Learning Through Play and the theory of loose parts.

By Nicole Xerri 

As a kindergarten teacher, I have lost track of how many times families have asked when we will start ‘teaching’ children instead of just ‘letting them play’, while similarly in home education, families can ask about a kindergarten curriculum or the best way to start teaching their child to read and write. 

So many families are surprised when they find out that there is no set curriculum, but rather a framework that aims to foster children’s learning and development through, you guessed it, play-based learning. When children are allowed time to engage in play, they explore, negotiate, solve problems and take risks. Children who engage in quality play experiences are more likely to have well developed memory skills, self-regulation abilities and persistence, helping them to stay focussed on learning. 

Play-based learning doesn’t mean we just leave children to their own devices, but rather we use play as a tool to help children make meaning of the world around them and develop dispositions for learning, that set children up to become curious and creative people who are learners for life. 

Using the ‘theory of loose parts’ in play 

The theory of loose parts in play recognises that children have an innate desire to make and build things, to play with different materials to satisfy their curiosity and delight in the pleasure of discovery and invention. Providing children with equipment and resources that can be used in multiple ways can promote exploration and creativity, giving children the opportunity to express ideas. 

Construction materials, like Lego and wooden blocks are a great example of open-ended materials that can be used in countless ways and often grow with your child. My middle daughter particularly loved Duplo, using it not only for building (fine motor), but for storytelling and role play (language development), gaining valuable skills to help with reading and writing. 

Boxes are another example of a perfect item for loose parts play, with many parents having been witness to their child being more excited about the box a present came in, than the present itself! Keeping an assortment of boxes in all shapes and sizes is a great ‘no-cost’ way of making loose parts available to children. 

My eldest daughter spent hours role playing ‘grocery shopping’ with our recycling boxes, developing her letter recognition by pointing out the different letters on the packaging and using the pictures on the box to ‘read’, which is early literacy development. Boxes were a favourite of my son, who loved using tape to construct different buildings that became more elaborate over the years (thank you to Bunnings for all the boxes), while my middle daughter often decorated her box constructions, using them as a canvas. 

Both children developed their problem-solving skills, thinking about how to use and join the boxes with the resources available to them, using trial and error. Paste, for example, will not hold really large boxes together, no matter how much you use, but it is great to glue lighter bits of paper to the front of the box! 

Natural items, such as leaves, sticks, rocks and pinecones, are invaluable, providing another ‘no-cost’ option for children to connect with nature, and objects from the world around them to resource their play. Take children along to help collect resources in different places and in different seasons to make real-life connections with nature. My eldest daughter was very interested in sorting and classifying these collected treasures, developing her mathematical and scientific skills as well as her fine motor development, moving items to different trays. 

The beach is an example of an outdoor ‘loose parts’ environment, perfect for hours of play with plenty of movable and adaptable materials such as sand, water, rocks and shells. It is a wonderful landscape for imaginary play, building, landscaping and getting creative. Dry sand provides children opportunities to rake and shovel, while the combination of sand and water allows for children to experiment with splashing, pouring and mixing. Sand-and- water-play at the beach, or at home in a sandpit or just a tub full of sand, can be useful in the development of early maths and science skills, allowing children to experience cause and effect relationships and develop their thinking and reasoning. 

Using ‘loose parts’ to develop and extend children’s interests 

Children learn best when they are interested and engaged, so providing ‘loose parts’ that are responsive to your child’s interests can help keep them motivated in meaningful learning experiences. My middle daughter loved helping me to cook and bake, especially the part where you get to lick the spoon after making a chocolate cake! To help foster her love of cooking and baking, she had free access to resources such as pots, pans, play food and child sized apron and oven gloves, which she used to engage in role play, inventing new recipes and exploring her ideas about cooking and baking. 

Providing resources children can use both indoors and outdoors allows for further exploration of ideas, for example using herbs or sticks and rocks as pretend food or having an outdoor tea party. Using my understanding of my daughter’s abilities, I was able to introduce a ceramic tea set, which my daughter could use with water outside on our decking, introducing an element of risk. This allowed my daughter to develop self-awareness and confidence in herself and in building new skills. 

The possibilities using ‘loose parts’ play to support children in play-based learning really are endless! Now that it’s about dinner time, I’m off to go put some of those ‘loose parts’ boxes to good use and create a place to hide from my children when they come looking for me to start cooking! 

Otherways 176 May 2023

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