How to Inspire Play in Your Environment: A Few Loose Parts

With our current environment dictating social distancing, that means many of us are home with our families including kids and partners and by now, some of us might be aching for a bit of "social distancing" from each other...just for a bit. Being together with my family might be my greatest joy in life, but if there aren't appropriate boundaries then the togetherness can become suffucating, leaving me feeling drained. How do we, when we're locked in our homes together, give each other some space? Have you ever said to your kids "Go play outside!" and they either went outside for 5 minutes before coming back to raid the kitchen you just finished cleaning? Or they say "I don't want to go outside, it's boring!". Maybe outside is boring, when the environment doesn't invite them to play. What if you changed the environment so it could inspire hours of play?

In a previous blog post titled "Let the Kids Play", I highlighted some reason that independent outdoor play helps with social/emotional development and academic success. Sending the kids outside to play is a win/win situation. Not only is it an essential and healthy part of child development, it also grants the adults in the home their much needed independent time to do all the things needed from conducting work conference calls absent of screaming children to focusing on one single thought uninterrupted.

Setting the environment for independent play is a simple as identifying everyday objects, or "loose parts" the kids can play with creatively. Loose parts are materials with no fixed purpose that can be moved around and manipulated by children and used in many different ways. Make a few of those loose parts available for play and the kids imaginations will take it from there.

I have bins that I keep all my supplies. The key isn't putting everything out at once. That's like system overload which inadvertently robs kids of the opportunity to be resourceful. By putting out a few carefully chosen "loose parts", then kids are forced to work with what they have and problem solve for things they may want. This is where their time and energy is spent: creating, imagining, planning and executing their own ideas.

For example: my daughters have always wanted a tree swing. Admittedly, my adult brain thinks grand scale, searching for mature oaks with thick branches and googling tree swing options. I never have found a good spot for a tree swing. But that didn't stop my kids from finding a way to have their dream swing. One day, after sending the them outside with a bin of supplies containing sheets, a small foldable saw, and ropes, they found a way to make a tree swing. They found a dead branch (in the pile of branches we keep for them) and rigged it up with some rope inside of our rhododendron bush. It wasn't the grand scale swing I had imagined, but the joy they found in their small swing was just as bit as grand. I didn't do a thing other than inspect knots for safety. My girls are 8 & 5. I do believe the joy not only came from the product but the process. They spent about 4 hours creating, planning, problem solving, and enjoying their own labor. I, on the other hand, had 4 hours of nearly uninterrupted time (which I'd love to say was spent blissfully reading but of course was spent cleaning, cooking, and planning school projects).

On another occasion, my girls wanted to have a beach party. Impromptu parties are always fun but not always possible. This day was one of those not-possible-impromptu-party kind of days. So, they created their own beach party. They took the small baby pool (which is just used as a body of water for experimenting rather than lavishly swimming) dragged it over to the sand box and rigged sheets about over chairs and limbs to create a canopy. Turning buckets upside down and using shovels, they created a drum band for occompanying music. The perfect beach party.

Playing outside with "loose parts" doesn't take large amounts of space or large amounts of money. But it does take practice, for both parents and kids. Sometimes kids will need to learn new affordances for everyday objects. Affordances are how we see the use of a given object. For example: one child may see only 1 affordance for a stick: that is to use as a sword. But with practice, time and not having everything they need when they need it, kids will learn new affordances for every object they have. Maybe the sword can become a gate, a cane, boundary line, or a baseball bat. For parents, we need to learn that it's okay to step back and let them be outside, especially when they say their bored. Think of all the new affordances they'll create in those moments of boredom.

Let's talk loose parts. Here are some fun loose parts to put outside. Forewarning: don't put them all out at once. Kids will be overwhelmed. Keep it simple. Keep it small. Only change it up every couple of days or until you see their play could use the introduction of a new element.

Sometimes, I'll organize the loose parts so they inspire a certain type of play like: Fort building, mud kitchen, map making, or dramatic play. But sometimes, I'll just throw out a handful of things and see what they come up with. Ideas for loose parts:

Rope/twine/string: a variety of thickness and material

lumber/sticks/twigs: create a pile


pallets (these you can find nearly everywhere for free)


Vegetable Peeler







Fabric/Old Sheets/Blankets/Towels

Cardboard Boxes




Kitchen Utensils: Tongs, Spoons, Bowls

Cable Spools

The more you step back, the more likely the kids will create their own fun without relying on your input. The best part is they will come up with ideas for loose parts you never imagined.

Stay tuned for updates about specific loose parts combinations to inspire even more creative play opportunities.

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