22 Ways to Use Loose Parts for Learning

Loose parts allow for freedom and creativity in kids’ play.

Buttons, pom-poms, rocks, bottle caps, acorns, blocks … the possibilities for loose parts are virtually endless. Loose parts are collections that can be used for open-ended activity—sensory play, design and building, storytelling, problem-solving, inquiry, and more.

For the full run-down on loose parts theory, we suggest diving into Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky’s Loose Parts book series, especially their latest Loose Parts 4: Inspiring 21st-Century Learning.

Here are just a few reasons to love loose parts.

Everyone enjoys creating with “stuff.”

Unstructured loose parts play is a foundational element of many high-quality early childhood programs, but they actually hold plenty of learning potential for all ages. Tinkering and making are pleasantly engaging for everyone! 

Because loose parts can be used in so many ways, they are ideal for multi-age environments. With the same pile of beach pebbles, a preschooler could make piles or towers, a kindergartner could practice counting, and a third grader could model multiplication problems by creating arrays.

Loose parts are equitable and earth-friendly.

Many parts are found, recycled, or natural items—all free and environmentally-conscious. Students and families can easily create collections for at-home learning and play. And, teachers can stock classrooms without spending any money. 

Loose parts are easily kept clean.

Okay, so we know what you’re thinking: this sounds like so many items to clean! There are plenty of loose parts options that can easily be washed with soap and water in a colander and air-dried, or washed in the dishwasher in a mesh bag. Or, personal collections can be made for individual student use. Class collections could also be rotated in and out of use.

Are you as excited as we are to use more loose parts? Here are 22 ideas to get you started.

1. Turn recycled loose parts into blocks.

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Day 7: Recycled Containers as Blocks Trash is a child's treasure. Demonstrate to your class how simple boxes and containers can become blocks. Egg cartons can become a ramp! Cardboard tubes can become towers. 📦 Assure parents – this may not be the most beautiful block set, but it is teaching their children how to think outside of the box. 📦 Recycled containers as blocks is equity for all children. 📦 How have you used your recycled boxes. Give it a try and post your play invitations! Use the hashtag #10daysofplay and tag @fairydustteaching . . . #boxesaregreat #makinglearningfun #preschoolactivities #montessorihomeschool #learnandplay #montessorimaterials #invitationtocreate #montessoriactivities #sensoryactivity #educationalfun #smallworldplay #homeschoolpreschool #eyfsideas #abacus #earlyyearseducation #loosepartsplay #screenfree #childledlearning #eylf #montessorilearning #screenfreekids #naturallearning #learningathome #teachingkids #earlyyearsideas #reggioteachers #montessoriinspired #sensorybin #letthechildrenplay

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Block play is beneficial for all ages to explore STEM concepts and stretch creativity. And using recycled loose parts as blocks means all kids can have them at home! (Plus, pretty much every kid we know goes wild over the chance to dive into the recycling bin.)

2. Use loose parts as a tool for sharing.

Asking students to share something about themselves using these parts can be so powerful.

3. Create “editable” artwork.

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O is for Owl 🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉 Loose parts invitation to create. I love how children are able to take such simple objects and materials and turn them into such beautiful creations. M asked what kind of activity I had set up for him. "Can you create an Owl? M "sure!" We had a little chat about the objects available and the parts of the owl. M was immediately drawn to the jar rings. He made a few owls on his own and we made a few collaborations. Letter O week with @startcreativestudio and @littlebuttondiaries #artthealphabet. #loosepartplay @loosepartstoday #loosepartstoday #loosepartstheory #looseparts #invitationtocreate #owl #createtogether #creativechildhood #stayhomeandcreate #invitationtocreatelearngrow #earlyyearsideas

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Collage without the fuss of glue is such fun. (Of course, you can always snap a photo to preserve it.) And, we love linking loose parts artwork to revising writing. An invitation like this could open a mini-lesson on looking at something again, adding more, taking away, and making changes. It turns out these strategies work for both adorable owls and student writing!

4. Refresh a familiar activity.

Spark creativity by adding new loose parts to a familiar activity. Everyday playdough is totally rejuvenated by all these ice cream “toppings.” (This is not just for preschool, either. Older kids LOVE this.)

5. Celebrate the season.

Loose parts are so great for celebrating a new season. An open-ended play session with a seasonal collection can do wonders for inspiring seasonal writing, too.

6. Explore emotions. 

Create a safe context for kids to explore and talk about a range of emotions with loose part faces! For older kids, we love talking in depth about how body language and facial cues reflect our emotional states—check out those angry pine branch eyebrows.

7. Practice sorting and classifying.

There are obviously unlimited variations here. We like to provide kids with categories for sorting a collection (as this image shows) or challenge them to devise their own.

8. Make DIY math manipulatives.

You know tangible items make learning and practicing math concepts easier. We love this invitation to create math manipulatives out of recycling bin or household treasures.

9. Model addition and subtraction problems.

We love how these popsicle-stick 10-frames perfectly hold a variety of loose parts for modeling combining and separating problems.

10. Study 3-D shapes

Many loose parts are perfect examples of 3-D shapes. We love the idea of using old marker caps to explore cylinders—something we all have in our classrooms!

11. Explore symmetry.

Providing a workspace with a line of symmetry built-in is a natural way to invite kids to explore creating symmetrical designs.

12. Practice patterning

Outdoors or inside, loose parts beg to be arranged in patterns!

13. Tell stories and identify story elements.

Loose parts are the perfect segue into storytelling. Using them to tell children’s stories is a great out-of-the-box chance to talk about story elements. We can imagine several problem-solution pairings in this bridge and boat scenario!

14. Spark, represent, and organize ideas in writing.

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I had my teen students tinker with #looseparts as a warmer, to make something that represents an idea about their life or studies. It’s interesting how the idea often develops during playful manipulation of materials. We then took a look at different kinds of sentences and connectors, and considered how different clauses are used as building blocks in sentences. It was great having “connectable” loose parts in front of me to illustrate that! After practicing different kinds of compound and complex sentences with connectors, students returned to their original idea, or to an idea that came while #tinkering, and wrote about it using the sentence structures they had learned. #makewriting #tinkering #makerapproach #playtolearn #teensneedplaytoo #englishasaforeignlanguage

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For a fascinating and innovative approach to using loose parts to support the writing process with kids, you’ll definitely want to check out Angela Stockman’s Make Writing approach

15. Recreate an image in unique ways.

Loose parts play encourages flexibility and innovation. Challenge students to create a familiar image—and celebrate the range of results!

16. Create a habitat.

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NATURE PICTURE 🍃🌸⁣ We used our finds from a nature walk to create a picture inside an empty frame. We started by making trees, grass and flowers. My three year old then added many more items, found her magnifying glass and started examining everything up close!⁣ ⁣ ⁣⁣⁣SAVE 🔖 this activity to try later, SHARE it with a friend and don’t forget to TAG #learncraftgrow – we love 💕 seeing you try out our activities!⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣ #learncraftgrow #handsonlearning #playbasedlearning #openendedplay #sensoryplay #playislearning #earlychildhood⁣⁣ #playmatters #learningthroughplay #kidsideas #preschoolideas #preschoolfun #kindergarten #elementary #childhoodunplugged #thingstodowithkids #exploreplaylearn #wherelearningmeetsplay #handsonactivities #playideas⁣ #pretendplay #natureplay #outdoorclassroom #wildschooling #naturewalk ⁣⁣

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Any kind of nature picture is fun (and a great way to use nature walk finds). We also like to use this to invite kids to create their own versions of different habitats.

17. Learn about simple machines.

Experimenting with loose parts to create simple machines links to science standards for so many grades. Check out this amazing Ultimate Playground Project!

18. Experiment with buoyancy.

You can’t go wrong with using a variety of parts for a classic sink or float test—but we also love using them for building and testing boats!

19. Study and emulate artists’ work.

Andy Goldsworthy is a classic artist to study in connection with loose parts. Kids  + nature mandalas give us all the heart eyes.

20. Expand the definition of “playground.”

Large loose parts outdoors get kids of all ages playing, thinking, and collaborating in new ways.

21. Teach coding concepts.

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I borrowed a couple of Coding books for Cora to read & she enjoy doing those activities in the book ! So I create this #lowprepactivity this morning ( ended up she prep this all on her own 😂 I just took the empty egg carton down and she do all the drawing and even wrote a stop !!! ) • Unplugged Coding activity All you need is empty egg carton, magnetic tiles ( We use @playmags_tiles from @barefoottoys ! Or any brand you have on hands ), whiteboard marker, peg dolls to represent each player, & loose parts ! We use our crystals from @saltandmoonstones ♥️ Draw arrow on the magnetic tiles, sprinkle crystals everywhere you like & PLAY ! • Choose the “treasure” that you want & Let the kid figure out which is the correct sequence to lead him/her to the particular “treasure “ that he or she want ! DO NOT step on the crystal that you don’t want to pick or player 2 ( you guys can add alittle challenge on it like some poison holes/volcano etc ) Swipe left to see how Cora play ☺️ • It’s quite fun !!! It require the both of us to think before making our own correct sequence otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get our treasure ! The girl love anything that’s competitive so I add on ( whoever have the most treasure win ) 😂 #unpluggedcoding #diy #openendedplay #everydayplayhacks #playmags #magnetictiles #pegdolls #craftedbylarissa #crystalsplav #codingforkids #kidsg #kidstagram #kidstoys #learnthroughplay #playbasedlearning #openendedtoys #whattodowithkids #homelearning #stayhomeactivitiesforkids #sahm #mummysg #littlecoralarissaseah #journeywithcoralarissaseah #weplayallday #myhomeweplay

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Loose parts pair perfectly with #unpluggedcoding. Kids can use them to create a maze and then code to move figures through the course. 

22. Create stop motion projects.

Traditional loose parts play is, by definition, low-tech, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add a tech element. They are an ideal resource for creating characters and settings for stop motion videos.

Do you use loose parts to support learning? Share your favorite ideas in the comments!

Plus, our favorite building toys for kids.

22 Ways to Use Loose Parts for Learning

Posted by Lindsay Barrett

A former elementary teacher and reading nonprofit director, Lindsay now works as a literacy consultant and freelance writer while wrangling her four young children.

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