Loose parts, or at least the term, has captured attention and imaginations in museums, early childhood centers, libraries, nature centers, parks, and playgrounds. The assorted, moveable and found materials and objects that spark, enrich, and extend children’s play and imaginations can be almost anything: feathers, pinecones, corks, bricks, shells, spools, or sticks.
In a world where increasingly little is left to chance in childhood and play, loose parts are wonderfully unscripted. These uncategorizable pieces and parts come with no specific directions for what they are or what children might do with them. Tucked into pockets, resting as a sedimentary layer in the bottoms of backpacks, clutched in small hands, or reverentially collected at the shore, children find, pick up, and carry treasured objects. They combine, line up, take apart, exchange, and rearrange loose parts in countless ways. In their play, children are writing the operations manual for shells, a cache of pinecones, bottle caps, or buttons with their play and imagination.
Loose parts, however, are not just stuff, junk, or a jumble of pieces and parts no one else wants or can use. To be sure there are treasures in discards and by-products of households, industry, and, nature. But since children explore the rich possibilities of these objects, meaningful exploration relies on thoughtful selection. Thinking with their hands bodies, minds, and imaginations, they observe, ask questions, and have ideas. They arrange and change objects, their settings, or even themselves. These explorations and creations are beautiful, but they're not necessarily art.
When children build, collage, or trade objects, they are comparing, sequencing, and seriating. They are valuing color, size, shape, and materials. As they lift, move, and occasionally drop glass pebbles, marker caps, or paper clips, they are discovering the properties of glass, plastic, and metal. In building with tubes and discs, they deal with balance and stability, use spatial reasoning, and solve problems three-dimensionally. New words about shapes, texture, designs, and structures are essential to describing how the fabric feels, the certain flat blue disc that is needed, or the delight a child is feeling.
We might think that only young children are inclined to explore possibilities and make discoveries with loose parts. In fact, anyone with limited experience to freely follow their curiosity and ideas about interesting loose parts–and do so often–will be engaged in similar ways. As more and more children of every background have fewer experiences of messing around with “stuff” from the basement workbench, the sewing drawer, or the town dump, they have less fluency with materials, objects, and their own vocabulary of materiality.
What Makes Good Loose Parts?
There are many objects that can be gathered for exploring in a classroom, an exhibit, home, under the bushes, or at the playground. Are all loose parts equal? What makes the difference between materials that foster meaningful, extended engagement and ones that fail or minimally engage children’s delight, imaginations, and experience?
As Without Windows Misha blogger asks, why not just shop at the dollar store? Cheaper materials do save money. But, he argues, their low cost is at the expense of child labor somewhere else. Why not make loose parts from scrap lumber? The measuring, cutting, and sanding are time consuming. Keva Planks/Kapla Blocks probably do it better with greater precision. Besides, loose parts are more than blocks.
Why not use toys or commercial play objects as loose parts? Usually these are single purpose play objects. Once a child has mastered the key function—pushing the button to make a pinwheel spin—the child is ready for more. Due to their cost, these objects are seldom in great enough quantities to combine in novel ways. Ultimately, however, when children use designed toys, even very well designed ones, they become consumers of someone else’s creativity. With loose parts, children exercise their own.
Rich in Possibilities
While dollar store items and commercial toys may be loose and moveable, they lack other vital qualities that imbue loose parts with powers of attraction, fascination, exploration, and discovery: open-endedness, beauty, and abundance.
As Antoinette Portis’ book, Not a Stick points out, a stick is no single thing in children’s play.
It can be a wand, a baton, a fishing rod, or a snake. Like other open-ended materials, it is responsive to children’s questions, interests, and ideas and capable of changing use or meaning in a flash. Often an object’s very simplicity and its ambiguity lend it versatility and provoke new ideas. Small tree cookies, for instance, are variously stacked into a tower, used for money, or incorporated into a design–all in quick succession.
Features like shape, color, texture, and smell make loose parts even more interesting, suggesting new paths to explore. A child may gather all the red objects or all those that sparkle; arrange keys in a radial pattern and then end-to-end in a train; set pine cones on end to create a forest and arrange them in a spiral. Loose parts sized for small hands allow children to pick up easily, bring close for careful visual inspection, and arrange in many ways. Adding paper and markers to the mix can further extend the exploration and thinking.
While saying that beautiful loose parts are more engaging than “ugly” ones may seem obvious, deciding what makes some beautiful is not. In the eye of the beholder will always be at work, but some qualities tend to make loose parts attractive and promising, if not beautiful.
When all of an object’s qualities are not immediately apparent, the objects can become more extraordinary. Up close, tiny sparkles in the stones are apparent, as is the fringe of the Burr Oak acorn caps. The crack in the stone looks like a bird. Objects that are similar but not identical are intriguing; natural variations in color, pattern, shape, carry information, reveal the diversity in nature and invite new language.
Ordinary objects and materials also become more fascinating when combined and mixed. Light interacting with objects shines through, reflects off of them, and casts shadows. Adding mirrors, multiplies objects. Water splashed on objects intensifies colors and makes them shiny. Combining ordinary objects points to new possibilities: shells arranged on an oval mat creating a mandala; sticks alternating with stones in a giant running pattern; a giant star defined by sticks filled with colored leaves; or multi-colored glass beads pressed into a large disk of clay.
Ideas for what is beautiful may be particular to the context. In a nature preschool, for instance, natural and local materials might be a high priority. Without Windows blogger, Misha, is particularly interested in “loose parts from the earth” that “can be disposed of in the earth.” Tree cookies, sand, rocks, and acorns might be valued over cardboard and buttons.
At the same time, manufactured discards and by-products can be compelling when carefully selected. Clear plastic colored shapes, especially when placed on a light table, or multi-colored plastic caps in great quantities can inspire designs, patterns, narratives, and self-portraits. Discarded objects like tubes, reels, and gaskets in similar shapes and sizes, and deliberately chosen in only black and white invite exploration of shape without the distraction of.
As important as open-ended and beautiful materials are, seeing objects in great abundance jolts us out of our usual mindset. Perceptions of the object itself and what it can do change. Seemingly ordinary objects like buttons, brushes, cardboard tubes, or rubber bands suddenly seem remarkable. The abundance of objects feels contagious, infecting us with a sense of expanding possibilities. Vast quantities seem to confer permission to explore freely, take risks, and make mistakes.
When time is also in abundance–when there is time to look closely at each pebble, feel and compare them, arrange them just so, and rearrange them again–then the possibilities for thinking and creating that loose parts offer also expand.