Natural Loose Parts

loose part 3.jpgLoose parts provide the foundation for a play-based emergent curriculum that focuses on inquiry driven learning. According to Simon Nicholson, the definition for loose parts states: “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.”

Nicholson, goes on to state that static, sterile environments such as schools and concrete playgrounds are often devoid of opportunities for curiosity, inventions, creativity and construction. These spaces are frequently rigid and unresponsive to the children who are expected to interact and flourish within their parameters.  

In order to implement loose parts I chose a group of preschool children in an inner city childcare centre.  Due to inclement weather, I brought nature and loose parts into the classroom. As previously discussed, classrooms are typically lacking in interactive natural materials.  The furniture, toys and equipment in the classroom are largely closed ended with minimal opportunities for extending and expanding on play. The loose parts I presented to the children added a level of discovery and exploration that welcomed all of the senses. I chose four natural elements to share with the children: earth, water, rocks, and flora.

On the center of the table I set out a large tray of vegetation with a number of small rocks that the children could manipulate and explore. In addition I set out individual containers filled with flat rocks, earth and a small amount of water that the children could use to house their creations.

For the next couple of hours I observed the children as they interacted with the natural materials. It was interesting to watch the variety of ways the children chose to manipulate the loose parts. The pictures below show two different approaches for exploration. Sticks were used to poke, probe and mix while hands were needed to feel and squish.

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Some children were captured by size and weight and others were intrigued by possibilities.

Two of the children decided on a collaborative effort that took them outside the boundaries of the containers. They used the natural materials as both tools and parts for constructing a rock slide and a play structure.

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The natural loose parts in this activity provided the children an opportunity to engage without expectations. Their play was cooperative, sensory and creative. The materials had multiple functions depending on who was manipulating them. In Forest and Nature Schools loose parts are a part of the natural landscape. They are a product of the environment and are valued for their role in fostering an emergent and an inquiry based curriculum. The experience of exploring natural loose parts with a group of young children was very rewarding. Although I was available to explore and comment on their discoveries I thoroughly enjoyed the watching and listening as they played.


Brenda Frey RECE, MA-ECS
CISS Resource Consultant



  1. Forest and Nature School in Canada, (2014).  How do children learn in forest and nature school? A head, heart, hands approach to outdoor learning. (June ed.).
  2. Nicholson, S.  [1971]. How not to cheat children-The theory of loose parts. Retrieved from