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  • Writer's picturecathybelgrave

Loose Parts: A Vehicle for Change?

I recently had the opportunity to attend an online educational conference on loose parts. Having used loose parts in my preschool programs, I was curious and wanted to learn more. Here's some of what I learned ....

What are Loose Parts?

  • Something that can be moved, manipulated, combined

  • Natural materials, ordinary objects

  • Anything that can be used in diverse ways

  • Tools that children use to express themselves, to think deeply, solve problems

  • Open-ended materials, no predetermined use

  • Small or large parts that can be used in multiple ways

These were just a few of the definitions offered, and I thought to myself, okay, this is what I remember doing as a child. My cousins and I would spend hours in our grandmother's backyard playing with stuff - rocks that became a fire pit, sticks that became shovels, swords, guns, willow leaves that turned into headdresses. We climbed trees, created territories, staged ambushes, collaborated to build forts. I began to wonder what the big deal was; l felt that loose parts were just a part of regular play. Was this another bit of educational jargon for something children did naturally in their play?

Then the speakers began to talk about the importance of play at school:

  • Children need to play in order to thrive

  • Play is a way children show us what they're capable of

  • Loose parts play can be an entry into play and learning

  • When children use loose parts they are in charge of the play - play is self-initiated, self-directed, self-sustaining

  • By using loose parts, children learn to think critically, be problem-solvers, innovators. They can show us the complexity of their thinking.

  • When teachers step back and observe children at play, they deepen their understanding of children

  • With understanding come joy and love, leading to deep engagement and learning

Everyone thinks about play as an action, but it's a feeling ~ Nate

What a radical idea - bringing play into the classroom and seeing it as the way children learn! I tried to imagine how this would work in a grade 3 classroom. Where did that position the curriculum? It was becoming clear that the conference was about the shift the educational system needs to make in order to enable children to learn through play. Wow, play as learning in school. This would require a shift not only in how we view play, but a shift in power - a shift that would empower children, putting them in charge of their learning. This would require new attitudes about children and play.


  • Openness to exploring our attitudes towards play - Do we think play is important? Can learning happen during play? Is play safe?

  • Becoming an observer. Step back, allow space to play without interfering. Listen, observe and understand what's going on in play. Let children be in charge of their play.

  • Taking time to reflect. Think deeply about what's going on in children's play.

  • Honour the process we witness. Instead of looking for success or deficits, look for where the child has a sense of achievement

  • Trust - hold a space of loving safety vs policing children

  • Prioritize curiosity - the children's and our own

  • Allow large amounts of time for play

  • Accept the impermanence of play. Shift from consumerism to creativity - it's not about creating a product, it's about the creative experience

  • Less is more - children can show the complexity of their thinking with a small amount of materials

  • Create an environment of safety, trust, joy, love

  • Have the child's joy as the centering of education ~ Jesse Coffino

Breathe, watch the children, breathe, let go ~ Meynell Walter

I realized that cultivating these attitudes moves us away from having the curriculum as the centre of what we do; these attitudes place the child at the centre. We would be moving away from using loose parts like we use math manipulatives - a tool for teachers to reach a predetermined outcome. We would be creating a safe, loving environment where children would be joyfully and deeply engaged in play. We would believe that learning happens during play. We would be following children's interests and intentionally providing the materials they need to deepen engagement. We would be reflecting on the play we observed, looking at the curriculum and noting what curriculum strands had been addressed during play.

This level of change cannot be done by the teacher alone, it requires the involvement of administration, families - the whole community. It requires cultivating a culture of inquiry and finding ways to restructure assessment tools, trusting in the meaning making process. It requires acknowledging and unpacking the greatest challenge of all, our understanding of the traditional education system.

We may one day collectively reach the place where, when someone says, hey, let's go play, we know the children are entering a space of deep learning. Loose parts is just part of the story.

With deep gratitude to Miriam Beloglovsky and all the speakers at the Loose Parts Summit.


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