Using Nature in Play – Our favourite loose parts to use at home

“The land is where our roots are.  The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the earth” Maria Montessori.

In my love of collecting pieces from nature, I have passed it onto my son. A couple of months ago we were walking to a late rugby league game and there was a lot of foot traffic.

“That leaf! I need that big leaf,” my 4 year old exclaimed as he weaved through the feet to get to the big brown leaf that had caught his eye.

My partner seemed slightly annoyed he was so worried about a leaf. My heart fluttered as he cared so much about this leaf he thought he must get it at once.  He carried that leaf into the game as we made our way to find our seats. One man joked, “that’s a nice leaf.” But Marley didn’t even hear him. I replied with a smile, “yes, it seems very important to him.” The three hours we were there he played with the leaf, tried hard to understand what was happening in the game, he people watched and ate food. Then on the way back to the car I offered that we look for more leaves, which of course he was excited about.  We took them home and used them at his nature table.

Here in Melbourne there are very different natural resources to find around in nature than back home in New Zealand so I’m happy to explore to see what we can find.

When we use resources collected from the land children can learn so much about looking in our current surroundings and being present in the moment. We can enjoy being out in nature and breath the fresh air while we scan our earth for treasures and we can say thank you to the land for giving us these beautiful resources.

Every child is born a naturalist.  His eyes are, by nature, open to the glories of the stars, the beauty of the flowers and the mystery of life” Ritu Ghatourey

The Theory of Loose Parts (Open Ended Resources)

Some parents may have heard of this concept but not understood what this term means.   So I will help to explain.

In 1972, architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts. The idea that loose parts, materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and tinkered with can create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments.  Nicholson encourages us to think: how much of this material/activity/toy have we
invented (or been invented by another)? And how much can the child invent?

When you give a child an object with no set purpose, it allows the child to be creative and think of an abundance of ideas to use in their play while simultaneously developing more competence and skill than playing with most modern/active plastic toys.

When children are provided modern toys such as a plastic phone, it can only be a phone.  If a child is given a block, it could be a block, wall, car, boat, slide, ramp, bed or a phone! It is only limited by a child’s imagination.

Passive toys make active babies and active toys make passive babies” Magda Gerber

Some other examples of active toys are: light up toys, musical plastic toys, anything that needs batteries, activity tables/walkers.  These types of toys entertain rather than meaningfully engage. Active toys do not allow much room for playing and creativity as they only have one distinct purpose.  This can set babies/toddlers and children up for the need of constant entertainment and get irritated and bored with their toys easily.  These kind of toys are also not usually great for our environment as opposed to beautiful wooden sustainable wooden toys you can find made by local businesses these days.

Loose parts (or Intelligent Materials I heard them being called the other day) can be adapted and manipulated in many ways.  Children can use loose parts for sorting and counting.  Open ended materials are beautiful and natural, deepening the child’s sense of wonder with the natural world.  Children use these materials to make designs and represent the world as they see it.

Children use loose parts to acquire, organize and apply learning” Lisa Daly & Miriam Beloglovsky

Our favourite loose parts we love to search in nature for are:

  • shells
  • rocks
  • branches
  • leaves
  • sticks
  • pine cones
  • flowers
  • gumnuts
  • Feathers
  • Seedpods
  • Sea glass

Loose parts we reuse/recycle from the home are:

  • Cardboard tubes
  • Bottle tops
  • Pouch tops
  • Jars
  • Jar lids
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Straws
  • Wool scraps
  • Egg cartons
  • Bread tags
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Thread spools
  • Ribbons
  • Old Cd’s or DVD’s

Our favourite loose parts we like to buy are:

  • Matchsticks
  • Glass stones
  • Small mirror pieces
  • Buttons
  • Balsa wood pieces
  • Wooden rings
  • Corks
  • Blocks
  • Pom poms
  • Crochet doilies
  • Paper doilies
  • Peg dolls
  • Tree biscuits
  • Scarves/Fabric scraps
  • Grimm’s wooden toys
  • Grapat wooden toys
  • Wooden letters
  • Wooden numbers
  • Wooden pegs
  • Cotton buds
  • Wooden beads
  • Shower rings
  • Velcro hair curlers


How to store loose parts

You don’t need to spend heaps of money on expensive storage, just use what you have at home or hunt around second hand shops to find what you need to keep it all organised. Making sure everything has a home can help your child put it back when they’re finished and if it’s organised and tidy, children can find what they need easily. If we treat the resources with respect and and have expectations of keeping it tidy, children will follow and take on the same attitude about their own belongings.

Some ideas for storage:

  • Jars
  • Baskets
  • Tinker tray
  • Wooden boxes
  • Shoe boxes
  • Old plastic takeaway containers
  • Wooden bowls


Do you have a better understanding of loose parts now?

Have you got loose parts at home? Will you now try using these resources at home?

We would love to hear from you!

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