Loose Parts Play

At The Treasure Box, children have access to loose parts play, all day, every day.

But what exactly is it?

Loose parts play involves making every-day and natural items available for children to use in their play, in whatever direction they choose. Environments that children can manipulate and where children can invent, construct, evaluate and modify their own constructions and ideas through play, are a great asset.

The theory of loose parts:

The theory of “loose parts” was first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970’s. Nicholson believed that it is the ‘loose parts’ in our environment that will empower our creativity.

In play, loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. They are materials with no specific set of directions, that can be used alone or combined with other materials.

Nicholson suggests that a beach is a good example of a loose parts environment, with plenty of moveable and adaptable materials, such as sand, water, rocks, seaweed, driftwood and shells. Loose parts are the reason that most children can play for hours on a beach.

In a nursery or indeed in a home, loose parts create richer environments for children, allowing them to do what they need to do, to follow their interests and to go where their curiosity takes them. Loose parts can be anything to any child, as they engage children’s emotions as well as their senses.

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.

Loose parts can be natural or synthetic. In an outdoor environment adults can provide an array of loose parts for use in play, such as stones, sand, gravel, fabric, twigs, wood, pallets, balls, buckets, baskets, crates, boxes, tubes, logs, flowers, rope, tyres, balls, shells, water, ice, cobwebs, vegetation and seedpods.

Having “loose parts” available in a playspace allows children to use these materials as they choose. Often you will find that children would rather play with materials that they can use and adapt as they please, rather than expensive pieces of play equipment.

Encouraging children to use resources as they choose, can provide a wider range of opportunities than one that is purely adult led. Children playing with loose parts are using more creativity and imagination and developing more skills and competence, than they would do playing with most modern plastic toys.

One of the reasons for the fascination that loose parts offers children, is that they aren’t prescriptive; they offer limitless possibilities. For example, a stick may become:

  • a fishing rod near real or imaginary water
  • a spurtle to stir ‘porridge’ in a mud kitchen
  • a tool to nudge a football that is stuck in a tree
  • something to throw, float, snap, ping, bend, hide, add to a pile, burn, tie to something else, split, catapult or discard.

It may take a very open mind on our part as adults (and there is often a lot of cleaning up involved as materials end up in places you would never expect them to be!) but when children cross play materials and areas in creative ways, it is our responsibility to support and encourage their work and ideas.

Loose Parts should –

  • Have no defined use and adults must support the children when they decide to change the shape or use of them.
  • Be accessible, physically and stored where they can be reached by children, without having to ask an adult. The children should know that they can use them whenever and however they wish.
  • Be regularly replenished changed and added to. ‘Loose parts’ theory is about remembering that the best play comes from things that allow children to play in many different ways and on many different levels. Environments that include ‘loose parts’ are infinitely more stimulating and engaging that static ones. The play environment needs to promote and support imaginative play though the provision of ‘loose parts’, in a way that doesn’t direct play and play opportunities, but allows children to develop their own ideas and explore their world.


Loose parts play can inherently involve an element of risk.

Say the word ‘risk’ to most people and they view it in a negative way. However, if children don’t learn to manage risks during their childhoods, then common sense tells us that they won’t be able to manage greater risks in adolescence and ultimately adulthood.

This means that children should have the opportunity to experience and then learn to manage risks in their early years.

What are the benefits of risk and challenge in play?

• the chance to learn how to assess and manage risks for yourself 

• fun and excitement making choices for yourself

• self-confidence

• learning through experience

• learning through trial and error

• resilience and learning ways of coping

• perseverance

• friendship

• teamwork

• getting to know yourself.

There has been lots of research over the years, into the benefits of risky play:

Sandseter 2010:

“Risky play: thrilling and exciting forms of play where fun and fear interlace that involve uncertainty and a risk of physical injury.”

Gill 2007, Staempfli 2009, Stephenson 2003, Tovey 2007:

“Risk taking is an important part of childhood development which build confidence, resilience and creativity in children, whilst allowing them to test their own limits.”

Ball 2002, Ungar 2007/2008:

“By taking developmentally appropriate risks in their play, children gain experiences which will benefit their future lives as independent and capable adults.”

Chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Judith Hackitt, says:

“You can’t teach young people about risk from a text book – they need some practical experience. That’s why cosseting children and seeking to remove all risk from their experiences ultimately leaves them ill equipped for adult and working life.“

“We should not deny them the opportunity to learn by taking risks. Seeking to protect them from every conceivable hazard, rather than sensibly managing the genuine risks they face, ultimately leaves them in harm’s way, not to mention robbing them of memories that last a lifetime.”

Did you know?

Children enjoy challenging, adventurous play. They can test themselves and extend their abilities.
Some risk in play is beneficial, if not essential!

Small accidents and injuries are not necessarily a sign of problems. When children play, it’s natural they will have some bumps and bruises. Without some risk and challenge in play, children cannot gain many of the experiences and skills they need in life.

How do you get the balance right between risk and benefit?

The best approach is to do a risk-benefit assessment, considering both the risks and the benefits of the activity in question. This means taking a balanced and proportionate approach to the risk assessment process.

“Risk-benefit assessment means that the play provider weighs, with equal consideration, the duty to protect children from avoidable serious harm and the duty to provide them with stimulating, adventurous play opportunities to let children take risks when they play without putting them in undue danger of serious harm.” (Ball et al 2012:16)

It is a concept that is supported by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in Children’s Play and Leisure: promoting a Balanced Approach

Risk management involves a number of elements:

  • A play policy or statement setting out the approach to risk in play
  • Written risk-benefit assessments containing judgements and actions to be taken
  • Dynamic (i.e. on the spot) risk-benefit assessment of play as it happens
  • Technical inspections of equipment and resources.

Sensible adult judgements are all that is generally required to derive the best benefits to children, whilst ensuring that they are not exposed to unnecessary risk.

Striking the right balance means:

  • Weighing up risks and benefits when designing and providing play opportunities and activities.
  • Focussing on and controlling the most serious risks, and those that are not beneficial to the play activity or foreseeable by the user.
  • Recognising that the introduction of risk might form part of play opportunities and activity.
  • Understanding that the purpose of risk control is not the elimination of all risk, and so accepting that the possibility of even serious or life-threatening injuries cannot be eliminated, though it should be managed.
  • Ensuring that the benefits of play are experienced to the full.