How do children play? Loose parts in action

Posted under Imaginative Play


how do children play

How do children play?  Loose parts in action.

How do children play? It’s a question that I often ponder, especially in recent times as I watch this massive growth and accessibility in technology become a huge obstacle standing in the way of free play for many young children.

Then just the other day, I found this old ideas book of mine, and in it, a quote from a young child who was in my kindergarten class many years ago. Savannah came to me one day and said, “Miss Amber, my other kindy doesn’t have real toys like we do. It’s so boring. They don’t have shells or seedpods. They don’t have pegs or wooden blocks. There is nothing to do.”

I actually had the shivers when I read it. This is why modern educationists say that ‘loose parts’ are so vital for young children’s development and imagination. With loose parts, a child is not bound by a piece of ‘learning’ equipment to do a certain thing, or use it in a particular way. A loose part encourages broad-ranging imagination and pure creativity. We can observe the children and consider the question, “What will they do with these things TODAY?”  It is magical to watch their play unfold.

(Sadly, you can’t ask the same question about ipads with predetermined games and apps.)

But sometimes, to get to this magical state of imaginative determined play, children need a little bit of help or support.  We can give them all the ‘loose parts’ in the world (see my ‘loose parts’ ideas list) but if they don’t know what to do with them, or have had their imaginations stifled by too much screen time or too many structured toys, we might have to show them or guide them to begin.

One way to do this is to set up inviting platforms for design work. You might like to try this at home.


  • Lay out a one metre square sheet of calico or felt, and place a selection of ‘loose parts’ in organised baskets or mini containers on the edge of the sheet area.  Work with the child to choose a few things and help them set them out in a rhythmic or repetitive pattern, eg stones in a long line or in a circle, feathers radiating out from a central point.  Then ask them to choose a pattern and copy their ideas too.


  • Fill a large embroidery hoop with a piece of plain calico, and put it on a flat surface as a design guide. Give the child a basket or carry bag and ask her/him to go around and collect a few items so they can make a piece of ‘nature’s art’ on the circle.


  • Place a number of small square tiles out in a geometric pattern and invite the child to fill the squares with their favourite objects by colour, size, shape or texture


  • Fill a free-standing box or tub with sand and add a few ‘loose parts’ such as driftwood pieces, seedpods, curtain rings, wooden sushi mats, tiny branch rounds, or timber blocks to the tub and invite children to create a ‘playground’ for the dolls.


  • Outside, prepare a patch of soil in a large oven dish or in a garden bed, and invite children to create a ‘nature sculpture’ using driftwood, sticks, rocks, stones, polished gems, or sea glass. You can do something similar indoors by using a tray or dish of playdough or salt dough as your ‘soil’.


  • Cut out a circle of felt and invite children to create a shell mandala mosaic on it, using shells of all different shapes and sizes.


  • Fill a flat bottomed tray with water. Add river stones, glass gem beads, crystals, large shells and ‘dragon eggs’ (those soft squidgey coloured balls you use decoratively in vases. Find them at markets and in home decorator stores.)  Let them explore water sculpture making. If you feel inclined, you can add a bit of magic by colouring the water with food colouring or paint dyes.


  • Provide muffin tins, egg cartons, small lidded baby food jars, or those 70′s style wooden dip serving platters (find them in opportunity shops) for sorting out the ‘loose parts’.

What else might you do?

Please leave your ideas in the comments and I’ll get back to you!



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