Playtime

I hear it time and time again when the topic of children arises – how can they have so much stuff?

And at the risk of sounding brutal, the answer is: because we buy it for them.

But do we really need to?

It’s easy to feel judged as a parent – to feel as if by not doing what others around us are doing that we’re somehow failing. But that simply isn’t the case – all our children are different and they all have different interests and passions.

But we don’t need to buy whole new sets of playthings for each of these interests if we invest in good quality, versatile items to begin with. And these might not necessarily be toys. 

The loose parts play movement aims to foster a sense of creativity and inventiveness in children by providing them with tools from which to create the things they want to play with. There is a wealth of information online with ideas all over Pinterest , but there’s also a really comprehensive guide available here, on Play Scotland’s website.

Loose parts might include things like shells, buttons, sticks, empty picture frames, feathers, building blocks, small bean bags, dried peas, cups, and old baking equiptment.

In the picture above we’ve got some corks, stone eggs, chopsticks, wooden fruit, feathers and wooden cutlery.

We also have some beautiful old Danish and German coins we found, whilst clearing out my inlaws’ house.

The dried peas have long been a favourite to play with – they form the basis of many a pretend meal, as well as rubble for diggers and landslides for trains.

Blankets are another wonderful item to add to the mix too – old cot-blankets are ideal as they’re a managable size for small people. These serve as dressing up, dance floors, doll beds, landscapes, i-spy scapes (in the case of one particularly colourful patchwork example) and den-building fodder.

With the above selection of seeminly random objects, we’ve played supermarkets and cafes, built bridges and birdnests, and done no end of collages.

This is the bird my eldest made, following a trip to the local falconry centre.

Over the lockdown period, we used the loose parts to supplement learning – shown here when we modelled parts of the butterfly/caterpillar lifecycle.

The above wooden tray is actually a bread-board I found in a charity shop – the dip where the letters are is intended for butter, whilst the chamber holding the rice originally held a grid for slicing the bread over to stop the escape of bread crumbs.

I used the grid part for threading when the children were younger…
Nowadays, it tends to be used as a musical instrument ‘scraper’. Running a chopstick along the ridges makes an excellent sound.

In the past, it’s also been used for Hama beads – the beads themselves occupying the butter cavity, whilst the plate sit in the bit where the rice currently is. In fact, this single, unobtrusive item has possibly one of the most-used play things in our house. And I can use it for its intended purpose when the kids have finished with it!

There are lots of possible games and activities you can make from loose parts – we’ve enjoyed DIY draughts/checkers, a ring-toss game, mancala, and a whole variety of transient versions of snakes and ladders. You can make counting games, where children place the correct number of buttons or pine cones or blocks onto the relevant digit (i.e. 7 coins on the number 7), or bingo grids where they roll a dice and cover the number they roll using – for example – a shell.

We’ve made matching games, which are great for early literacy – matching shapes is an essential skill for early reading. All I did here was lay keys out on the scanner bed, then press scan.

One of our recent favourites has been float vs sink. You ask the child which items they think will float, and which they think will sink and then you experiment…

The only limits, really, are your imagination… and the size of item you include for younger children.

You can make use of loose parts anywhere – they’re great fun for playing with in the garden and on walks.

Most of the things we use either came from charity shops, the kitchen drawers, or the countryside around us. Conkers and acorns were gathered on woodland walks, wooden spoons and chopsticks were purloined from the kitchen, whilst corks, bobbins and buttons have been diligently saved over the years. Keys were purchased on eBay and things like the wooden fruit and stone eggs were picked up along the way in charity shops.

Obviously we do have purpose-made toys too, but I tend to focus on truly versatile things – Lego, wooden blocks, vehicles, animal figures, dolls, stuffed toys, musical instruments, and STEM sets like Georello gears and Magformer shapes. All of these are readily available second hand (though branded things like Lego can be slightly more costly, even when used).

Loose parts are cheap, easily-accessible and versatile. A few small drawers of them can replace cupboards-worth of conventional toys. The ones I’ve showcased here tend to be made from natural materials, but that’s only because I’ve been trying to reduce the plastics in my house for many years now. Plastic bottle tops, plastic bobbins, single-use neon shot glasses, plastic straws, plastic pipes… these are all useful, valuable resources too. The point is not to elimiate synthetic materials, but to have fewer, more versatile items. This, in turn, will reduce the need for new toys, the storage to keep them, and the production of them – most of the items listed have either been used before (i.e. corks and bobbins), or can be used after they’re grown out of (i.e. the bread board).

One of the single, easiest things we can do to reduce our environmental impact is to consume less. Loose parts are a great way to do this whilst fostering a love of imaginative and educational play.

I would love to hear any ideas for how to use loose parts – I’m always on the lookout for new ideas on how we can use them! You can contact me either here or on Twitter.

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