Loose Parts Play Ideas for Toddlers
In this post, we will explore loose parts play ideas for toddlers, including a range of different resources to use. Loose parts play is a fantastic way for toddlers to explore and develop. It is open-ended play so children can create and play with a range of different objects. It is child-led and self-directed, so children are in charge.
Loose parts play is terrific for children of all ages, though with toddlers, you have to be careful about supervision and the loose parts used, as they tend to put things in their mouth and throw things. I would not recommend anything made with glass or tiny parts that children could choke on. What is safe for one child might not be safe for another. Please consider carefully the appropriate supervision and the individual behaviour and needs of any child that would be playing with loose parts and any toys.
Examples of loose parts play
Children can use loose parts in a wide range of different ways. They may use them to make art, build, engineer, tell a story, role play, a combination of these and more.
Some examples of children’s loose parts play include children using sticks for any of these creative purposes: as a spoon in their play kitchen, to build a fort or den, a sword for a fight, as a magic wand, to draw in the dirt, as ‘candles’ in a ‘cake’, as a flag pole on a sandcastle, to bang pots, float it in water, or perhaps it can be broken into pieces, made into a pile, and much more. Children might use rocks to represent spices, medicine or money in their play. Other possibilities are stacking them on top of each other to make towers or using them to create a picture or pattern.
It can be great to give children loose parts to explore and experiment with on their own. You can also add in loose parts to play areas such as mud kitchens or construction areas to help take their play further. One day a play kitchen can be used for water play and to support learning about measurement, pouring and mixing. The next day it can be filled with colourful chickpeas and then be used for sensory play, sorting, or scooping. Another day children can use scissors, flowers and leaves which they can use for cutting, chopping and mashing. My children have also used our mud kitchen to help construct tents with wood planks, cloth and pegs to create an ice cream parlor or coffee shop.
It can also be lovely to set up trays for children to explore different materials and use various tools. I usually set out a range of different materials, but we also have a lot of resources such as tools, play materials, etc. that the children can get for themselves. For example, while I may have set out water, pots, containers and flowers for them to play with, my children might decide to get scissors and a colander so that they can cut and mash the flowers.
Benefits of loose parts play
There is growing evidence to show that there are many benefits to loose parts play for children. It provides opportunities to support creativity and concentration and to develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination. It is also beneficial for developing language and literacy skills and social and emotional skills. It can enhance cognitive abilities, social and emotional development, and mathematical and scientific thinking (Wells, 2000; Daly and Beloglovsky, 2015; Maxwell, Mitchell and Evans, 2008). For full details, you may want to see my post on the benefits of loose parts play.
Loose parts play – Ideas for toddlers
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- Log slices (or mini log slices)
- Wood chips
- Cork pieces
- Bamboo, bamboo rings
- Flowers/flower petals
- Dried nuts, seeds, beans & pods – examples: conkers, acorns, star anise, cinnamon sticks, walnuts, carob pods, ourico pods, coconut shells, pinecones, eucalyptus seed pods, sweet gum balls, nigella seed pods, sunflower seeds, poppy pods, dried black beans, dried pinto beans, dried lima beans, dried lentils *Choose based on what will be safe for your child/children.
- Rocks or stone (numbers or letters can also be written on them)
- Dried oranges, limes or lemons
- Water (including ice)
- Dirt, mud
- Dried sponge
- Rolling pins
- Mortar and pestle
- Tongs / Tong Tweezers
- Egg cups
- Egg cartons
- Cupcake cases
- Cookie cutters
- Tools, bolts, washers, nuts (which ones dependent on the child and any safety concerns)
- Pieces of cloth, organza, or blankets
- Pegs or beach towel clips
- Twine, string, ribbon
- Figurines- Animal, people, fish, dinosaur etc
- Nesting dolls or nesting shapes
- Buttons (extra large)
- Spinning tops
- Large wooden rings
- Wooden discs
- Lock & keys
- Wooden, plastic or other types of letters
- Large beads
- Toy cars
- Toy trucks
- Pipe cleaners
- Lolly sticks
- Colourful rice
- Colourful chickpeas
- Dice (including large dice & outdoor dice)
- Pom poms
- Magnifying glass
- Milk Tops
- Tubes (e.g. paper towel tubes)
- Seedling pots
- Plant pots
- Pipes, half pipes, tubbing
- Wood planks
- Old plastic bottles
- Large bottle tops
- Spray bottles
- Pegs or beach towel clips
- Bungee cords
- Rope, twine, string
- Tarp, old sheets, blankets or saris
Questions to ask
- Tell me about what you are doing
- How did you make this?
- What else could you do?
What they get from it
Hyndman, Benson, Ullah, and Telford (2014) found that loose parts play enhances imaginative play, increases levels of creativity in play, increases children’s socialisation and working cooperatively with one another and increases children’s physical activity. It also has been shown to help improve children’s physical coordination (Fjørtoft and Sageie, 2000). Outdoor loose parts play enhances children’s cognitive abilities and adds excitement to children’s play (Wells, 2000). It can facilitate children’s ability to explore solutions and be creative (Daly and Beloglovsky, 2015).
Take it further – Loose parts play ideas for toddlers
Loose parts play is an opportunity for child-led play.
Children can explore on their own, or adults can play alongside them to help extend their play by asking them questions or playing along with them.
If you would like to know more about the benefits of loose parts play and how adults can help support it, see my posts Discover the Many Benefits of Loose Parts Play and Find Out What is Loose Parts Play.
You may also want to see my post Activities for Toddlers and Preschoolers at home for further learning ideas.
Daly, L. and Beloglovsky, M. (2015) Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. Redleaf Press: St Paul.
Fjørtoft, I. and Sageie, J. (2000). The natural environment as a playground for children: landscape description and analysis of a natural playspace. Landscape and Urban Planning. 48:83-97.
Hyndman, B., Benson, A., Ullah, S. & Telford, A. (2014). Evaluating the effects of the Lunchtime Enjoyment Activity and Play (LEAP) school playground intervention on children’s quality of life, enjoyment and participation in physical activity. BMC Public Health, 2014; 14 (1): 164.
Maxwell, L. E., M. R. Mitchell, and G. W. Evans. 2008. Effects of play equipment and loose parts on preschool children’s outdoor play behaviour: An observational study and design intervention. Children, Youth and Environments, 18 (2), 36-63.
Wells, N.M. (2000) At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning. Environment and Behavior. Vol. 32, No. 6, 775-795.