Loose parts

A transformative idea for play! 

Prue Walsh discusses the importance and use of “loose parts” in children’s play, showing how they enable wide possibilities for open-ended and authentic learning.

A definition


One of the most important features of all in children’s play is their ability to imagine and therefore manipulate and organise “loose parts” in order to respond to those creative thoughts. The tighter the space the greater the need for the effective use of loose parts. So what do we mean by “loose parts”?

They are a range of portable items (commercial and non-commercial) that can be used in a multitude of ways. Items such as trestles, planks and ladders, wheeled carts/trolleys, timber crates, rubber tyres, a selection of large hollow blocks that can be used to create and build houses, roads etc., or interesting fabric to drape and make dens are all “loose parts”. They are the key to children’s enjoyment of play and to meeting children’s ongoing developmental needs.



This range of materials requires lateral, creative and careful consideration of children’s safety without curtailing play.


For example, where the children have access to water, as well as “loose parts” make sure that taps can be turned on and off and that they do not protrude enough to hurt a child. The installation of a pump like the one shown must be suitable for early years playgrounds. Make sure the water is not contaminated and there is drainage provision linked to the street or an existing drain. These are the fundamentals that ensure play can occur using a wide diversity of materials.

Breaking away from fixed equipment

In order to facilitate open-ended play,  you need to break away from fixed equipment being the finishing and starting point for play. In fact this type of equipment encourages one level of the development of play and often fails to sustain children’s usage leading to boredom, a breakdown of children’s behaviour and therefore injuries.

Fixtures that work

However, fixtures can work and enhance play if used in combination with loose parts. For example:



Natural materials e.g. grasses, logs, stepping stones, willow tunnels.

Limited adaptable fixed fittings e.g. a low timber deck around the base of a tree to cover the tree roots which create an effective platform which a group of children can sit on or climb on.

Shade provision suitable for the climate and use of the space. Adaptable shelters which cater for seasonal changes or fixed ones in very hot climates.

Swings – if space allows!


Loose parts first, then fixtures.


Despite the role that fixed equipment can play, loose parts are the key to great, open-ended learning. Their use and inclusion need not be expensive. In fact, the most essential loose parts comprise of junk materials, recycled materials, and natural items e.g. stones, pebbles, timber. To maximise the effective use of recycled materials, careful thought needs to be given to storage. This could be in natural baskets or boxes placed at a low level to enable children to access them – even a narrow storage cupboard built into the side of a building or a fence.

Then, to the loose parts add a few carefully selected relevant fixed structures. Fixed equipment in tight spaces with limited usage is the bane of many playgrounds. However, if space permits that fits in with the age and developmental needs of the children then swings are one of the most valuable pieces of equipment.

Pigtail hook

A swing frame, 2100mm high with pigtail hook fittings will enable a range of different assemblies that can be added and changed for children’s needs e.g. backward and forward swings or multi-directional swings.

The sharing of experience


Restricted play spaces need planned organisation and benefit from the knowledge of adults who have experience, appreciate children’s play and the many advantages it provides. The playgrounds that I have seen which work successfully require an active observatory and participatory role by the staff and the sharing of experience between the child and adult.


Loose parts, when used with a focus for recycling natural and junk materials and items which can be moved around and added to fixed play items (e.g. swings with adjustable swing assemblies or low level platforms), are the key to making children’s play thought-provoking, constructive and fun.

Loose parts will require more effort and time to plan for and organise, but will offer many, many more play opportunities. The use of loose parts will not only stimulate play responses but is a vital compensatory measure in tight spaces to enable stimulating play to occur.


Prue Walsh

Prue is a freelance play specialist, based in Brisbane Australia.

The second edition of her classic design manual, Early Childhood Playgrounds: planning an outside learning environment was published in 2016 and can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk 

or if you are living in Australia order from Booktopia.



Feature Image: Pixabay

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