40 Fantastic Loose Parts Play Ideas


Loose parts play is one of the most exciting and versatile ways of getting children to become motivated, independent and excited in their learning. They become fully involved in what they are doing, and develop their own ideas and sense of self.

In this post I am going to list 40 of my favourite loose parts play ideas. I have selected these from a much larger list that you can find in our book – ‘Loose Parts Play – A Beginner’s Guide.’ (Written by myself and Debby Stevens)

Loose parts play can develop skills across the whole curriculum, and so I have split the activities up into the following sections:

  1. Storytelling
  2. Maths
  3. Physical Development
  4. Literacy
  5. Fine Motor
  6. Art and Design

Storytelling With Loose Parts

1.Creating Character Portraits

These are fantastic for making all sorts of goodies and baddies.

You can use picture frames and create portraits in them using loose parts from tinker trays. Or you could build the portraits with larger loose parts on the ground outside.

You can build just the face, or it could be the whole figure.

It could be characters that they know from stories or they can just make them up.

If you invent your own character, children can give them a name, and maybe a funny voice. They could have a bit of a back-story: where they’ve come from, what they do, who their friends are etc.

Making up stories is a key part of developing early literacy skills. To find out many more activities you can try why not take a look at my essential guide on how to use story stones.

2. Creating Maps

These can be built using a variety of loose parts from a tinker tray, or from found objects outside.

Children could create a treasure map inside. A good way is to use a large roll of paper on the ground, or else something like wallpaper. They can include all sorts of features on their map. Remember to include an ‘X’!

Maps outdoors can include found objects such as leaves and conkers. For example, stones could be mountains on the map, and sticks could be forest.

It could be the map from a story, or a magical setting.

3. Storytelling With Found Objects

The beauty of loose parts is even the simplest object found outside can take on multiple mystical meanings.

A stone could become the King’s jewel stolen by the goblins.

A stick could be magic wand.

A log slice could be the stepping stone to the magic world.

All it takes is one object to spark storytelling and narrative from there. There can be more objects added to the story, or it could just be that one that starts a verbal sequence of events.

4.Creating A Story Map

This is a bit trickier, and may take adult modelling to get going at least.

The children find some objects that represent things in a story that they know well.

For example, if it was the Three Little Pigs, they could find objects to represent the house of straw, then the house of sticks, and the house of bricks. They could also use things to represent the pigs and the wolf, e.g. small stones for the pigs, and a large one for the wolf.

Then they act out the story on the floor.

They can mark out first the scenes and setting of the story, and then move the characters around.

It could be a straight retelling of the story, or they could make up elements themselves, and change it up a bit.

5.Using Objects In Role-Play

Storytelling and role-play are often one and the same when children are in full flow.

Giving children a wide range of multi-purpose materials in their role-play really allows stories to flow.

For example, a cardboard box, some sheets, some tubes, some containers, and a pallet can be the starting point for all sorts of narratives.

The box could be a horse, or a train, or many other things. The sheets can be clothes, or a river, or magic carpets.

The more open-ended the materials they are using the better.

6.Creating Stories From A Bag Of Loose Parts

This takes a bit of practice, and is better for children that are first confident at storytelling through other media.

All you need is some kind of feely bag, and some assorted loose parts in it. If you are interested in the kinds of objects you can use for loose parts play, then check out my list of at least 100 materials that are brilliant for this puprose.

In this game you take out an object, for example a pine cone and think what it could be. It might be a space-rocket, or a diamond, or a house for a tiny fairy.

Pick another object out, for example a pebble. What could this be? Just keep going making up a story. Help as much as you need to. If the children can make it all up themselves then brilliant! Let them do it, and only get involved if you need to.

The more random and bizarre the story gets the better!

7. Small World Play With Loose Parts

Small world play can definitely be enhanced with loose parts.

Play with figures such as knights can be added to by using, for example, some bolts that are the turrets of the castle where they live, some pompoms that may be the treasure for which they search.

You can make it totally open-ended and just use loose parts, or it can be a mixture of loose parts and small-world toys. Both can work effectively.

8.Creating Settings For A Story

There are many parts of storytelling that can be explored through loose parts. A key one of these is ‘setting.’

Children can make a setting where a story can happen. They can use loose parts to create a scene. For example, leaves could be the haunted forest, and some pegs the crocodiles in the river.

They can use other loose parts as characters, and act out stories and scenes in the setting they have created.

9.Potion Making

Making potions is something almost all children love. They like the magical element, and the imaginative possibilities it offers. Also, it is just simply great for mixing things up and seeing what happens.

Some excellent resources for potion making are things like a pestle and mortar, test-tubes, jugs and bowls. You can mix things like bark, petals, leaves, weeds and other things.

It links well to storytelling in that children can imagine what powers their potions will have. What will they do to those people or things that drink them, and what will the consequence of that be?

Potion making is one of the ultimate outdoor activities. If you want to find out many more outside loose parts activities, then take a look at this essential guide.

Maths and Loose Parts

10.Patterns

Children can experiment with creating loose parts patterns, e.g. pine cone, pebble, pine cone, pebble etc.

For younger ones, just putting objects in lines is the start of this process.

You can also use homemade number lines made from planks to create simple patterns on.

11. Using Ten Frames/Five Frames

Ten Frames are simply a rectangular grid of five squares by two squares.

If you want to find out exactly what ten frames are and how to use them, then check out my essential guide. They are an excellent vehicle to get children visualising numbers, quantities and patterns.

Ten frames can be drawn onto many different things, including:

  1. Logs
  2. Sheets
  3. Planks
  4. The floor with chalks

You can experiment on them with loose parts, exploring many maths concepts. For example, you can create number bonds using stones and leaves. It could be 4 stones add 6 leaves for example.

You can also:

  1. Create patterns
  2. Add
  3. Create numbers, e.g. 6
  4. Make pictures

12. Symmetry Big Pictures

A simple way to do this is draw a huge symmetrical butterfly shape on large paper such as wallpaper.

Then the children create a loose parts pattern on the wings with objects. Whatever they create on one side they try to copy on the other.

You can also create symmetry pictures by putting a big stick on the floor. Whatever you put on one side of the stick, try to copy on the other.

One other way of doing this is with a mirror. Make a picture next to the mirror, and see it reflected.

This is just one of 10 inspirational symmetry activities that I have written about in this article.

13.Transitional Art With A Dice

Have a tinker tray, a dice and a portrait frame.

Roll the dice and then put that number of objects into the frame. Then roll it again, and continue with a different object.

You could make:

  1. An alien
  2. A picture with different animals
  3. A funny face
  4. A building
  5. A vehicle
  6. Or whatever else your imagination comes up with

14.Exploring Number Lines

Homemade simple blank number lines are very simple to make. Just get a plank and paint some lines down it.

Also, we have made number lines before out of a plank with curtain hooks glued to it. Use ten curtain hooks if you can to make a number line to ten.

You put different loose parts onto the number line to explore many concepts, including:

  1. Patterns
  2. Odd/even
  3. Counting
  4. Number recognition

15.Use Loose Parts As Part Of Games

Games are great for maths. You can play outdoor games such as with racetracks or number lines, and children jump along them outside.

Indoor dice games are great on homemade boards or drawn on paper indoors.

For any of these games you can use loose parts. They can be counters for indoor games.

You could use things like stones or sticks on a racetrack or hopscotch game outside.

You can also do big outdoor games such as connect four with loose parts on a grid drawn on the floor.

To find out the best outdoor 50 maths games, then take a look at this article.

16.Stacking

Objects that can be stacked make an excellent source for building towers. They are good for counting how many you have put on top of each other, and also for other calculating problems such as adding one more, or taking one away.

17.Match Numeral To Quantity

Children can collect loose parts in the outside area, put them together, and record how many they have found.

They can create pictures or models with loose parts, and count how many objects they have used.

Physical Development And Loose Parts.

18.Exploring Tweezers, Tongs, And Chopsticks

There are many ways of exploring tools that help children pick up and move smaller objects.

Children enjoy posting objects into containers, counting, calculating, or investigating (depending on their age).

19.Threading And Weaving

Sheets, ribbons, thread and other materials can be weaved and threaded around different objects. Some of these include:

  1. Fences
  2. Wicker weaving stands
  3. String frames
  4. Weaving stands
  5. In between the branches of trees

20.Exploring Ramps

Ramps are great for exploring gravity and how different objects roll.

Children can investigate:

  1. How well things roll
  2. Which roll faster/slower
  3. Which things roll the furthest
  4. The effect of making the ramp steeper/longer/wider

Children can make ramps from many sources including:

  1. Gutters
  2. Tubes
  3. Planks
  4. Sticks

This idea is one of 16 fantastic science loose parts activities that you can read about here.

21.Posting Objects

This is a classic activity! Give children access to things such as boxes with holes in them, tissue boxes, or other containers you find that can store different things.

22.Rolling Tyres, Tubes And Cylinders

All types of objects that roll can represent something else such as trains or cars.

They are great for balancing and dexterity.

Literacy With Loose Parts

23.Create Letters From Loose Parts

There are many ways of doing this.

You can try to put loose parts on top of letters and words and try to copy the formations.

Lots of little loose parts can be arranged around the lines.

Larger materials such as string could be bent around to form the shapes.

Children with a greater knowledge can try to create letters from memory.

Next step is to create words, or even simple captions using loose parts.

24.Writing In Trays With Different Loose Parts

Loose parts are an excellent tool for mark-making.

You can use trays of different substances such as:

  1. Wet sand
  2. Shaving gel
  3. Hair gel
  4. Coloured glitter
  5. Flour

Use different items to form letters and words in the substances, for example sticks, feathers, pompoms, or clothes pegs.

25.Labelling Portraits Or Maps

This is a way of extending popular loose parts activities.

If the children have created a map out of loose parts, they can then label the features of their map. They could write a clue as to where the treasure is. They can create amazing pirate names for things, such as The Caves Of Doom.

If they have made a transitional art portrait, they could label that. For example, a house made out of cogs, pine cones and sticks could be labelled with all its features – door, window, path, roof etc

26. Creating Characters And Writing About Them

Making transient art characters is one of the top loose parts activities that most children enjoy.

Older children, when they have created one, can extend this activity in many ways. They could:

  1. Give their character a name
  2. Write simple sentences describing the character
  3. Include the character in a simple story
  4. Create a fact-file about the character, including their age, where they live, likes/dislikes etc

Children also enjoy turning random objects like spoons into characters. Check out my article about the best 10 activities to try with story spoons.

27.Story Sacks With Loose Parts

Loose parts can be used to enhance an existing story sack. For example, Jack and the Beanstalk could have materials for clouds, magic beans, and coins.

There could also be more open-ended materials added that could be used in more imaginative ways. You could put some sticks and pebbles in the same bag. Maybe you could put in some material, and some conkers. What are they for? Who knows! The children decide.

28.Natural Mark-Making Tools

A great mark-making tool is to attach different items to the ends of sticks with rubber bands. These could be flowers, leaves, feathers, or whatever else you can think of.

These are an excellent tool to draw and write in mud, soil or sand.

They can also be used as paint brushes.

29.Feely Bags With Natural Materials In

This is good way of exploring vocabulary, and learning how to describe objects.

This is not as easy as it looks, however, and some children will require quite a bit of modelling of this process.

Describe what objects feel like: are they hot/cold, smooth or rough, long/short, or if they remind you of anything in particular.

Fine Motor Loose Parts

30.Log Geo-Boards

These are brilliant DIY geoboards. All you need is a log slice, and then you insert screws into it. You can put them in a regular grid, or you can insert them in more of a mish-mash irregular kind of way.

For those not keen on DIY, you can also buy plastic geoboards.

There are different things that you can use on these geoboards. Some of the best are:

  1. Coloured rubber bands
  2. Loom bands
  3. Hair bobbles

The basic idea is just to stretch the different bands around the screws to make different shapes. It is great for using a pincer grip and fingers and thumbs. You can use them in many ways, including:

  1. Making different 2D shapes
  2. Making pictures
  3. Making patterns
  4. Exploring ‘silly’ shapes (shapes with lots of different sides)

These are just a few ideas from my essential guide to using geoboards, with at least 16 activities.

32.Loom Spools

These can be used in a similar way to a geoboard.

They are a large wooden frame with lots of wooden knobs all over them. You can stretch an assortment of bands over it in the same kind of ways that you would use a geoboard.

33.Following Writing Patterns With Loose Parts

This takes a bit of adult preparation to prepare this provocation.

Get a large piece of paper, or a similar surface. Draw some writing patterns on it, for example zig-zags, wavy lines, and dotty lines.

Give the children a tinker tray, and let them place loose parts over the writing patterns, exploring the different types of lines.

Children who are able to draw their own writing patterns can have a go of creating some themselves.

34.Spinning Cogs On Bolts

If you like DIY, you can attach bolts into wood slices by drilling holes into the wood.

Another way of doing it, is having a metal cylinder with holes in, and slotting the bolts through them.

Children can try to twist the cogs onto the bolts.

Top Tip – If you paint the cogs you can create repeating patterns, or even explore addition. (i.e. twist two red cogs on, then three blue ones, making five altogether)

35. Sticking Golf Tees In The Ground

This is so simple. Just get lots of golf tees and stick them upright in the ground.

The children then try to find objects that they can balance on the golf tees. This could be stones, or conkers, or shells, or whatever else they can find.

This is not as easy as it looks, but great for concentration and dexterity.

This is an excellent game for early reading, as you can reading about here.

36.Using Loose Parts Writing Tools

You can mark-make with all sorts of loose parts. Objects are particularly good at writing in mud, wet sand, paint, or other substances such as shaving gel, porridge oats, or hair gel.

Some great loose parts objects for mark-making include:

  1. Sticks
  2. Feathers
  3. Lolly sticks
  4. Golf tees
  5. Vegetable sticks such as carrots

37.Clothes Peg Mark-Making

Clothes pegs are an excellent vice for holding a range of loose parts that can be used for mark-making.

Simply open the clothes peg and pick up an object.

These DIY tools are great for using with paint. Some excellent things you can pick up with the pegs and paint with include:

  1. Pompoms
  2. Leaves
  3. Feathers
  4. Pipe cleaners
  5. Flowers

Arts and Design and Loose Parts

38.Portrait Frame Pictures

We have mentioned this before, but this is one of the all-time great loose parts activities! Please, forgive us.

All you need are some different portrait frames. You can find these at charity shops, or donations from parents or others.

You can also create frames to use in different ways. For example, you can bind four sticks together to make a simple frame.

Using a tinker tray is a great way to explore this activity.

You can use an array of loose parts to create:

  1. A face
  2. A building
  3. A vehicle
  4. A superhero
  5. An animals
  6. Or anything else that your imagination can allow

39. Playdough Models

Pretty much all you need for this is playdough and some assorted loose parts.

Children can make whatever they like. This is great for exploring:

  1. The features of objects
  2. Counting
  3. Using objects to represent features
  4. Creating characters

There are a huge number of benefits of children using playdough, and you can read about 20 of the most important reasons to use it here.

40. Printing With Loose Parts

Loose parts come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and textures. They are excellent for printing in other substances and exploring the effect.

Some great objects for this would be things like bolts, corks, pegs, screws, jewels, and punk cogs.

You can print into playdough, or paint, or another substance such as shaving gel, hair gel, or porridge.

Picture – An array of corks with different items superglued to the top. These are fantastic for printing

Conclusion

If you are reading this and live in the UK, you might want to check out our Loose Parts Play practical training course that we run at venues throughout England and Wales. Here is a link to a description of that course.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Loose Parts Play – A Beginner’s Guide’ written by myself and my colleague Debby Stevens. This book provides a full, yet simple guide to setting up an outstanding loose parts culture in your home or educational setting with children aged 0-5. To check out the book on Amazon, then follow this link

Martin Williams

Hi, I'm Martin Williams, creator of the Early Impact Learning blog. I'm a preschool and early years teacher of ten years experience, and I also run practical training courses for nurseries and schools.

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