Designing with loose parts

Posted under Imaginative Play


loose parts

Designing with “loose parts”


When children have open-ended materials, or loose parts, at their disposal- especially things from nature or those that are particularly beautiful- one of the things they often do with these materials is to make designs. In my experience, these designs are often mandala-like in their nature, with repetitive elements of colour, shape, texture and form.

The wonderful thing about creating and designing as they do is the natural learning that occurs.  Without any formal instruction, children learn to classify by shape, number, size, and colour.  They sort things into piles and baskets, or line things up from smallest to biggest. They match objects and transform simple materials into exquisite and complex patterns and pictures. They talk about their findings and learnings with their friends.  ”Look at this blue shell. It’s a different blue to that one”, or “I’m keeping the biggest crystal. You can have the small one”.

I’m a big believer that in playing around with these loose materials, the children learn to understand and appreciate the world, and begin to see the connections between things. I have a feeling that those who have this experience in childhood may possibly grow up with this design aesthetic as part of their personality and temperament, and may even become interior designers, architects, artists, stylists, or mathematicians!

25. creative play2

We can encourage this kind of design play by bringing a few of these elements into our homes, and possibly setting up a few examples for the children to imitate- whether as part of an art or craft activity, or displayed on a sideboard or shelf, or on a wall.

Here are some natural items you might like to collect:

  • pinecones, seedpods, banksia pods, gumnuts, seeds in their shells
  • feathers- all shapes, sizes, patterns, and colours
  • leaves- all shapes, sizes, patterns, colours and textures
  • twigs, branches, sticks, branch rounds (1 inch thick, cut from a sturdy pine branch), tree stump slabs (about dinner plate or side plate size, no thicker than 15mm)
  • flowers and petals
  • dried herbs
  • shells- all shapes, sizes, patterns and colours (shop bought also)
  • rocks, pebbles, pebble mix (fish tank gravel), river stones, polished stones (found objects and shop bought also)
  • sea glass pieces
  •  driftwood pieces
  • bags of sand- beach, river, builder’s mix, fine white sand

rolka blocks

Here are some additions to your design elements you might also like:

  • pieces of tile (eg mosaic), glass tiles, mirror tile squares (3cm square pieces or smaller, as seen in Indian hanging mobiles)
  • beads, and buttons- plain and embellished, plastic or wooden
  • ribbon
  • wooden curtain rings, small round wooden flat disks (offcuts from pine timber factory)
  • glass tealight candle holders
  • wooden craft sticks, paddlepop sticks, tongue depressor sticks
  • marbles
  • glass gems
  • wooden spools
  • wine bottle corks
  • ‘jenga’ style wooden blocks (these Rolka style ones pictured above are perfect)
  • miniature clay bricks (I have these!  They are magnificent. Boys just love them)
  • wooden blocks and wooden meccano style sets like these Chockablocks (below)

loose parts

Try your local craft stores or eco-friendlly toy shops, and online shops like Natureplay, but do visit your favourite opportunity (charity) shops for unknown treasures too.  Keeping an eye out for things a little out of the ordinary is a good idea too. You can always ask yourself the question: ‘Can this object/item/material be transformed by the children in a design project?’.  You’ll be surprised how often the answer will be yes!


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