Most kids enjoy collecting rocks, sticks and/or pinecones. I know my boys certainly do! These simple materials are just some of the wonderful things kids can use to learn, create, experiment and play. Playing with loose parts such as these natural items are a great free way for kids to explore. So whether you are looking for a quick boredom buster or want to encourage your kids to get creative, then letting your kids engage in loose parts play is something you’ll definitely want to consider.

A boy working on building a city out of pieces of plywood and paving stones.

But What Exactly Are Loose Parts?

Just as the name suggests, loose parts are open-ended materials that kids can play with in anyway that they like. The materials can be moved, manipulated, disassembled or even combined in various ways.

You can encourage loose parts play both indoors and outdoors, but with the warmer weather, here are some loose parts that children can enjoy outdoors:

  • Pinecones
  • Rocks
  • Sticks
  • Driftwood
  • Logs
  • Fabric
  • Balls
  • Buckets or pails
  • PVC pipes
  • Scrap wood
  • Paving stones
  • Tires
  • Rope or string
  • Seashells
  • Crates
  • Boxes
  • Cut up pool noodles
  • Hula hoops

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. It is meant to inspire you to think of natural materials or even recyclable materials that your children could play, explore and create with. For example, if you live in an apartment or condo and don’t have a backyard, then you could skip some of the larger items and create a portable tinker box. Choose a variety of smaller materials from the list above and store them inside a storage container. Then you can easily move the collection of loose parts from the indoors to the outdoors. Or try taking the materials with you to a park and let the kids engage in loose parts play there.


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Why Should Kids Play With Loose Parts?

Loose-parts play encourages children to be creative and use their imagination. The kids can use the materials in a variety of ways to develop motor skills and build their confidence.

Additional benefits:

  • Engaging in imaginative play
  • Exploring scientific concepts like cause and effect, physics, and engineering
  • Developing fine motor skills
  • Developing gross motor skills
  • Providing heavy work and proprioceptive sensory input by manipulating larger materials
  • Allowing kids to practice problem solving
  • Making hypotheses and testing theories of what happens when certain materials are manipulated or combined

What Does Loose Parts Play Look Like Outside?

The possibilities are endless when it comes to playing with loose parts! Just let the kids experiment and create on their own and see what they come up with. For instance, scrap wood, paving stones, tires or crates can be assembled to make a balance beam for kids to walk across. Or the kids can make obstacle courses using the different materials. Hula hoops can be used to create Venn diagrams for kids to practice sorting and categorizing materials. We have even made a giant ball run using loose parts!

Paving stones paired with chalk and cars can be quickly turned into roads, bridges, and even buildings for imaginative play. Or the scrap wood can become ramps for cars to race down.

A small city made from paving stones and pieces of plywood. Roads and buildings are drawn on with chalk.
The kids might even work on fine motor skills by pairing cut up pool noodles with some string (see below) or they might turn those same materials into a giant homemade abacus.
A group of 3-inch lengths of pool noodle strung onto a piece of garden-variety string.

Another fun way that my kids have combined some of these items is to make a simple “machine” or pulley (see below). They tied some string to a bucket and practiced raising and lowering the bucket while transporting materials in the bucket.

A child holding a bobbin of string which has been attached to a bucket and thrown over the edge of a deck, so that the bucket can be raised and lowered.

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