Have you ever noticed that when a young child receives a birthday gift, often they’re more interested in the box or wrapping paper than the present itself? Or that some kids gravitate towards the bits-and-bobs in the craft box at preschool more than the toys that only have one specific purpose? Kids are naturally creative, and find innovative ways to use things that we adults generally see little or no use for. It’s for this reason that they are drawn to materials that allow them to invent, construct, imagine and re-imagine over and over again.

In the 1970′s Simon Nicholson, an architect, wrote about the theory of loose parts – open-ended materials (often seen as junk by us adults) that can be used in countless ways. They can be moved, combined, rearranged, put together, and taken apart. They encourage children to construct, invent, collaborate and communicate with each other, and experiment with different ideas. If something doesn’t work, they can change their plan, or start again. While Nicholson’s theory originally related to using loose parts outdoors, his ideas have made their way into many early childhood classrooms.

Limitless ways of using loose parts


So what are some examples of loose parts? Here are just a few:

  • boxes
  • plastic lids
  • rope
  • old tyres
  • lengths of wood
  • pebbles
  • bread clips
  • leaves
  • nuts and bolts
  • old cutlery
  • shells
  • fabric
  • old CDs
  • funnels
  • plumbing pipes
  • shoelaces
  • paperclips
  • springs
  • egg cartons
  • old ribbons

There’s no one ‘right’ way to use loose parts, and no limits. They can be combined with each other, with more conventional toys, or used on their own. Over the course of an hour, I’ve watched pipes and funnels transformed into robots. Then, they were dragged to the sandpit, where they were used to experiment with water. And next, they were given yet another new life when two children used them as talking tubes to communicate with each other. The possibilities are endless!

Kids breathe new life into loose parts


Loose parts are entirely open ended, and often very easy to find, once you start looking and collecting. And if you can get multiples of each item, they’re particularly appealing for children. For example, last year I was at an art conference and for afternoon tea, gelato was served to the participants. I had a feeling that the tiny plastic spoons (in beautiful pale, transparent colours) would be thrown straight into the bin, and I knew that my preschoolers would love to breathe new life into them. When I asked the waiter if he’d be willing to donate them to some creative preschoolers, he was only too happy to collect them, wash them, and pop them in a container for me. I left the conference inspired by the presentations, and with 100-or-so tiny spoons too! When the children received their ‘gift’ the following day, they were buzzing with excitement about what they could be used for.

Books about loose parts

Interested in reading some books that relate to loose parts?

One of my favourite books that involves using loose parts is Beautiful Stuff: Learning With Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. It documents a project with young learners and their teachers about discovering the beauty of everyday materials, and their endless potential for creativity, design and discussion. The book is a wonderful springboard for launching a similar project in your classroom or home.

Antoinette Portis has written several children’s books about two objects that are probably the most often transformed by children all over the world – boxes and sticks! Not A Box  and Not A Stick are very funny, and a great reminder about how the simple items are often the best. You can also watch an animated version of “Not A Box” here.


What are some favourite loose parts that you use with children in your classroom, outdoor area, or at home? Feel free to share them in the comments section.



This article was written by Wenone Hope (Blue Mountains, Australia).

Wenone was born and raised in the farming region of Wagga Wagga, Australia. She now finds herself teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in the Czech Republic.  A teacher for 12 years, she has a background in Early Childhood Education and has also done postgraduate studies in Special Education and Early Intervention.  Wenone is an Early Childhood Consultant at Lipa Learning, and has also been a Preschool Educational Leader in the Blue Mountains and a Primary School Educational Director in Canberra, Australia.   She’s an advocate for inclusive education, where diversity in the classroom (and life!) is celebrated.  When she’s not in the classroom, she’s out in nature, playing roller-derby, traveling, or enjoying a good book.