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Open Ended Play

Small Loose Parts for Open-Ended Play

By Leisha Harrelson, Owner of Gingerbread Lane Play House, Maryland USA.

Gingerbread Lane Play House supports authentic learning experiences through a delightful play-based child care and preschool program adapted for young children, ages 3 to 5-years old. Children are given the freedom to play, discover and learn through child-led exploration and imaginative play, all in the comfort of home. 

(Editor’s Note:  Small loose part play is recommended for children over the age of three-years old who no longer put toys and small objects in their mouths.  You need to know your children well and closely supervise whenever young children play with small loose parts.  Small loose parts play can be adapted for younger children by providing larger parts - objects that cannot pass through a toilet paper tube).

At Gingerbread Lane Play House, preschoolers have lots of opportunities to explore small loose parts in open-ended play.  This type of play magically sparks children’s interest, imagination, creativity and learning.  
Small loose parts play stirs the imagination and fuels self-expression that ultimately enhances the entire play experience by making play more complex, elaborate, dynamic and extended.  Pre-literacy skills and mastery are gained in dramatic and creative play involving small loose parts.  
Instead of telling a story, a child can build or create fanciful stories, ideas and structures by adding these extra elements.  Playing with small loose parts can really become the ultimate learning experience by fusing together active interest, creative tinkering, and imaginative expression within the freedom of unstructured play.     

Free and unstructured play with small loose parts also helps young children discover their world by learning about natural and man-made materials with different textures, shapes, colours, masses and other physical properties.  This type of play fosters pre-maths and pre-science skills by allowing children to figure out different ways to order and classify parts by counting, sorting, stacking, grouping, matching and comparing, by creating patterns, designs and displays, and through modifying and adapting toys/structures that suit their whims.  

What exactly are small loose parts?  
Simply put, they are any small materials, objects or parts (natural or man-made) that can be manipulated in a multitude of ways during play.  They need not be the same size, shape, color, texture or even the same sort of part.  They can be a collection of different parts.  They are considered parts or objects and not pre-fabricated toys, although some toys like animal figurine collections and construction toys like blocks and Lego’s can also be considered loose parts in play.  Loose parts can be played with on their own, added with other loose parts and materials, added to toy sets and toy play and/or added to other elements like water, sand, clay, dough and soil.  The handling of these parts alone can help improve hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

Here are some fun examples of small loose parts:  pebbles, twigs, pine cones, sea shells, plastic straws, craft sticks, pom-poms, chess pieces, sequins, buttons, flat marbles, wine corks, sea glass, napkin rings, nuts & bolts, acorns, seeds, feathers, dominos, wooden parts, toy wheels, lids, fabric scraps, ribbons, small ramps, thimbles, etc.  They can be used to construct, create, manipulate, penetrate, move, frame, encircle, etch, decorate, design, adorn and embellish.  Small loose parts can be used indoors and outdoors, with sensory play, water play, and even in conjunction with process art and sculpture.  They can be set out in piles, displayed with other items, or organized in containers, trays, jars and baskets.  

Small loose parts play also gives young children a chance to handle materials that they may otherwise not have an opportunity to play with or may have been limited to specific uses, times or places.  Unlike more expensive toys, small loose parts may be readily available for free or can be purchased inexpensively, while providing hours of endless play possibilities.  The main idea behind loose parts is that they can be used in more than one way in play; they are open-ended.  This is what gives them value and their appeal in playful learning.  It can be as simple as adding chess pieces to a block centre or twisting pipe cleaners and beads into dough or dropping a scoop of pebbles and plastic fish into water or pressing sea shells and shiny flat marbles onto a slab of clay.  

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  1. Children need to PLAY... and play with things that let them use their minds and their hands! Stopping by from Google+. Would love for you to stop by my page.

    1. Hey Christina - glad to see you stopping by! Very true children do need to play and there are so many great examples here of loose part playing.

  2. lots of fun going on!! Great play time activities!

    1. I agree with you Susen - Love open ended play!

  3. where have I been.! this expression is new to me... really interesting to read about it though :)


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