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What do parents need to do to support the use of 'loose parts'?

Updated: Feb 28, 2019


Plastic tool kit, 2 minutes, curtain rings and Jenga blocks, 10!

At Wilbur and Flops: Little Learners classes since January, we have been exploring more open-ended resources such as egg boxes, garden gems, ping pong balls and spoons. The children have concentrated for much longer with these than they do with plastic toys. Today, my daughter got out the plastic tool kit and played with it for less than two minutes. I tipped out some curtain rings and Jenga blocks nearby and she was there for at least ten minutes before coming to get in the bath. The image shows what I found when I returned to the room later: she had used a baking tray and worked out that three blocks fit one way and two the other, with four rings per row for two rows. This will be great when she needs to use arrays to add or multiply when she's in year two at school!


Do we need to throw out the plastic toys? Staff at the nursery where my daughter attends have just done that. They now have metal teapots and egg cups from house clearances and charity shops where they used to have plastic tea sets, pine cones and acorns where they once may have had Duplo, and of course, a box of curtain rings. Their aim is for children to explore the resources and make their own choices, rather than following a specified use, as with the plastic tool kit that doesn't even work like a real tool kit anyway!


As parents, Christmases and birthdays approach very quickly and we reach for the Argos catalogue or head to Amazon to panic buy toys so there are enough presents to open. Some even put a photo on social media of the present pile, complete with helium balloon or mince pie and milk, depending on the occasion. The age-old joke about young children only being interested in the box has a lot more meaning than it first appears. Give a child a big box, some other junk, a roll of sellotape and a bit of your time (to keep finding the end of the sellotape!), and they'll happily construct a masterpiece!


On the other hand, I see with my older child the benefits of Lego kits: he could concentrate all day if he had the chance to. The loose parts theory is still evident though - he follows the instructions to build each one, then deconstructs them and uses the parts to make something completely different (as well as a mess all over the table!).


Children love toys and parents are tempted into buying them. Keep doing so! There is still a place in your child's education for toys but before you throw away any 'loose parts' that you come across in your day-to-day living, let your child play with them for a few minutes and see where their play takes them. We are a long way from the day when parents rush to B & Q or Dunelm for loose parts to wrap up for Christmas but if the nurseries are doing it, it's worth a try with things you have in the house. The nurseries have read the theory behind it - here, we are taking the short cut!


Below are some household objects and loose parts we've tried at home:


1. Silicone cake moulds and marbles or Cheerios (depending on your child's tendency to put things in their mouths!)


2. Conkers, pine cones and acorns


3. Strips of gift ribbon (short enough so they don't fit round necks)


4. Pebbles of different sizes, including glass pebbles from the garden centre (we haven't had a broken one yet)


5. Cotton wool balls and tongs or tweezers (great for fine motor skill development and hand-eye coordination)


Risk assess as you go: you know your own child, but keep them in earshot, just in case. Do also remember not to give your child polystyrene as it doesn't show up on an X-ray if placed up a nose or in an ear!

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