Loose parts – the key to inventiveness and creativity!

Loose parts – the key to inventiveness and creativity!

selection of loose materials

Although no longer class based, I cannot resist the lure of loose materials as, once you have seen first hand how they develop creativity, ingenuity and problem solving, there is no going back!

As a result, I still cannot help visiting charity shops and repurposing materials, that might ordinarily be destined for landfill, in order to update my collection. Fortunately, they do get used in training as well as providing my 6 year old granddaughter with endless opportunities for play. However, with an ever growing collection, storage is becoming a bit of an issue!

With more and more pressure being  placed on settings to increase their GLD (Good Level of Development) year on year, it now seems that much of the school day is spent on the delivery of reading, writing and maths. This narrowing of the curriculum, to ensure better outcomes in the specific areas of learning, contradicts the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage which states that All areas of learning and development are important and inter-connected.’ (P7) 

Yet, in the drive for the GLD,  children are losing opportunities to explore, investigate and experiment with a range of materials and opportunities for creative and imaginative play are being constricted. All of these are integral to the ELGs in Expressive Arts and Design.  Yet when children are provided with such opportunities, the characteristics of effective learning can be truly observed.


When writing about the theory of loose parts, Simon Nicholson stated that …..‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.’

The following video is a good example of how the open ended nature of loose materials can be used to demonstrate  ‘…experimenting with colour, design, texture, form and function’ (Using Media and Materials) and using ‘...what they have learnt about media and materials in original ways, thinking about uses and purposes.‘ (Being Imaginative).

I think this video is beneficial for a whole range of CPD purposes.

  • The narration is a great way of supporting staff, new to this way of working, with ideas of what to notice and look out for when observing.
  • It captures how children will observe one another, which is a great way for them to gather a range of different ideas and adapt these to create their own.
  • It also showcases differences in spacial awareness  as some children will use the edges and corners of the canvas in their creations, others will work in the middle and some will create 2 dimensional representations, whilst other will be in 3d.

Most of all, I particularly like the way it showcases the unique child.  All the children shown took a different approach to the placement of the materials.  The young boy, in particular, was much more physical in his approach and really looked at the placement of materials from different angles.

If you are wanting to introduce some loose materials in your setting, having a designated space and a defined area for the large scale placement of loose parts, as seen in the video, really helps.

But this will depend on whether you want to use loose materials on a large or small scale, in one defined area or integrated into all areas of the environment.



  • You can use a large canvas to define the working area.  I recently bought a set of several canvases from Lidl for the fantastic price of £7.99!
  • Large frames can be used, as per the video or, several smaller canvases can be placed side by side and secured, if required, by taping together underneath.
  • A length of material can be taped to the floor or carpet squares taped together underneath, to define the working area.
  • I keep the hardboard backs of large picture frames as this is a very stable surface on which to display loose materials.  These can be used as is, or a border added by using ribbon or coloured tape.  Alternatively, a pattern can be created on cellophane, laid over the top and taped in place underneath for children to decorate or infill with the loose materials.  Many settings do this on a smaller scale using letters and numbers.
  • Keep cardboard inserts from large picture frames (as seen above). These can be used to frame loose parts pictures and patterns. Alternatively, the border can be decorated with loose materials, which can be stuck down and used to frame other pieces of work for display.
  • A raised stage area can be easily be created from a large palette, covered with hardboard or carpet.
  • Resources placed around the perimeter of the area enable children to access them easily and independently. Alternatively, have some low shelving with baskets of materials that children can take out and replace as, and when needed.
  • As with anything new, don’t put out everything in one go!  Start with a small selection of resources to see what the children do with them and add to this as they become more confident in using the materials.
  • You can leave the resources for children to use as they will or you can provide them with a challenge, such as creating Valentine’s or Mother’s Day pictures or creating repeating patterns or even shapes.
  • The transitory nature of the materials means that you will need to take photos of completed work.  Have children’s name cards nearby as they can place these alongside their work to identify them.
  • A4 photos of these would make for a great art gallery, alongside children’s comments, photos of the process and documentation of the learning taking place.


When working on a smaller scale it is useful, and very effective, to have a defined area for each picture in order to showcase children’s creations.  You can see three examples below – a cork board (which has been used as loose part and incorporated into the picture), a rectangular piece of purple felt and a square of coloured paper or card.

Other examples could include coasters, table mats, table runners, trays and cork boards of different shapes, sizes and colours.  The list is endless!

There are some absolutely wonderful examples of just how inventive and creative children can be, using a range of loose materials on Facebook and Instagram.  They also provide some great ideas for a range of different materials and storage.

Stimulating Learning with Rachel  Instagram page, showcases a huge variety of creations, all constructed by nursery children, whereas Jack Veldhuizen’s Facebook page does the same with children aged 4 – 7.  I also love the way in which he shows how he stores his vast array of loose parts so that they are accessible for all children, stacked on shelves in plastic take away containers. He encourages children to get out a selection of about 8 or 9 tubs to use at any one time.

One of the very inventive ways of adding to his collection of loose parts, is to cover a range of cardboard boxes and cylinders with masking tape, paint them in bright colours then add strips of magnetic tape to them. The outcomes are amazing with many projects being collaborative.   Time consuming to be sure, but very, very cost effective as the costs are minimal.  Why not set aside a weekly staff meeting to do this and incorporate this into a wellbeing session – talk as you paint.  This is very therapeutic and will provide  practitioners with the opportunity to relax as well as provide children with many more variables for their creations.


Another way of introducing loose parts is to add them to different areas around  your environment.

Role Play – the addition of different lengths, and pieces, of material rather than pre-ordained dressing up outfits, opens up possibilities.  No longer will children just be princesses or doctors, they can use their imagination to the fullest extent and problem solve just how and where these materials can be used and what for.

This child accessed materials and tools independently to make a space ship to enhance her play.  Lots of ideas, ingenuity and problem solving were evidenced as she worked out how to attach the different materials. Her fine motor skills were being developed as she  used tools effectively, tied knots and manipulated the tape.


Using loose materials provides for great observations, across all areas of learning,  and great evidence for the characteristics of effective learning as long as the process, and not just the end result, is documented.

Small world – why not remove the plastic dolls house, or castle, and instead provide a box of blocks, small logs and wood slices, along with wooden and cardboard reels of different sizes to enable children to create  a range of structures on different levels.  You can take this even further by adding pegs which children can ‘dress’ with loose materials to make a range of characters.

If this seems a step too far, you can add a range of loose materials to your small world structures for children to create the setting – strips of fake grass, small logs, sticks, leaves, pine cones, some kitchen foil.  All can be used to enhance imagination and develop children’s narratives.

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Construction area – All too often I have seen this area awash with plastic construction kits such as mobilo, duplo and stickle bricks, along with an assortment of wooden blocks.  There is nothing wrong with this, rather it’s the lack of challenge or enhancement of play opportunities which results in play stagnating and you may find children, who use this area often, building similar things day after day.

Introduce loose materials into this area and you will see the play change, as children explore what they can do with them and incorporate them into their play.  Observe children’s play to decide which materials will fit into current interests.  If children are using magnetic play kits, for example, introduce tins of different sizes as well as a range of  other materials, which can incorporated into the play by the addition of  strips of magnetic tape, thereby opening up a huge range of construction opportunities.

Loris Malaguzzi summed this up when he stated that “The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences.”

The possibilities for loose parts in this area are endless such as small logs, wood slices, lengths of guttering, crates, cardboard boxes, string, ribbon…..the list can go on and on.


I used loose materials with great success for many years and the children never ceased to amaze me at how they used them and for what for.  I also was encouraged to see that it was the process of the building that was far more important than the outcome and many children seemed to intrinsically know this.

I once observed a group of 4 children, 3 boys and a girl, trying to build a den from canes and lengths of material.  They tried a number of different ways of getting the canes to stand up, finding that upturned plant pots were the best as the canes could be inserted into the drainage holes.  However, they encountered a problem in that there were only 3 pots and their plan required 4! They spent most of the morning trying out different pots, buckets and other containers to get the last cane to stand upright!.  The fact that they didn’t succeed didn’t matter, it was their confidence in taking a trial and error approach along with the level of discussion and numerous ideas that they had during the process that was important.

Loose parts outside can include everything from crates, logs, tyres, planks, ladders, canes, sticks, material, camouflage netting, tarpaulins and ropes to large blocks, bricks, guttering, pipes and even small palettes. The list is endless!

As Vygotsky stated,  ‘It must not be forgotten that the basic law of children’s creativity is that its value lies not in its results, not in the product of creation, but in the process itself.  It is not important what children create,  but that they do create, that they exercise and implement their creative imagination.’  

The beauty of loose materials is that they can be assembled, dis-assembled, re-combined and re-used in a myriad of ways, over and over again, making them the most truly child led, engaging, cost effective and eco-friendly resource.




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