Free play with loose parts :: what, why, how

We’ve been chatting over on NurtureStore’s Facebook page recently about free play with loose parts. I know many of you are working to include more and more bits-and-bobs and open-ended resources in your play spaces, and switching from plastic and commercial toys to more natural materials. So today I’m talking about why I love to encourage lots of free play in our home, and I have a super, printable list of loose parts you might like to try out.

A printable list of loose parts to encourage creative free play

What are loose parts?

Loose parts simply means moveable materials that children can use in their play. They might be bought materials, upcycled from the recycling bin or found natural objects. There’s a printable list of some loose parts ideas below, but really anything goes: boxes, feathers, marbles, wrapping paper, fir cones, water, sand, twigs, hats, drinking straws…..

loose parts

What loose parts free play offers children

I think stocking your play space with loose parts offers children

:: daily inspiration

:: endless possibilities

:: a chance to think

:: encouragement to be creative

We’re not only talking about creative play from an artistic point of view – although loose parts do provide great materials to sculpt and build – but creative play that encourages brain development, scientific experimenting, mathematical thought, risk taking, and trial and error learning.

Through this kind of free play children are really creating: using what they have and what they already know, and combining that to create a whole that’s greater than the parts. Just like Einstein, Da Vinci and Jobs. Loose parts and free play in childhood develops the creative genius of the future.

marble run

You can see this in practice in the marble run B built a while ago. I’d introduced a new resource for the children to explore that week : the marbles. On offer as always on the craft shelves was a variety of loose parts. To make her marble run B had to imagine her end product and carefully select the right materials that allowed her to build what she’d intended.

Things didn’t always go to plan – things broke or the marble didn’t move along the right chute – so she had to analyse, problem solve and persevere until she’d managed what she set out to achieve. This kind of hands-on learning is what we encourage and it helps children hone really important thinking skills that will help them throughout their lives.

free play with loose parts

Four ways to promote loose parts free play

To promote this kind of creative learning you can:

:: have loose parts on offer in your play setting all the time, so the children get used to what’s available and can pull them in to their play when they get an idea

:: add in new materials from time to time, to spark fresh thinking (you can use our list for some suggestions)

:: make sure the children have lots and lots of time to investigate, explore, daydream and make use of the loose parts

:: have other children and adults available to help problem-solve, add in twists to the play and to admire creations and inventions

free play with loose parts

Great ideas for materials to have in your play space

The great things about stocking your play space with loose parts is that anything goes (so long as the materials are suitable for your children’s ages and stages) and they’re mainly free. Natural materials, recycled items and donations from friends, families, and local businesses are all great places to get your materials.

You don’t need to think about how the children might use the materials – leave that to the kids. Provide the loose parts, step back and let the children play. They might surprise you with their imaginations and create things you would never have dreamed up!

We’ve been chatting over on NurtureStore’s Facebook page about what kinds of loose parts to offer and we’ve come up with some suggestions. You can click the image below to print off a copy of our list, to keep handy for when you need a few ideas. Let’s be clear: these are just ideas. You don’t need to provide all of these! Offer what you already have and use this for suggestions of extras to add in over time.

Click the image below to open the pdf, ready to print.

A great printable list of loose parts to encourage creative free play

The Magic Three formula

I like to use a Magic Three formula when we need an injection of ‘new’. Simply pick three items from this list and set them out as an invitation to play. Remember you don’t need to think the three materials match or work well together. The idea is to offer something different, perhaps unusual, to spark the children’s thinking.

Yarn, curtain rings and play dough….

Water, feathers and plastic cups…

Tin foil, sticks and buttons…

Who knows what the children will come up with using the Magic Three!

small world fairy garden

 {small world fairy garden using the Magic Three of sand :: scoops :: plants}

 More free play with loose parts reading

Try these blogs for great ideas about loose parts play.

How to use outdoor play spaces :: Let the children play

The Theory of Loose Parts :: An Everyday Story

Learning at Full Capacity :: Teacher Tom

Play logs :: Happy Hooligans

super sensory footerSuper Sensory Invitations to Play

Ready for a whole year of exploring through the senses? Super Sensory Invitations to Play is a delightful resource that encourages your children to explore the five senses through the year, using a wide variety of sensory materials. It includes 52 invitations to play, linked to the festivals and seasons of the year, and including water, ice, dough, rice, paints, sand, sensory tubs, and more.

They are easy, simple, and fun ideas that you can use right now to give a multi-sensory boost to your play and learning. It comes with a printable recipe book featuring all our favourite recipes for play. Come and see more here.


  1. says

    What a lovely and informative post! I adore loose parts play- that’s pretty much what we do at our house on any given day. I’ll start sharing our play ideas using your hashtag! Yay for like-minded loose parts enthusiasts!

  2. says

    I’ve noticed that some others that use a lot of loose parts use a light table as well as different containers for the kids to organize all the stuff

  3. Veronica says

    I love this concept and have been trying to apply it, but am having trouble with the “clean up” phase. Any suggestions for how to keep these loose parts materials organized but still accessible? Do you have rules for your children as to how and when they must put these items away? I want to let “free play” be as FREE as possible and not impose rules but then I find I am face with cleaning up a huge mess at the end of the day. What to do?

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