Break loose from boring play

Loose parts play may not be a new idea but it’s a good one, for the children and for the planet when using re-use resources, the Reverse Garbage team write.

Interest in the concept is experiencing a resurgence – perhaps because teachers emerging from tertiary studies are of an age where they themselves haven’t been exposed to this type of play. Or perhaps because it is an effective way of introducing children to sustainability.

What are loose parts?

Loose parts are open ended items that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in countless ways. They don’t have a prescribed use, come with no directions, and very few rules. Loose parts play supports invention, divergent thinking, problem solving, team work and activates children’s imagination.

The term ‘loose parts’ was coined by architect Simon Nicholson in 1971 to describe open ended materials that can be used and manipulated in many ways. Even then it was not a new way to play, but by giving it a name and backing it up with research and theory, it became a more conscious method of play.

Earlier generations experienced childhood very differently. From a young age they had the freedom to play outside with whatever (and whoever) they could find – the only boundary was they had to be home when the streetlights came on.

This is now

This freedom is rare these days, particularly in suburban areas. When children do have the opportunity to play outside, it’s often on the school or local park’s fixed playground equipment – usually the standard slide, ladder, swings combo – with a seesaw and a rope climb if the kids are lucky. And live grass is even becoming scarce.

Loose parts play empowers and stimulates creativity. There’s no right or wrong way to use an object if it has no prescribed purpose.

The point is, this equipment usually has only one prescribed and obvious way of using it, therefore very little imagination, creativity, exploration or problem solving is required. When children dare to stray from that purpose, ie going up the slide instead of down, they are often stopped for ‘breaking the rules’.

As equipment has been made safer, it has become more sterile and less stimulating. Reverse Garbage recently delivered a starter kit of loose parts play equipment to a Sydney school where the children had completed their own project on loose parts play and decided they wanted to give it a go.

“They recognised that the kids at their school were too familiar with the play equipment they’d had for years, and were bored, so they sought their teachers, help with invigorating their playground with loose parts,” Brett Lyon, Education Manager at Reverse Garbage, said.

The impact was immediate. “When we arrived to deliver their loose parts play items, the kids worked together to roll large barrels and spools to the play space. They had to problem solve together to find the best way of moving the heavier items. It was precious to watch.”

Benefits and opportunities

It is well documented that play is one of the best ways for children to learn. They learn to take turns, negotiate, communicate, build teams and organise.

Those learnings multiply when playing with open ended items in loose parts play. When approaching an item that has no set purpose, a child’s mind starts turning over the possibilities. ‘What can I do with this? What can I add to this? How heavy is this? Who can help me move it?’

Loose parts play empowers and stimulates creativity. There’s no right or wrong way to use an object if it has no prescribed purpose. Every child will have a different approach to every object. A cardboard tube can be anything from a ball tunnel, to a telescope, sound tube, microphone, flagpole, limbo stick and so much more.

Loose parts play promotes inclusivity. Children who don’t participate in ball sports, or gymnastics or on the monkey bars tend to engage with the loose parts. Some choose to play individually and others work together. The beauty of loose parts play is that every child can find their place and engage in a way that suits them. No one is advantaged or disadvantaged. The unpredictable nature of the materials brings kids together as the play becomes focused on the objects rather than physical achievements and competition.

The Sydney Playground Project found children are more engaged when they have the opportunity to play with materials that are intriguing and require some level of physical exertion. This means more time being physically, socially and mentally active.

Loose parts play isn’t restricted to the playground. It can also be explored in the classroom for STEAM learning.

How do I choose loose parts?

The Sydney Playground Project compiled a helpful guide to choosing loose parts.

  1. The object has no obvious play purpose
  2. Encourages cooperation and gross motor development (heavy, big, takes more than one child to move)
  3. Has multiple potential uses (eg, children can go inside of or on top of the object) or can be easily combined with other objects
  4. Readily used in creative, challenging, or uncertain ways
  5. Promotes interesting sensory experiences
  6. Free from potential hazards that cannot be easily seen and managed by a child (eg, not likely to break easily), and
  7. Sustainable (re-use resources).

Where do I find them?

Loose parts are everywhere! There’s no need to go to a catalogue or buy anything new for this type of play. That defeats the purpose.

Start by asking your students’ families. Give them an idea of what you are looking for: bottle tops for counters, saucepans and old kitchen utensils for the sandpit or mud kitchen.

Contact local communities and businesses for donations of things they no longer need as it saves them having to dispose of their unwanted goods.

In fact, that’s how Reverse Garbage started 45 years ago. A group of switched-on teachers recognised the offcuts discarded by local industry would be valuable resources in their classrooms – saving them money and the environment.

Reverse Garbage is a not-for-profit charity in Sydney that rescues over 260 tonnes of industrial and commercial discards by giving them new life with educators and many others including artists, upcyclers, DIY enthusiasts, tinkerers, set builders, window dressers, community organisations, festivals and charities.

It is the place to go for the unusual loose parts items that you just won’t find anywhere else. The Marrickville warehouse is filled with interesting items that stimulate children’s imaginations. Drop by seven days a week and choose your own loose parts, or if you live further afield, send an email to with a general description of your space, number, age range and budget and we’ll curate a kit for you.

Reverse Garbage also run professional development sessions that will help you introduce loose parts play into your curriculum. Starting at $1200, a half day session includes:

  • delivery and unpacking of a curated starter kit of loose play materials
  • demonstrations for the school leaders on safe lifting, storing and setting up
  • class demonstration sessions, and
  • post play review with staff, a professional development session and implementation discussion.

This program can be tailored to include parents and the community, or a consultation on other areas, eg, playground construction, sustainability curriculum.

Using re-use materials in play is a fantastic way of starting conversations about how every item is created from valuable resources withdrawn from our planet. We can’t put them back, so we have to make sure we re-use them as many times as we can. These conversations start a framework for their sustainable future.
Hut 8, 142 Addison Road, Marrickville Phone 02 9569 3132.