Risk In Loose Parts Play (And How To Assess It)


Loose parts play comes with some small associated risks.

As either an educator or parent it is a good idea to be aware of what these risks are, and how to either prevent or manage them. In an educational setting, you may also want to have some form of written risk assessment for any loose parts areas or provision (although you definitely don’t need to go over the top). I will take a look at all of these things in this article.

Loose parts play is not really something to be worried about as overly risky. However, there are things that may and probably will happen, and it is a good idea to know what to expect and how to either stop it or lessen its negative impact.

The Risks Of Loose Parts Play

Loose parts play is any open-ended play that takes place with objects.

In loose parts play, the objects can take on many purposes depending on the ideas of the children. For example, a stone can be a magic diamond, or a toad, or a volcano. How it is used is determined by the children’s imagination.

It is a world of wonder and make-believe. Therefore, it is also an infinite world, and to a degree anything can happen. For example, in the blink of an eye a stick can become a samurai sword and be used for all sorts of mischief.

Loose parts play, therefore, does come with some small associated risks. The main risks probably are:

  1. Choking (this is probably the biggie)
  2. Children that throw things
  3. Falling off structures outside
  4. Being hit with objects by mistake, particularly in large-scale symbolic play outside

These are things to be aware of and to be constantly vigilant of in the setting. Be aware that these risks could happen, and be prepared to step in before they do if possible.

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and how to prevent or manage the risk.

1. How To Avoid Choking

This is definitely the number one risk to be aware of where loose parts are concerned. There are some top tips to greatly reduce the risk:

  1. If using smaller objects that choke, offer a suitable level of supervision. With preschool children, this would probably be 1 to 8.
  2. Use dangerous tools only under adult supervision
  3. Use very small parts only under adult supervision
  4. Use a choking gauge to measure objects if unsure. A great way to do this is use a cardboard tube, such as a kitchen paper tube. If an item will go down a tube it is small enough to cause a hazard.
  5. Tidy away any stray loose parts after an activity or provocation has finished
  6. Use age-appropriate materials (when and if appropriate)
  7. Be aware of any children that have conditions such as autism where they will put lots of objects in their mouths

2. Children That Throw Things

Throwers are definitely on the rise across early education. Knowing who the throwers are is key, and being vigilant and dealing firmly with throwing if it happens will also help.

If you think throwing things will be a high risk amongst the children in your care, then think carefully about the items they have access to. One item to definitely keep out of the setting is large stones.

3. Falling Off Structures Outside

Building towers and walkways with loose parts such as crates is all about experimentation, and children need to be given the space and freedom to explore what they have built. To find out more about the types of outdoor loose parts learning you can try, then take a look at this. To a degree they need to learn what they can climb and what they can’t, and most will develop the skills necessary to learn about their personal limitations.

Keep in mind, however, that many children, including those with special needs, may require extra support to assess what is within their level of skill and what is not.

4. Being Hit With Objects By Mistake

This often occurs when things such as sticks become magic wands or something similar. This will usually just happen by mistake. It is important just to reinforce that even though we can play with objects such as sticks, we need to look around and be careful of our friends.

To find out some of the kinds of objects to use in loose parts play then you can check out this guide of 100 recommended materials.

The Benefits

OK, so there are all the things that might go wrong.

But why do you still want to bother, you might think? Well, both loose parts play and risky play comes with lots of advantages, so let’s take a look at what some of those are now…

Benefits of Risk in Loose Parts

Risky play is a form of play that is thrilling! It involves risk-taking, and gets children learning about boundaries and themselves. It is challenging and gets their full focus. If you want to find out the importance of risky play for children, then you can read this in-depth article I wrote about the 21 benefits.

It is normally defined in six categories:

  1. Playing with height, such as climbing
  2. Using dangerous tools such as saws or drills
  3. Disappearing games, such as hide-and-seek and getting lost
  4. Being near to dangerous elements such as fire and water
  5. Experiencing speed, such as on a bike or swing
  6. Rough and tumble play, such as chase or play fighting

If you want to know what this looks like in real life, then take a look at this article – 25 Examples of Risky Play.

Many of these areas of risky play can be carried out using loose parts, both large or small. Here are some examples…

Children can build with construction materials inside. For example, they can stack blocks and crates, and attempt to make walkways over these using planks.

They can make walkways through the mud, or over varied terrain outdoors.

They can create ramps or slides out of planks or wood.

They can use small child-friendly steps to climb up structures and build with drainpipes and gutters.

They can use small child-friendly mallets, or you can use larger hammers that are more like the sort adults would use. Good hammering activities include hammering golf tees into different things (such as pumpkins, peg boards, or even a lump or plasticine).

You can hammer pins or small nails into cork-boards, or small pieces of soft wood.

You can use knives to whittle the bark of sticks. This could be done for open-ended stick play. In this the sticks become all sorts of different symbolic representations.

Drills can be used for drilling holes in small slices of wood. You use hand-drills, never an electric version. Great for wood crafts, mobiles, and just experimenting as well.

They can play disappearing games where they find a space where they are out of sight of others. This could be under a table, in a box, or in a cosy corner hidden away in a room somewhere.

If you have plenty of big-scale loose parts materials, they can create their own dens or structures to hide in. A range of loose parts to hand can offer a range of imaginative opportunities in these dens.

Children enjoy creating dens that are so dark that no light can get in. This desire for being isolated and in a dangerous space is the desire for risky play.

Creating different spaces around the room for more solitary play really helps as well. Putting a sheet over a table, or having a dark tent, gives the children an opportunity to experience the wonder of ‘disappearing’, a few moments where no one can see them.

If you want to find out more about the types of loose parts play learning opportunities that you could try out, then why not check out this article about – ’40 Fantastic Loose Parts Ideas.’

Picture – Outdoor loose parts play at the brilliant Bradley Green Primary School in Hyde

Risk Assessments

By using an easy and effective risk assessment you will be fine. There is no set pro-forma you need to use.

We always use a simple system of three columns listing the benefits to the child against the risk and how we are going to manage this.

 For example:

A dog chain offers so many learning opportunities

Benefits:

The coldness of the chain on the teeth

The heaviness

The feel of the links when moved through their hands

The sound it makes when banged or dropped against other silver items

The silver capturing the light

The different sensory experience of the material

Risk:

The heaviness of the chain (at this age it’s unlikely they could put it round their neck).

How to manage the risk:

Choose links that aren’t too big/ small to trap fingers.

When To Write A Risk Assessment

It is worth thinking about the following things:

  1. Each activity does not need a written risk assessment
  2. You do need to have a written risk assessment if you access dangerous tools in relation to loose parts play, e.g. saws or drills.
  3. A loose parts area would only need one risk assessment, and could even just be included in a risk assessment of the whole indoor or outdoor space

Keep any risk assessments simple and usable. It should not be an onerous task repeated regularly. One risk assessment is all that is required for continuous provision.

Conclusion

Managed risk is a vital component of early education, and practitioners should not be put off from allowing it into their provision.

Loose parts play is a relatively low risk form of learning, and by following some simple guidelines you will be fine. Keep an eye out for choking hazards, and be careful of any children that use objects in an overly aggressive way.

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 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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