Loose Parts & Open-Ended Play

Art, in all its forms, has always been a joy for me to incorporate in my teaching practices, no matter the age group I’m exploring alongside. As a parent, creating with my child brings me so much happiness. Acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, creating models, pretend play, and music…these ways of expressing oneself fire the neurons in my brain. I can literally feel the new connections forming.

So it’s not a surprise that when I finally was introduced to the Reggio Emilia Approach, developed by Loris Malaguzzi, my heart skipped a beat. I came upon this approach at the right time, and was able to implement many of the elements as I learned with an incredibly gifted five year old artist during while earning my Masters.

Here is a brief overview of some of the elements of the Reggio Emilia Approach:

  • Children are driven by their instincts to learn
  • Children are inquisitive, creative, competent, capable, intelligent, and whole
  • The environment is the third teacher (access to rich, loose part materials that foster open-ended play)
  • Educators and teachers are facilitators of growth
  • Children’s learning processes and thoughts are documents for later reflection and planning
  • Children make sense of the world around them through play, socializing, and interacting with others
  • Play is Learning
  • Children have 100 languages: they express their understanding and application of the things they learn through play and many ways of expression including language, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, pretend play, modeling, and music

It was through this approach that I was introduced to the world of  loose parts and opened-ended play.  Many educators who teach in reggio-inspired settings incorporate the Theory of Loose Parts. The Theory of Loose Parts was developed by the architect Simon Nicholson (Note: there is some controversy as to who developed this theory). He defined loose parts as materials that can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and tinkered with.

Loose parts create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments. The more materials there are, the more people can interact. The play of the child is more open-ended, without a planned ending, so it may develop in different ways.

Malaguzzi and Nicholson believed that children are born as creative beings. They are innately curious about the world, and ready to explore, experiment, and discover new things.

According to Suzanne, from Interaction Imagination, “Open-ended means that there is no determined end – the children (or any person using the material) can use it indefinitely, so to speak without coming to an end… it has that potential… playing with cars, pretend food, blocks, play-figures can all create this open-ended play.”

My favorite part about loose parts is that so many of the things you need can be found lying around your home. Once you get started, the possibilities are endless. From cardboard rings to mason jar tops, scarves to ribbons, wooden circles to peg dolls, most of these items can be found at yard sales, thrift shops, or in your craft supplies. When you find loose parts in nature (e.g. pinecones, shells, stones, leaves, acorns, etc.) play intersects with nature exploration. It’s magical!

“Loose parts provide children with endless ways to create and aid in problem solving, engineering, creativity, concentration, hand-eye coordination, fine motor development, gross motor development, language and vocabulary, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, literacy, and social emotional development.” (Fairy Dust Teaching)

For more inspiration, check out Right Brained Mom’s 100 Loose Parts blog post. She has been a great source of inspiration for me on my journey of incorporating loose parts to foster open-ended play experiences.

Stay tuned for another post where we explore how I created a child-centered home.

Any ideas or feedback? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

-April