The Journey to Open-ended starts here.

In this guest post, Emma Davis delves into the journey to Loose parts and how to support your staff and each other. ​ You can view much more on this topic by looking through the menu '#openuptheplay' above. 


Emma Davis


What are loose parts?

Loose parts is not a new concept.  The term was introduced in the 1970s by Simon Nicolson, an architect.  He determined that loose parts encapsulate ‘all things that satisfy one’s curiosity and give us the pleasure that results from discovery and invention.’  What does this mean in a setting?  Children learn through hands on experiences where they can immerse themselves in play within a rich, inspiring environment.

It’s well known that babies and young children often favour a box or wrapping paper over the contents.  Similarly, give a young child some pots, pans and spoons and watch the excitement.  Loose parts can be man made or natural materials that are open ended, used however the child wishes. 

Some examples include:

  • Cotton reels

  • Pine cones

  • Shells

  • Pebbles

  • Curtain rings

  • Corks

  • Pegs

  • Boxes

  • Nuts & Bolts

  • Sticks

  • Buttons

  • CDs

The appeal of loose parts is centred around the myriad of possibilities the play affords.  With no right or wrong way of playing with the resources, children are free to explore and act on their natural drive to be curious and investigate.  Children can use loose parts flexibly, moving them around, making arrangements, transporting, combining and making connections.  The child has control and ownership over their play, developing confidence, self-esteem and wellbeing. 

Observations demonstrate the huge learning potential which can be achieved through play.  Children count, group, sort, construct, role play, communicate, create representations, share – the potential is astounding!  Fine motor skills are developed as children pick up and move small parts, also fostering an understanding of space. 

The value of loose parts is that use of resources changes in line with interests, age, characteristics of learning, relationships and all round development.  How a child uses the resources at the beginning of your loose parts journey will evolve over time so it’s easy to see how learning across all seven areas of development can be achieved. 


Introducing loose parts?

Loose parts can be easily introduced to a setting but to ensure children get the most from the experience, it’s important to plan.  Training on loose parts is a very worthwhile investment.  Not only will training help develop your approach, but it will also build knowledge, skills and confidence in the team.  Collaborating as a team is important in learning together, ensuring everyone values and understands the play.  Involving the children in the process enables them to feel a part of the new approach.  What would they like to play with and where?  Some children will be more able to verbally communicate their ideas than others.  For those less confident or able to verbally share their ideas, a choice board is a good starting point in understanding what they value.

Audit your provision.  You’d be surprised what you already have which could be used as loose parts play.  Raid the cupboards!

Think about your budget – lots of loose parts can be collected by the team and parents could be involved in this too.  You might decide to invest in some more unusual resources which are not readily available in the home or outdoors.  Lotus seed heads, thaika pods, wooden templates and cocoa shells are particularly interesting.  These promote thinking and discussion and their tactile nature can encourage texture related vocabulary.

Involving parents in the introduction of loose parts has multiple benefits.  Family members can help with the collection of resources – instead of filling their recycling bin, you could end up with their bottle tops, cardboard tubes, boxes and cartons.  Why not put a box in your entrance for families to add their resources to?  Not only will this benefit the setting, but it will also help families feel they are playing a valuable part in the loose parts journey. 

Communicating with families about the benefits of loose parts can reap rewards for the children as their play and learning can be extended away from the setting.  An information leaflet is a good starting point to share some ideas on the benefits of loose parts and how to introduce this at home.  If you have the capacity, a workshop for parents and carers will enable you to showcase resources, model play and demonstrate learning through photographic evidence.  Making up sharing bags for children to take home can be a fantastic way to promote home/setting relationships and learning.

Think about your documentation.  Risk assess your resources, considering sharp edges, choking hazards, splinters, cleanliness, tiny holes which could trap fingers etc.  Your collaborative approach with the team will see everyone having an input in this.  As time goes on, all staff need to be alert for wear and tear. 

Finally, consider the logistics.  Where will you store the resources?  Can children access them easily?  What will you use to contain the resources? Picture frames, mirrors, tuff spots, artificial grass, trays, and baskets are all ideal for not just displaying the resources but for the children to use to support their play.


The Role of the Adult

A whole team approach to the introduction of loose parts enables everyone to feel consulted, involved and valued.  Being ‘in it together’ lightens the workload as everyone can share in risk assessments, policies, collecting and sourcing resources etc.  An involvement from the outset can make for a smooth transition with the team understanding the concept and their role in facilitating and enabling the play.

The adults in the setting are vital in valuing the play.  They act as an enabler in loose parts play – they enable….








An adult can empower children, giving them a voice and allowing immersion in their play.  Through this play, sustained shared thinking can take place which sees adult and children thinking and learning together. 

Facilitating and enabling loose parts place can be a fine balance so requires tuned in practitioners.  There will be times to stand back and observe, watching how children access and engage with the resources.  These observations will be valuable in telling you more about how loose parts are being accessed and used.  They can lead to new information about a child and how they learn, resources which are popular and those which are not, areas in which loose parts are accessed and how the loose parts are being used in play.  Some practitioners may find the move to unstructured play a little more challenging to embrace than others.  This involves sensitivity on the part of the leader and manager.  Discuss with them how they are feeling and offer opportunities to peer observe other Practitioners.  Support through modelling, praise and the supervision process, listening to their concerns but offering practical advice on stepping back, enabling children to develop their own thinking.

As a leader and manager, observations will also give you an insight into how the adults in the setting are engaging with loose parts and whether provision or knowledge could be enhanced.  Enabling peer observations can also be beneficial in developing loose parts provision as practitioners learn from each other as well as having feedback on their own practice. 


Encourage practitioners to be in the moment with their observations:

  • What language are they hearing from the children?

  • What learning is taking place without adult intervention?

  • Can you see evidence of Characteristics of Effective Learning?

  • How are children developing their creativity?

As well as observing play, the role of the adult is also to engage in play, following the direction of the child.  Trust them to direct the play as this enables creativity and imagination.  The adult can model language, describing their actions, particularly benefitting children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Importantly, the play needs to be valued with time allowed for exploration and critical thinking.


Getting the team on board

Introducing loose parts play, although exciting, can also be unnerving for some practitioners.  A change, perhaps with a new focus of unstructured play and learning they’re not used to could cause anxiety amongst the team. It is the role of the leader to make the transition as seamless as possible, empowering the team to embrace the rich learning opportunities afforded by loose parts.  Practitioners really must feel inspired in order for loose parts play to work! 

The aspect of safety may arise in discussions around loose parts play. Practitioners may be concerned about children putting loose parts in their mouths, tripping over items on the floor or getting fingers splintered or trapped in small parts.  Leaders need to offer reassurance but also validate the concerns.  These issues arise from a place of concern for the child and their safety so must be taken seriously.

Addressing safety can begin with the process of risk assessing loose parts play as a team.  The whole team will then be able to identify a hazard and understand how to manage it.  Supervision of children is essential with practitioners in all areas that loose parts play is offered.  Practitioners know the children the best so will be aware of those who are still at the mouthing stage.  If working with children in the younger age bracket of the EYFS, tailor the resources appropriately in order to manage the risk of mouthing.  Involving the children in risk assessing can be valuable, particularly at tidy up time!  Encouraging them to think about what might happen if we leave things on the floor or put things in their mouth helps them to manage risk.  You’ll soon have children bringing you random pine cones and pebbles that little fingers have found!


And finally...

Introducing loose parts play or evaluating your current provision is an exciting time.  Be prepared to be surprised.  Sometimes what you think might be popular may in actual fact be the least played with resource! 

Don’t be afraid of the mess.  The nature of loose parts is that children will move them around from one area to another, combining them with other resources.  This is to be expected, especially from children with a transporting schema.  Remember that children are making sense of the resources, exploring how they can be used, making connections and taking control over their environment.  Don’t be in a rush to tidy away!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience.  Loose parts are an incredible addition to a setting for adults and children to explore together.