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Loose Parts From Nature : Gifts for Open-Ended Play (and learning!)

Open-ended toys are growing in popularity because they encourage a child’s creativity and problem-solving skills. Did you know that you can find free or inexpensive open-ended toys that your child will treasure? And, what’s more valuable is that many of these open-ended toys can be collected lovingly from nature? The kind of nature treasures that are available probably won’t surprise you (rocks, flowers, and shells, oh my!), but let’s take a whole new perspective on them today as I introduce you to Nature’s Loose Parts! Read on to know more about the value of loose parts, which one’s to find in nature, and some simple open-ended activities using Nature’s loose parts.

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What are Loose Parts?

Loose parts are objects, in our case children’s play-things, that are free from a predefined use and can be moved, manipulated, and used in an endless variety of ways. This means that they are, by their very definition, open-ended toys. Some examples of loose parts are small cloth pieces, blocks, bowls, shells, and sticks. All of these objects have many possible uses: they can be stacked, lined up, tied together and they can be imagined into any kind of pretend object. For example, a stick can be a spoon, a sword, a wand, a pencil, or a broom; the possibilities are limited only to a child’s imagination!

The real value of adding loose parts into child’s play is providing them to children in open-ended activities and play. In this way, a child can determine what to use, how to use it, and the process of how to implement their decisions and goals, which involves a whole lot of thinking skills that are invaluable to their brain development.

A Quick Peek into Play and Brain Development

Open-ended play with open-ended toys, a.k.a. awesome loose parts, supports the development of executive function skills. Executive functions are like the CEO skills and tasks of the brain. These skills include organizing and planning, starting tasks and keeping focus, paying attention, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. Just as a great CEO can lead a company to great success, well practiced and refined executive functions developed in a variety of experiences and with a lot of repetition (lots of play!), can lead a child to great success. In fact, executive functioning is an important predictor of school readiness in young children. Open-ended play supports executive functioning by:

  • Letting the child choose what to play with and how to play with it
  • Engaging children in self-motivated, focused play (learning!)
  • A child sets a goal for a play outcome then plans and organizes to reach that goal
  • Involves problem solving, creativity, and emotional regulation (which are also valuable in social play where they can practice empathy, communication and collaboration)

Before we get to the examples, here’s one more bonus of playing with a variety of loose parts: multi-sensory experiences in everyday play! Rich sensory play with a wide variety of textures, smells, colors, and sounds (that means more than just plastic toys and just wood toys) help the brain build more complex and stronger networks of neural pathways. And nature has so many sensations to offer, right?

loose parts-nature play

Abundant Loose Parts from Nature

Loose parts from nature help children build a personal connection with nature that instills value and compassion for natural and living things.

If you remember anything from this post, remember this: when you go out with your child to collect these precious treasures from nature (or any other toy for that matter), I want you to think about the immense opportunity for open-ended, multi-sensory play that they offer. Some of us (yes, I am in this group too!), with the best intentions, may go straight for the educational opportunity, as in the science, math, and knowledge to be taught about each object. But at a young age, children benefit most from the experience WITH the object in play, the rest can be worked in gently through books, stories, and conversation after their curiosity has been piqued.

And now, here are our favorite loose parts from nature (but, of course there are so many more!):

Nature’s Loose Parts Materials List

  1. Rocks
  2. Sticks
  3. Leaves
  4. Flowers
  5. Seeds/cones (many plants have dry fruits that look like little capsules, these are great and in such huge variety!)
  6. Shells
  7. Tree cuttings (they can be sawed into shorter pieces or left as is for some large and interesting construction opportunities)

List of Nature's Loose Parts-1

Easy peasy, right? Just remember to collect with sustainability in mind. If there’s only one, don’t pick it, and never take more than what you need. We mostly try to pick leaves, flowers, seeds and cones from the ground. Exceptions may be if there’s a specific learning objective about those items or if they are from your own garden.

Using Nature’s Loose Parts

Everyday Pretend Play

Now that my children are used to playing with loose parts, as opposed to toys with predetermined uses, they’ll pick up loose parts from nature for use in any sort of pretend play they are involved in, from making a soup for the baby to building a garden or home for their fairies. We keep a few sticks, rocks, and seeds available at all times specifically for this purpose.

There are also many amazing play activities that we can set up with these loose parts. These activities are great if you want to introduce or expand a particular area of learning (like letters, shapes, colors, construction, etc.), and they give children who may be new to loose parts an opportunity to expand their creative ways of using them. Once they get started, believe me, they’ll be picking up any stray objects to use creatively in their everyday play!

pretend play with loose parts
Pretend play with loose parts

Activities with Nature’s Loose Parts

Here are few ways to set up open-ended activities that can be set up inside or outside (note: it’s best and more interesting to go outside and collect objects WITH your child).

  • Letters and shapes with rocks or sticks (add sand for extra excitement!)
    • Make or use simple letter or shape “flashcards”. Set out 1-3 flashcards for children 0-3 yrs. For 3-6 yrs, start with 1-3 and then slowly add more.
Letter and shape Activity
Letter and shape activity
  • Nature kitchen
    • Gather leaves, flowers, and seeds in separate containers. Provide bowls or buckets, sticks, and water or sand, if you’re brave, to create a Nature Kitchen. With the first experience, you can make a soup, magic potion, or your child’s favorite dish together, and then set them loose to create their own masterpiece. This is a favorite and repeatable activity!
nature kitchen-loose parts
Nature kitchen
  • Build a TeePee
    • You choose the size! You can use large sticks or small sticks with string or rope. Provide cloth, rocks, leaves, and animal or peg doll toys to decorate and inhabit the structure.
build a teepee-loose parts
Build a teepee
  • Nature fairies
    • Use peg dolls, paper cones, corks, or cardboard paper rolls as a base for the body, and then glue any variety of loose parts from nature, or from home (beads, yarn, etc.), to the doll bodies. Then be sure to PLAY with them afterwards!
Nature Fairies - Loose parts
Nature fairies
  • Leaf art
  • The possibilities are endless here, so I will leave you with several ideas!
    1. Leaf prints with paint
    2. Use a leaf as a painting canvas
    3. Leaf etchings with crayons or colored pencils
    4. Leaf men with leaves glued to paper
    5. Leaf face with other loose parts glued to the leaf to make a face
    6. Leaf necklace
    7. Sewing on the leaf (best with a large blunt darning needle, yarn and big fresh leaves), allow your child to poke holes and pull the yarn through in whatever design they like. This idea is similar to lacing activities, except instead of a lace, they can use a needle and thread.
Leaf art - loose parts
Leaf art

BIG TIP: Keep in mind that, while you may be introducing concepts or learning objectives in some activities, like with letters and shapes, the direction that the child takes the activity may not have much to do with your original intent, and that is OK! Open-ended means that they can choose how to play with the activity and if you observe their choice, you will learn a little something about what their interest is! Plus, simply seeing the letters around them in many ways and repetitively will develop an interest that they will eventually pursue. Enjoy!

Images credit : The Frolicking Tree


Loose parts article author

Kimberly is a former teacher, forever researcher, and a mother of two, soon to be three, homeschooling kiddos. She started The Frolicking Tree to help parents encourage and inspire a child’s curiosity of the natural world to develop self-motivated, passionate learners by providing activity resources and ideas to create child-led nature explorations.

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