What is loose parts play in the EYFS?

by Debi Keyte- Hartland

The term “Loose Parts” was coined by Simon Nicholson, a British architect and designer whose parents were artists Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson.  He wrote a paper called The Theory of Loose Parts: How not to cheat Children in 1971, and this has become hugely influential in the ensuing decades since. In it he speaks about what he calls “variables” and this has often been associated just with open-ended materials such as natural or recycled materials, but his idea about “variables” included phenomena that could be played around with such as music, gravity, words, concepts and ideas (Robinson, 2017).

Like Loris Malaguzzi (1920–1994) of the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, Nicholson also believed that creativity was not reserved for the gifted few, but that all children were born as creative beings, curious about the world and keen to experiment and discover new things.  But that they required an environment in which they could discover things, experiment in meaningful ways, and develop their curiosity.  Nicholson encourages us to participate with children’s sense of enquiry, inventiveness, and intrigue to learn about the world which means leaving room for the child to invent, innovate and create with materials or “variables” with the essential quality of being able to play around with them.

In Reggio Emilia, their use of recycled materials in their schools has been developed since 1996 through REMIDA, a cultural project that collects waste materials from companies. REMIDA focuses on issues of sustainability, creativity and research on waste materials that sees them as materials in potential rather than as wasted and useless. Again, materials are considered as holding intelligences or affordances that can be modified and transformed by ideas of the children and in their combination with other materials, and phenomena.  On study tours to Reggio Emilia, and visits to the Pre-Schools and Infant Toddler centres over many years I have become fascinated with how they propose dialogues with materials with the children, or in other words how the materials can meet with the ideas of the children who are exploring concepts or ideas about number, the effects of light or visual metaphor. 

The work of Daly & Beloglovsky (2015) has also ignited play with Loose Parts through their books that focus on play with materials that they define as “…alluring, beautiful, found objects and materials that children can move, manipulate, control, and change while they play.  Children can carry, combine, redesign, line up, take apart, and put loose parts back together in almost endless ways”.  Their books have inspired many to embrace Loose Parts as an everyday material, that really builds on Eleanor Goldschmid’s (1910-2009) work around treasure baskets and heuristic play.

It is easy to see how the flexibility of Loose Parts can be incorporated throughout the EYFS, across all areas of learning and development.  They are so much more than just accessible recycled small and large-scale open-ended resources that are left out in continuous provision for children to engage with independently.  Loose Parts play for me really encourages children to communicate and express their thinking as they play with ideas of the world including the physical properties and affordances of materials when they meet with phenomena or “variables” such as sound, gravity, and light but also with ideas related to fields of mathematics, geography, science, ecology, as well as the expressive arts and design.  It means that as educators we need to learn more about our intentions and understanding for what we hope children can learn from playing with Loose because in being more alert to the potentials and possibilities we become better equipped to make effective proposals to the children that meet with their creativity and desire to learn more about the world.

To learn more about this topic and more, explore our range of early years CPD training webinars and events.

References not hyperlinked

Daly, L., & Beloglovsky, M. (2015) Loose parts: Inspiring play in young children.  St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press

Debi Keyte-Hartland is an international early childhood consultant, trainer, writer and speaker.  She works with CREC (Centre for Research for Early Childhood) on their Birmingham City University accredited MA in Education (Early Years) on the arts and creativity pathway. She regularly delivers early years CPD training workshops on behalf of Early Education


loose parts play

Further reading

Children as artists

Young children are artists. They use all sorts of materials to show what they have noticed about the world. They might draw the rain falling

Read More »

Messy play

Messy play provides so many explorative and investigative experiences, which promote so many of the characteristics of effective learning.  Some easy ideas to start you

Read More »

Loose parts play

Here are some links to resources to support your play. Loose parts play tookit is such a rich and comprehensive free publication from Inspiring Scotland to

Read More »


Play with clay Clay is natural, it comes from the earth. It is cool to the touch and soft on our skin. It has a

Read More »


How can I be more creative? Be inspired by our guest bloggers from Rachel Keeling nursery school who shared about their clay and sculpture project.  Have

Read More »

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

Read More »

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

Read More »

Become a member

For more articles and professional learning

Find out more

Browse Early Education publications