Have you ever been scrolling Instagram or Pinterest, admiring all of the beautifully styled playrooms filled with incredible loose parts? But suddenly, you get this sinking feeling in your tummy because you just know there’s no way you could afford all of the fancy loose parts.

You’re not alone! I’ve been sucked down that rabbit hole many times…so much so, that I once put myself on a new toy ban haha! But seriously, open-ended toys are incredible tools for supporting independent, creative play in your home…but there are many great options that are very affordable too.

My favourite place to find affordable loose parts? Outside! There’s something pretty magical about natural loose parts and the best part – they’re FREE and can be used for lots of fun invitations or for some open-ended play. Before we get stuck into some of my favourite loose parts, let’s explore why loose parts are so beneficial for play!

What’s the benefit of natural loose parts?

The term ‘loose parts’ was first used in 1971 by an architect named Simon Nicholson. He described loose parts as ‘variables’ in an environment that could be moved around and tinkered with. He didn’t believe that creativity was something that only few people could posses, rather creativity was something that was possible for anyone especially when they had access to ‘variables’ that could be manipulated!

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness, creativity and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

Nicholson, 1971

To put it simply, loose parts are found or collected objects or materials that can be removed, manipulated and adapted during play. They are materials that can be used in just about any way and there are no rules or expectations about they can or should be used. The only limit is your child’s imagination!

In the Little Play Club, we talk a lot about our children being little scientists. They’re constantly exploring and investigating to make sense of the world around them…and they do this as they play! When we can provide our children with materials that are open-ended (meaning it’s up to them how they engage with the material!), we’ll be nurturing their curiosity and providing them with opportunities to connect prior knowledge as they explore and create new knowledge…and that is pretty magical!

In her article titled ‘To be successful – let them play!” Sally Hurwitz (2002) stated that “Play for children is creative, spontaneous, unpredictable, and absolutely fun…it’s an important medium for young children’s learning and significant contributor to the child’s cognitive, physical, emotional and social development.”

Loose parts are a wonderful way to allow our children to be totally in control of their play. When our children have access to loose parts, there are no rules, no expectations. They can simply explore!

Some of my favourite natural loose parts for open-ended play include:

  • Leaves
  • Flowers
  • Shells
  • Sticks
  • Grass
  • Pinecones
  • Gumnuts
  • Sand
  • Dirt
  • Feathers
  • Seeds and seed pods
  • Rocks and pebbles
  • Wood cookies and offcuts

Simple invitations to inspire your play!

One of my favourite ways to use natural loose parts in our play is to start with a nature walk! We grab a basket and head outside to collect natural treasures either in our own backyard or somewhere new like a playground or even the beach! We look for interesting textures and colours and add them to our basket.

When we get home, we can use them with a batch of natural play dough! Below is a picture of my toddler using some gumnuts to print into some natural coloured play dough. This was a great way to strengthen the muscles in his fingers and hands!

We also love using natural loose parts in our small world play. Below is an invitation we created using some fallen leaves from our front yard, a few branches and some big creepy crawly toys from our Insect Polybag!

We have a collection of natural loose parts available for our children to use for their own small world play in our playroom as well – below is an example of how our toddler used some insect toys with some natural wooden cookies. This is the beauty of natural loose parts – they can become anything and there’s no right or wrong way for your child to play!

Bird seed makes a wonderful sensory base for children to explore! Simply pour it into a tub and add some wooden bowls and scoops and you’ve created an exciting sensory experience that your little learner is sure to love! Not only will they be exploring simple mathematical concepts such as full and empty, they’ll also be developing their fine motor skills as they scoop and pour the seeds from bowl to bowl.

You might even like to use your natural loose parts to explore numbers and shapes! Below are some 2D Shape Cards from our Nature Play Pack which we used with some little pebbles.

We’ve also created some number discs using wooden cookies and some numeral balsa wood cut outs that I found at our local dollar shop. I just glued them down with a hot glue gun and used them with our Natural Number Posters.

Perhaps you could create an investigation table with some natural loose parts and a magnifying glass? This would be a great way to support your child’s oral language and vocabulary as they explore their loose parts up close!

There’s no denying that natural loose parts are a wonderful addition to any play space! I truly hope this blog post has given you some fun and easy ideas to bring more natural loose parts into your play with your little learners.

About the author

Casey is an early years teacher turned homeschooling mum of three who passionate about helping other parents create a play-filled home. She loves adventure days outside in nature and loves a good sensory tub. You can follow Casey on Instagram right here.

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