Loose Parts Play

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! 

Bring It In!

Bring it In!

As Nature Play educators, we believe that there is no such thing as “bad” weather, only inappropriate clothing. We also are firm proponents of the fact that outdoor nature play can and should be enjoyed year-round. But let’s be real: Sometimes it is just too cold or too wet and our kiddos just don’t have the sufficient outerwear to be comfortable playing outside for long. It would be great if we had rain gear and coats, hats, boots, and gloves for all of our students all of the time, but even if you don’t, you can still expose your kids to nature play EVERY day. With a little prep and planning, you can bring the great outdoors right into your classrooms.

Stones Rock!

As anyone who’s checked a kid’s pockets after a nature walk can tell you, kids LOVE rocks and stones. Smooth stones are soothing and enjoyable for students to manipulate and, with just a bit of an upgrade, can make a fantastic addition to your literacy center!

  • Letter Stones: Collect (or purchase) a set of stones and draw a letter of the alphabet on each. Students can match uppercase and lowercase letters, use the stones to spell their names or sight words, or match beginning sounds to picture cards.

  • Story Stones: These take a bit longer to create, but are a fun and easy way to encourage storytelling and language development. At Wildrock, our story stone stickers are nature themed, but you can use any stickers that would appeal to your students. (Pro Tip: I applied a bit of mod podge over the stickers to keep them from peeling off.) Students can choose stones to fill in a simple story frame with the labels FIRST, NEXT, THEN, and LAST. Once their story stones are in order, they can tell or write a story to match their pictures. These story stones can also be used as picture stones for beginning/ending sound activities, rhyming activities, and more.


Nature Math

Natural materials make ideal math manipulatives! When stocking your math center, think OUTSIDE the classroom! Reduce the plastic and use pebbles as counters, twigs as tally marks, and leaves and petals to make patterns. Use natural materials to practice sorting based on attribute. Use pinecones, sticks, rocks, and acorns in your measurement unit! A bin of loose natural parts can be incorporated into nearly any early childhood math activity.


Seasonal Tree

A vase full of bare branches provides the perfect blank canvas for a year of seasonal activities. In the fall, decorate your classroom “tree” with leaves! Collect, then press, beautifully colored fall leaves and attach them to the ends of the branches. You can even have students write (or draw or dictate) what they are thankful for on the leaves as we approach the holiday season. (With gratitudes written in silver Sharpie, these Thankful Leaves looks particularly lovely!)

In the winter, the bare branches tell the story of the season. The tree is bare, but it’s still living. It’s not dead, it’s dormant! Students can add bird nests and bird figurines in a discussion of winter animal homes, or decorate the tree with cut paper snowflakes...a fantastic fine motor activity! (Use coffee filters for easier cutting!)

In the spring, we love to add wooden beads as “buds” to our Seasonal Tree. Not only is this another activity that strengthens those fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, but this is a beautiful and colorful way to welcome the new season into your classroom.


Sensory Bins

Sensory play is a staple in many preschool and kindergarten classrooms, and for good reason! Sensory play is beneficial for language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, emotional growth and social interaction. It can build nerve connections in the brain's pathways, which lead to the child's ability to complete more difficult learning tasks. It helps with the development and enhancement of memory. Sensory play can calm an anxious child and help in the redirection of disruptive behaviors that can inhibit learning in a classroom environment.

The trick to sensory bin success is in the rotation of the materials in the bin. Keep kids engaged and interested by switching your tools and materials every week or so. This sounds daunting and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be! Start small and simple.

Use natural materials whenever you can to keep costs down and engagement up! We love a good, old fashioned dirt bin (because as you know, dirt isn’t DIRTY! It’s full of healthy microbes that help strengthen a child’s immune system and lead to the production of healthy gut bacteria) but grasses, beans, seeds, and leaves make great foundations, too. Add loose parts like pinecones, acorns, sticks, tree blocks, and rocks for diversity of textures and material.

Then, think about how you can tie it in to your thematic unit. Maybe add animals for pretend play or measuring devices (rulers, balance scales, measuring cups etc.) for scientific exploration. Include Scrabble or Bananagram tiles for alphabet work. Add tools, such as spoons and tongs, for fine motor practice. Add an unexpected element like magnets or jingle bells or battery operated tea lights to enhance creative play.

Keep it simple! But keep it moving! Rotation of materials is key to a successful sensory station.

If you can't get outside, bring it in! Find ways to invite your children to engage in Nature Play EVERY Day!

It’s Time for a Nature Walk!

In addition to free play in nature, we LOVE taking Nature Walks with our children and students. On a Nature Walk, kids get a break from the noise and busyness of classrooms and even traditional playground environments that can tax their sensitive nerves. It also gives students another way to experience nature...through observation, rather than play.

A Nature Walk is simple in theory, (all you really need is nature!) but we know that there are challenges in early childhood education that might seem like obstacles to enjoying a Nature Walk with your students.

The first challenge is access to green space. Don’t feel as though you need an official nature trail or a full-blown forest to be able to enjoy a Nature Walk. Even a stroll around the perimeter of your school’s playground or the school building itself can provide opportunities to observe leaves changing color; birds, squirrels, and insects in their habitats; or spring buds beginning to sprout.

Another challenge might be the physical abilities of your students and the potential hazards inherent in traversing uneven terrain. Even students who travel by wheelchair or who use crutches can safely observe nature from a sidewalk stroll.

The biggest challenge of all might be interest. Many children, when posed with the prospect of going for a nature walk, will protest. Their legs will be tired or they’ll find a walk “boring.” They’ll get impatient and want to run ahead or will dawdle behind, uninterested in the simple task of observing. For these kids (by which we mean ALL kids!), we have some tricks up our sleeves to help keep kids engaged and, yes, even entertained while on a Nature Walk.

Tools and Props

One of the ways we help capture children’s attentions on a Nature Walk, is to arm them with interesting tools and props. My own kids love bringing walking sticks with them on our forest adventures. They have a collection in our garage, from which they select their favorite before setting off on the trail near our home. The walking sticks become props in their imaginary worlds as we walk, helping to prevent against a contagious case of the  “How much longers?”!

Walking sticks can be cumbersome for a classroom, though, so even a tool as simple as a magnifying glass can keep kids tuned in and interested in the journey of the walk itself, rather than the end point.

Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger Hunts are a great way to keep students engaged on a Nature Walk! Whether the students are tasked with physically collecting items or just documenting what they notice, scavenger hunts provide children with an achievable goal--a Mission to Accomplish!


For the 5 Senses Nature Walk, have kids write or draw pictures of the things that they see, hear, touch, and smell while on their walk. Someone will notice the sad truth that they are unable to taste anything on the trail (it might have to be you--you know your kids best!). If it's possible, pull a small snack (trail mix, popcorn, or crackers) out of your backpack and enjoy a mid-walk treat before heading back into the classroom.

Color Catchers

One of our favorite year-round activities at Wildrock is our Color Catcher activity. We’ve painted the cups of egg cartons all different colors. As we walk along our trail, we invite children to “catch” colors of natural materials that match the colors in their cups (each Color Catcher is different!). This game is fun in the spring, when a variety of colors are easy to find, and even in the winter when, at first glance, the world is just brown and gray. Students are always surprised at the amount of color variation they can find in the winter when they are reminded to go slowly and to look closely.


Nature Looms

Nature Looms encourage kids to forage for interesting treasures to collect along a walk, and to display their finds in an artistic and unique way. Weaving natural materials through the loom is also excellent fine motor practice! Nature Looms are simple to create. Cut apart a cardboard box (I find 6” to 8” squares to be pretty manageable for most little hands) and “string” the loom with 6-7 rubber bands. (Helpful hint: run the rubber bands in the same direction as the corrugation--in line with the ridges of the cardboard. This will prevent the cardboard from buckling.) Along the walk, encourage students to collect interesting leaves, flowers, seed pods, etc. and weave them through the bands. Students can share their discoveries with their classmates at the end of the Nature Walk.


Kindness Rocks

Sometimes, when we go on Nature Walks, we don’t take treasures...we leave them. A favorite in my family are Kindness Rocks. An international campaign, Kindness Rocks is a hide-and-seek game celebrating and spreading kindness. First, we painted some rocks. For our purposes, I wrote “Kindness Rocks! Pass it on!” on the backs of the rocks my children painted, but it’s not necessary. We went on a Nature Walk on the trail near our house, “hiding” the rocks in interesting places where we believed they would be discovered. A few days later, while walking the same trail, we noticed that many of the rocks we hid were gone...we even spotted two in new locations! It was fun to imagine someone finding the rocks and re-hiding them somewhere for someone else to find...spreading a bit of color and kindness as they did.

This would be a fun activity to do with a partner class. One class can volunteer to start the game, painting and hiding rocks for the other class to find. Maybe you hide them along a trail or maybe just in a small patch of green space on a corner of the school property. When the “seekers” have found all of the Kindness Rocks, they can re-hide them in another part of the school yard, or they can keep them and paint a new set for the other class to find!


Hopefully, these ideas will spark your imagination and help you to find new ways to keep your students engaged on a Nature Walk. We'd love to hear how you incorporate nature into your daily routine!

Go Outside! But...Why?

When my third child was born, I truly discovered the magic of the outdoors. A stay-at-home mom with a five-year old, an almost-three-year old, and an infant, I relied on the outdoors to Save the Day. When we were having a rocky day--sour attitudes or over-tired kiddos who wouldn’t nap, for instance--nothing could right our ship like a nature walk along the trail by our house. My older two may have spent the last hour bickering, whining, or being grumpy but all negativity disappeared on the trail.

Now, they were joined together on a mission! Walking sticks were telescopes: “Be on the lookout for trouble up ahead, Matey! We have to protect the Queen!” The sparkly stones that littered our path were jewels: “We must be on the right path toward treasure!” The baby, once fussy, would settle calmly into her carrier, peeking up at the canopy overhead and babbling at the squirrels that skittered away from our footsteps.

The trail by our house, it seemed, was magical: Nature could, at once, improve the mood of a grumpy kindergartner, harness the energy of a wound-up preschooler, calm a fussy baby, and replenish my reserves providing me the energy and patience I needed to make it to bedtime. I didn’t realize at the time that this “magic” was actually science.

Time spent outdoors, especially free play in nature, benefits children in a way that simply cannot be duplicated in the playroom...or in the classroom. Nature play is a crucial need in the healthy cognitive and social-emotional development of a child and, unfortunately, researchers are seeing a dramatic decrease in the amount of time that many children spend playing outdoors and in their access to green space in general.

Cognitive Benefits

Nature is an endless science lab! Surrounded by natural materials (plants, dirt, water, seeds, critters), children are inspired to ask questions, make hypotheses, experiment, and think about the world around them in a curious and exploratory way.

Outside, in a relaxed and playful environment, children use a different type of attention than that which is required in a classroom. This soft focus, or effortless attention, primes children’s brains and gets them ready for the direct attention that classroom tasks and interactions demand. Green space is a teacher’s best friend! Time spent outdoors gets kids ready to learn.

Physical Benefits

Typical elementary school playgrounds, plastic and metal behemoths standing tall over a field of manufactured mulch, are well-suited to children with highly developed gross motor skills. The natural world is much more inclusive of different strengths and physical abilities. Running across uneven terrain, swinging on a branch, rolling down a hill, balancing across a log, experiencing different textures: Outdoor play exposes children to experiences that strengthen not only their gross motor skills, but their proprioception as well. Free play in nature encourages children to take healthy risks and to learn the capabilities of their growing bodies.  

Social/Emotional Benefits

When children engage in free play in nature, they are generally under less oversight from the adults in charge. This gives kids a chance to practice their leadership skills, especially the students who may not naturally rise to leadership positions in the classroom. Moving from the classroom to green space will shake up the social structure of the class in other ways as well. Children who do not interact in meaningful ways in the classroom may gravitate towards similar play experiences once they are cut loose from the structured groupings of academic instruction. New relationships can develop between children that strengthen the classroom community connection as a whole.

Being outdoors feels good. Kids feel free to explore, to spread out, to make noise, and to get messy! Research proves that even a short time in nature can calm kids and improve their moods. In just five minutes, there are measurable changes in a person’s physiology; her face muscles relax, her shoulders slacken, and cycles of persistent, ruminating thoughts come to an end. Spending just five hours a week outdoors leads to a significant improvement in a person’s mental health.

Nature play is crucial for the healthy development of children’s bodies, minds, and relationships. Now that you know why, go outside and play!