There’s a popular saying about children being more interested in the packaging than the gift. The crumpled wrap and cardboard box are somehow more alluring than the contents within. What young child can resist the appeal of a cardboard box?

There is good reason for this: that box can be anything – a space rocket, a car, a den, a dolls’ house, a computer. It is something to be repurposed endlessly, limited only by the child’s imagination. For younger children it is a shape and texture to explore, a space to climb in or over, something to poke, crush, bang or stroke.

What are ‘loose parts’?

If you reach back to your own childhood or watch children play, what holds the most fascination? Cardboard boxes, digging in dirt, sand and water play, containers, shells, pebbles and rocks, leaves, cones and conkers, building blocks, rope and string, fabric and scarves for den making? These all have one thing in common; they do not have a fixed purpose in the play context, they are open-ended, they are things that children are free to move around, combine and take apart. They are loose parts.

Reasons to use ‘loose parts’

Supports intellectual development. Being able to engage in hands-on, open-ended, self-directed play supports children’s intellectual development and their understanding of the world they live in. Loose parts are the perfect medium for this kind of play as there are no instructions or directions; no rules to restrict a child’s imagination or curiosity. Children are learning directly from their own experiences.

Promotes risk-taking and risky play.

Through playing with loose parts children challenge themselves to their limits, physically and emotionally. There are no wrong or right ways to play so the fear of making a mistake is removed, enabling children to explore their ideas and abilities without anxiety. Loose parts encourage movement and manipulation, helping children to develop their physical skills and abilities and continually put these to the test. Children will stack and climb, jump and leap, create obstacle courses, squeeze into small spaces, hide and seek, crawl and creep, swing and spin. In doing all these things they begin to learn about their own capabilities, about danger and how to assess the risk for themselves. They will problem solve, create their own rules and learn how to keep themselves safe.

Encourages collaborative play and joint problem solving.

With very young children loose parts play will be a mainly solitary experience but as they develop socially and emotionally, they will begin to play first alongside, and then with other children. There is usually less of an issue of possession and sharing with loose parts, as they are generally available in multiple and copious quantities. No fighting over who gets to play with the piece of drainpipe or the cardboard box, in the way that you might have children arguing over the yellow car or blue buggy. Even when there is a dispute, the nature of loose parts seems to support discussions around compromise in a way that prized toys never do. Loose parts foster skills of cooperation, negotiation and teamwork, for example, when a child realises a plank is too heavy to carry alone and asks a friend to help; or children building a den help to hold pieces in place as their friends add new parts, working out how to solve problems together, sharing and testing out their ideas and theories.