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Play Inspiration: Loose Parts & Found Materials

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One family’s trash is another family’s treasure. We mean that literally when we’re talking about loose parts and found materials play.

When it comes to children’s play, loose parts and found materials are exactly what they sound like: your child playing with little bits and pieces of things that were not specifically designed with play in mind. No rainbow stacking silicone cups, no Instagram-worthy building blocks, no Jellycats. For this type of play, we’re asking our children—and ourselves!—to step out of the comfort zone and make up our own games and our own play, with everyday items from around (or outside) your home.

Where to find loose parts and found materials.

In the grown-up world, an old paper towel roll goes straight to recycling. In a world of loose parts and found materials, an empty paper towel roll can be taped to the wall to create a chute for pom poms. It can be a trumpet, announcing the entrance of royalty. It can be a telescope or a tunnel or a megaphone. Your child is the architect. With a bit of your help.

Offering these up to your child is a practice in intentionally designing your playspace for learning. Imagine a low shelf at your child’s level. Each shelf has little bowls of loose parts: stones, felt squares, pom poms, the caps from apple sauce pouches. Your child chooses a few materials and gets to work dreaming up a world of play.

How loose parts and found materials supports learning

Loose parts and found material play is a developmental staple at Vivvi, and a passion of Vivvi’s Head of School at our Midtown West Campus Rebecca Dollard.

“The beauty of loose parts and found materials is that there is no one way to use them. This supports and lends itself to independent play because it encourages children to think creatively and out of the box,” says Dollard. “Working with open ended materials allows children to become the curators of their play.”

Help your child get started

Instead of simply collecting a bunch of things to give your child, help strengthen their creativity by creating play possibilities together. It’s important for parents to engage with your little one mentally and manipulatively, Dollard says, when introducing this type of play.

“While loose parts are a fantastic way to encourage children to think creatively and use their imagination, as adults we have to do the same in order to support them on this journey,” Dollard explains. “When introducing loose parts, instead of simply collecting items and giving them to your child to see what they do, it is also important for you to also envision possibilities for materials in order to intentionally present them in a way that sparks their curiosity.”

Basically: help get them started.

Set up a play invitation with your materials. Maybe you’ve collected all the felt pieces to make a lake and lined the stones around the edge. Do you have little peg people? Do they want to go for a swim? Ask your child and watch as their imagination takes over.

Like anything, the more often we do it the easier it becomes.

“It is not until you are exposed to the concept of loose parts and found materials that you begin to envision all of the things in the world around you as much more than what the eye immediately sees,” Dollard said.

To help get you started on your loose parts & found materials journey, here are some of our favorite Vivvi-approved materials and activities:

  • Small, smooth stones
  • Pinecones
  • Cotton balls
  • Puree pouch lids
  • Buttons
  • Similarly sized sticks
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Felt squares
  • Peg people
  • Marbles

Caregivers should pay special attention to the age of their child, making sure small manipulatives will not be choking hazards.

Suggested activities for loose parts and found materials play.

  • Small World Play.
    When engaged in small world play, your child may utilize as many small parts as necessary to build their world. Maybe all the blue felt is water, and you need to build a stick bridge for the peg people to cross. This builds imagination and creativity, plus dexterity with those fine building movements. 
  • Sorting.
    Cleaning up after play can be so much more than the stompy, begrudging dance we do with our children. Forget the “clean up, clean up” song and turn on something actually good (Lizzo? Grateful Dead?) and get your child involved in this end-of-play sorting. Each small part should have its own clearly defined home on your shelf.
  • Math is everywhere!
    You can use loose parts to make counting games fun for your little one. Give them a tray ask them to collect four or each thing. Draw a chart on a piece of paper with numbers in boxes, and ask your child to put that many items in each box.

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