We’ve all seen it:

A toddler opens a gift, dismissing the shiny, plastic, expensive present inside, opting instead to play with the cardboard box and discarded wrapping paper.

A group of preschool-aged kids seemingly "destroys" a playroom as they dump the contents of multiple games, sets, and toy bins and scatter them around the house.

The neighborhood gang of kids are playing outside. One glance reveals a scene of randomness and chaos: Some of the children are holding a piece of sports equipment or a lawn tool...a fishing net, a rake, a pool noodle, a hockey stick. In the center of the group, one child is sitting in a high back booster car seat, which has been collecting dust in the garage. A jump rope is strung between two trash cans and everyone is watching as a child bounces a playground ball while reciting a rhyme...while wearing a snorkeling mask.

* * * * *

When we see it, we sometimes respond to it with disappointment (But I thought my 18-month old would just LOVE that new toy! I should have saved the money and just given her the box!), or frustration (This place is a mess! It’s going to take me his entire nap time to put this playroom back together!) or even confusion (What in the WORLD is going on out there?!).

When we see it, we don’t always know what it is….what it is, is Learning.

Loose Parts Play

Loose Parts play is an unstructured, open-ended form of play in which children have access to multiple and various parts and the freedom to use them and engage with them in creative ways. This open-ended play results in the development of schema (repeated patterns of behavior that help a child organize thoughts and to learn about his or her environment).  

“Loose Parts” has become a bit of a buzzword in Early Childhood education and development lately, but it’s roots go back to 1971 when Simon Nicholson published an article in a Landscape Architecture journal called How NOT to Cheat Children -- The Theory of Loose Parts.

Nicholson explains: “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.” In a child’s mind, all those loose bits of string, sticks, and other “treasures” are really components for building and creating.

In other words, the less an object looks like a Toy, the more ways that object can be used in a child’s imaginative, creative, and constructive play.

Seeing Loose Parts Play for What it is

Taking a second look at those kids in the scenarios described above, we can clearly see the Loose Parts play in action.

To the toddler who opted for the box over the gift, the box itself was a toy! She could fill it up and dump it out, bang on it and make a sound, put it on her head or try to stand on it….the options were endless!

A closer look at the preschoolers in the playroom would have revealed much more than a “mess.” In fact, the toy bins had been dumped and overturned to become seats on a train. Candyland had been ransacked for the color cards, which were being used as “tickets.” The kids were off on a railroad adventure!

The big kids who had raided the garage for props were engaged in collaborative imaginative play. The one in the car seat? She was a Queen on her throne, protected by pool-noodle and hockey-stick wielding guards. The velvet rope (jump rope) strung between stanchions (trash cans) separated her from the court jester, who was attempting to entertain Her Royal Highness with a silly song and dance routine….


Loose Parts play is a critical part of child development. It supports divergent thinking, problem solving, invention, creativity, imagination, and wonder. With no specific set of instructions or end-goal, children feel safe to explore, practice, and experiment. Loose parts play encourages collaboration and communication among students, as well. When children engage in loose parts play together, you will hear negotiation, explanation of thinking, and participation in a shared pretend play script.


There are so many fantastic resources available online to help you get started in implementing Loose Parts play into your home or classroom. Here are a few that I’ve found particularly helpful:

Loose Parts Play -- a Facebook group of parents and educators who are dedicated to Loose Parts Play.

Loose Parts by Schema by Michelle Thornhill

Inside Outside Michiana (Loose Parts Play)

Loose Parts Nature Play -- a podcast by Dr. Carla Gull

We would love to hear how you incorporate Loose Parts into your classroom or home environment!