Getting started with loose parts play

14 March 2024

collect rocks beach

Environments full of loose parts lend themselves to a blurring of distinctions between learning and playing, allowing children to experiment, enjoy and find things out for themselves”

You know what they say, one person’s rubbish can be another’s source of joy. We have probably all experienced the situation where children play more with the box than the actual toy itself!  

Therein lies the opportunity for loose parts, whether you are three or 12 years old, loose parts allow your imagination to run wild, for you to create independently, or co-create with friends, and at the same time, reuse and repurpose objects that may have ended up in the bin. That cardboard box can be anything – a house, car, shop, cave, robot – the possibilities are endless! It is a low-cost option for children to play and learn, whilst also saving things from landfill. 

What are loose parts? 

When we talk about loose parts, we’re essentially talking about stuff. Things that could be found lying around either at home or out in nature.  

There are many types of loose parts, such as open ended natural materials you can find outdoors e.g. mud, pine cones, sticks, stones, leaves, shells, along with construction materials and scrap materials such as planks of wood, crates, old tyres, and guttering, not to mention just random objects from the home, and empty cartons or tubs from the recycling bin (cleaned of course!). With this wide variety of objects and materials; small, large, malleable or solid, children can become deeply engaged in their play, and we all know play is another word for learning! 

Throughout the year you can collect stones, sticks, feathers, shells and if abundant blossom that has fallen. In general, we only collect things in nature that have fallen to the ground, be careful you don’t pick flowers that the bees and butterflies need!  

Although you may find them at other times of the year, Autumn is a great time to collect natural loose parts such as pinecones, acorns, hazel nuts, conkers etc. Children are natural hunter gatherers and love to discover these treasures (so don’t forget a bag or bucket to collect when you’re out and about). As the trees shed their leaves, there is an abundance of different shapes, sizes and colours of leaves for children to find and collect, whether it is to play in or with. Finding the biggest / smallest / prettiest leaf is always a good challenge and then you can use them for creative purposes such as transient art. 


How are they beneficial? 

There are many benefits to loose part play, but a handful include: 

  • Loose parts play allows children to use their imaginations to create, to innovate and to problem solve.  
  • Open ended resources mean that children can design their own artistic masterpieces and engage their creative side. 
  • Whilst playing with loose parts children can build, create, stack and balance things, exploring the cause and effect of these actions. This type of play enables them to explore basic engineering and scientific concepts and loose parts play offers multiple opportunities for engaging with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) 
  • Imaginative socio-dramatic play – loose parts and material can become props, costumes and the stage for children’s storytelling 
  • Teamwork! There are lots of opportunities for collaborative play when building and co-creating, which helps to facilitate cooperation and teamwork.  


Future proofing 

So why is this type of play important? Well, firstly it is lots of fun but also research from the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs report shows that the top five skills needed from employers are:  

  1. analytical thinking, 
  2. creative thinking
  3. resilience, flexibility, and agility 
  4. motivation and self-awareness, and 
  5. curiosity and lifelong learning.

These sound a lot like skills we can develop in childhood through collaborative and creative loose parts play. Think of all the interpersonal skills such as negotiation, problem solving and collaboration that happens when children are deep in play with loose parts, they can be creative and indulge their curiosities, figuring out solutions and learning through exploration. There are abundant opportunities to try things out and fail and then try again, and when this happens outdoors in all weathers, this can help build resilience.  

Children play not because they have to but because they are intrinsically motivated, it is how they figure things out. 

For inspiration on what loose parts children like to play with, check out our Loose Parts Play toolkitYou will find some suggested loose parts on pg 22 and 23 

Not sure where to start? 

We can help! Our Thrive Outdoors team can deliver training for your organisation to introduce or bolster loose parts play (and have lots of fun learning), get in touch with 


Jo Fitzpatrick

Outdoor Development Officer