Loose parts for physicality

Traditional fixed play equipment is not necessary for physicality; if it’s there, then great – use it.  Most of the Outdoors and Active project settings had little or no money to spend on improvements to their play landscapes, so it was necessary to adopt an alternative approach to getting children physically active.  That approach was to embrace new ways to use the loose parts resources that almost all early years settings provide.

Simon Nicholson’s “Theory of Loose Parts” states that the creative and inventive possibilities of a landscape (or playscape) are directly related to the number of “variables” in it.  These variables – loose parts – can be moved, stacked, carried, adapted, re-shaped, buried, extended and so on.  In the education sector, the term “loose parts” is used to refer to playable objects that are not permanently fixed in place.  As part of their action research project investigations, the Outdoors and Active team tested out dozens of loose parts to establish which were most likely to get children moving, physically active and in touch with their own physicality. 

The Outdoors and Active research suggests that children take great delight in using loose parts in new and physically inventive ways.  We found that:

  • Children were more active when they were able to manipulate playable objects and move them around the whole space.  If they were confined to strictly “zoned” areas, they moved less.
  • Storage should be organised to encourage children to collect and transport loose parts around the garden, rather than for “convenience”.  For example, children are more physically active if the hollow blocks they want to play with are located some distance from the area they want to play with them in.
  • Abundance and generosity in loose parts was crucial for communication and social skills, in addition to physicality.  Where children had access to large quantities of loose parts (for example, dozens of pots and pans for a mud kitchen or a couple of large boxes of dressing up clothes) they were more likely to play collaboratively and to communicate with one other and nearby adults.
  • The length of time children were outdoors affected the intensity and frequency of their activity.  When they knew they had a short time outdoors, children very often displayed frenetic, disconnected movements.  Whilst these are an essential part of the day’s physicality menu, limiting children’s time outdoors prevented them from becoming deeply engaged in their play.  Longer periods of time outdoors appeared to encourage children to vary their movement choices and to collaborate and occupy the whole space.
  • Children liked to play with unusual loose parts items.  Since there was little or no funding available to make significant improvements outdoors, it was necessary to make the most of free and found objects.  Settings visited scrap stores, pound shops and charity shops and jumble sales in search of compelling objects that children would be unable to resist playing with.  Practitioners also asked for donations from parents and Julie Mountain (author of Bloomsbury’s Little Book of Free and Found) taught them never to walk past a skip without looking into it!

Here are some suggestions for loose parts resources to encourage whole body physicality:

  • Natural materials: long, heavy sticks; pine cones; piles of leaves, buckets of conkers; log slices of various sizes and weights; straw bales; rocks, pebbles and stones
  • Gymnastic loose parts such as ribbons on sticks, hula hoops of various sizes, balls, cheerleader pompoms
  • Balls: squishy rubber ones; textured balls, balls with a bell inside; balls with a long tail sewn on
  • Wooden swords or bows and arrows (provide targets for these); magic wands; loud musical instruments such as drums, bells and cymbals
  • Bubble mix – try the extra large bubbles created by two unequal lengths of string tied to the ends of two sticks
  • On a rainy day (or a roastingly hot day): transparent bell shaped umbrellas; a hosepipe, vessels for carrying and pouring water; squirters and sprayers; an extra long length of smooth plastic with washing up liquid on it, for skidding along; rainshakers; ladles and sieves; flags
  • Den making materials, hollow blocks, poles and sticks; guttering; silky scarves; cushions; cargo net; blankets and sheets; tarpaulins
  • “Real” heavy objects: bricks; breeze blocks; planks of wood (sanding these with sanding blocks is a great whole arm activity); galvanised buckets; tractor tyres; ladders
  • Pound shop treasures: two handed back scratchers; magnifying sheets; head massager; French skipping elastics and skipping ropes; headtorches; pedometers
  • Bottle Babies: 2l clear plastic bottles, filled with water and glitter or small objects, and the lids sealed shut.  Bottle babies are a thoroughly open ended resource and children never fail to be absorbed by them – see the picture above.

These items were tried and tested by children across Newham (and very often, by their key adults too) and were found to be intriguing and open ended in nature, which meant that children were able to use them in a multitude of self-chosen ways.  Frequently, this included being physically active – for example, using mini-headtorches to crawl through bushes, or shine a light into a tunnel or tree.  The Outdoors and Active researchers also noted that children were more active when they were encouraged to combine loose parts in ways they hadn’t traditionally tried, or had been discouraged from doing.  An example would be using recycled “real” construction items such as bricks and timber planks alongside the purchased hollow blocks and with second hand sheets and blankets, pegs and sticks thrown into the mix.

Further reading

Outdoors and Active

Outdoors and Active – an action research project commissioned by the London Borough of Newham – took practitioners from nurseries, schools, PVI settings and children’s

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What to do

Busy modern lives are having a dramatic impact on the health and wellbeing of our youngest children.  They play outdoors less, spend more time being

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Boing! Whoosh! RolyPoly!

Toddlers need plenty of balance practice once they are up and walking. Each of the three semi-circular canals in the inner ear respond to movement in different

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Overcoming barriers

An early task for the Outdoors and Active action researchers was to identify the barriers to taking children out and about beyond the setting.  Only

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Taking risks in play

Human beings are “hardwired” to take risks, from birth.  Babies take their first independent breaths; they decide to try crawling and walking and then running;

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Audit your environment

To audit the current provision for physical development outdoors in your school or setting, you can download our three sample audit sheets below. You should

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Grab and Go Kits

Some of the childminders involved in the Outdoors and Active project thought that a kit of easy to carry, low cost resources could encourage children

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