Loose Parts are everywhere! We rejoice in this because we have nearly endless supplies.
Whether you have already made the transition, slowly beginning, or just reading about Loose Parts, then here is our Baker's Dozen Top Loose Parts that are essential for every learning environment. Hopefully, this list can help ease your transition and provide you with a strong starting point and foundation. Along with each material are also suggestions as to where to find them.
1) TREE COOKIES—we are firm believers in that one can never have too many tree cookies. Tree cookies are flat cuts of tree branches or trunks. You can buy these online or from Christmas tree farms OR you can make them yourself. All you need are tree branches and a saw. Table saws are far more efficient for cutting. Be careful of sap in trees; you want to avoid that sticky situation.
2) ROCKS—large, small, round, sharp. Rocks are one of the best Loose Parts. These are a great tool for family engagement, too. Ask the parents and children to collect and bring rocks from their homes or nearby parks (permission granting). Children will beam with pride as they bring in their own rocks and get to see them every day at their school. Rocks can also be purchased from your local outdoor store by the bag full.
3) DRIFT WOOD—drift wood, logs, and branches alike can be used all sorts of ways: drum sticks, paint brushes, castle towers. Again, this Loose Part helps increase family engagement. Parents will delight as they bring in new finds. Wood pieces can be found nearly anywhere outside.
4) BOTTLE CAPS—colorful and nearly everywhere, these little tops are magical. Start saving your bottle caps at home. We prefer using caps without advertising or logos on them. Children delight in sorting, designing, trading, and much more with these finds. Normally, we avoid using plastic, but make an exception with bottle caps. Make sure to clean them thoroughly before bringing them into your environment. Ask the parents to start saving their caps at home.
5) SEA SHELLS—shells bring children in direct contact with the ocean even if they live miles away. We do not endorse people taking shells from the beach or ocean. You can purchase bags of shells from your local craft or dollar store. This ensures safe environmental protection. Also, ask the parents. See if any of them go abalone diving.
6) SCARVES—unlike clothing and other dress up outfits, scarves allow children to use their imagination to become whomever and whatever they wish to be. A scarf can be a carrier for a baby, head cover, blanket, transporting tool, cape and so much more. Scarves are also culturally respectful. Children can mimic attire they view at home or in their neighborhood. Find these at local dollar stores or online. Ask parents if they have extra fabric material. A parent or grandparent may enjoy sewing and be able to provide scraps.
7) GLASS STONES—these are a great substitute for plastic foods. Children can actually mix the stones around in a cooking pot. We saw one child use the stones to make a cake and then later they became poop in a baby’s diaper! Glass stones are also more culturally sensitive because they can become any type of food as opposed to stereotypical plastic tacos or pizza. Or add the stones to your art area and watch the children design, create, sort. You can find the stones at your local craft store or dollar store.
8) METAL CANS—metal cans are useful for transporting materials, filling with sand, or clanging in the sound garden. Save finished metal soup, fruit, vegetable, and bean cans so that you can bring them into the environment. Make sure that there are no sharp points left after opening them with a can opener. There is a specific can opener that you can use which will open cans without leaving a sharp edge. Also, make sure to give them a good cleaning. We like the reflective silver of the cans, but painting the outside of the can is another fun touch.
9) MUD—this is a different sort of Loose Part than the others. Children need mud. The squishy sensation is a favorite among children. Adding dirt and water to your outdoor environment will enhance play. If you do not already have dirt outside you can find bags at your local garden supply store. Mud kitchens are a fun addition outside.
10) COVE MOLDING—cove molding is thick, sturdy cardboard that is used on corners of shipping crates and large appliance for more support. While these may require more patience to acquire, they are a fun addition to a block, construction, and trajectory area. The best way to find these is to ask parents or building managers if they can save them when they get new appliances. Some large box stores may also have some that they will give away for free.
11) VELCRO HAIR ROLLERS—we are still amazed with what the children do with these. From towers to marble tunnels, these colorful items are great! Along with them we suggest having felt boards or carpet around these. You can purchase Velcro hair rollers from most local stores.
12) PINE CONES-- these favorites come in all shapes and sizes across the world. Children can have a whole pine cone family or use smaller ones in their art creations. Provide pine cones in various areas in your environment. Ask parents and friends to bring in pine cones they collect from their yards, parks, or nature walks. We have had neighbors collect and leave bags full on our porch.
13) CARDBOARD BOX-- this is the ultimate and original Loose Part. During holidays and celebrations it is a joke among adults that children play more with the box than the toy that was wrapped up in it. For good reason, too! A box has so much more possibility than a toy car. One of our favorite books illustrates this perfectly, "Not a Box." Ask parents or staff to bring in boxes when they are done or after a celebration. Watch the children build, decorate, kick, or deliver these boxes all around the site. When possible use boxes with as few labels. We want to be respectful of the children and keep them from constant commercialism and provide them with blank boxes.
*Quantity is a question that comes up often from people making the switch. As far as how many to have in your classroom, we say many, many, many! There need to be enough of each material so that no child is left wanting. This is not to say that if you have 24 children then you have 24 rocks. Children need and deserve enough of each material in order to see their vision through. So in other words, there is no magic number. If you see children really enjoying the scarves, invest in more.
*Safety is the final note. Always use your best judgement when selecting materials to place in your classroom. Use a choke tube to test each material for infant and toddler rooms. However, consider the importance of exposing children to a variety of textures and materials. Children need opportunities to meet the world around them first hand.