down to trial and error. I’d also be curious to know what others have tried and what they think.


      • Definitely need to get the flow in the space working, and I agree about placement of materials, and the caution about having too little to spark imaginative play. I’ve been reading about heuristic play and treasure boxes, and it reminded me of my own children when they were babies and toddlers. They loved unpacking a basket of everyday items, really a jumble of odds and ends, with different sensory features. I wonder if this is a kind of play that some children miss out on before they come to school? Is this the piece that would link to loose parts collections, and willingness to explore? I’m thinking that often the excitement comes from the task of sorting, and discovering, and when we carefully place loose parts, already sorted, into our learning spaces, much of this experience is lost for children. You are keeping me thinking! Have a wonderful day at school.

        • Excellent points, Ruth! I’ve never read about heuristic play before, but this makes a lot of sense to me. Maybe this again comes down to creating the environment with the children — including the placement and organization of loose parts. Now you have me thinking. I need to do some more reading. Thanks for the great conversation!


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