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Loose Parts: The Best Backyard Learning Tools

April 28th, 2020 | 1 min. read

By Gryphon House

While your child is home from school, you may seek ideas to make learning opportunities more stimulating. Try switching things up—and sparking new learning experiences—in a natural play area. 

A quality natural play area has lots of materials children can access and use in their play. These materials should include both natural and human-made items and be primarily made up of loose parts. Loose parts, a term coined by landscape architect Simon Nicholson, refers to materials that can be manipulated and do not serve just one purpose. These items can be carried, stacked, sorted, combined, sequenced, made into patterns, used for building things, or used symbolically. Containers of various sizes, pieces of rope, yarn, or fabric, spoons, blocks, buttons, bottle caps, and cups, for example, are all man-made loose parts. Sand, soil, sticks, pieces of wood, leaves, shells, and rocks are natural loose parts. The combination of both human-made and natural materials supports both rich, imaginative play and nature investigation. Containers of all types can be loose parts themselves and also be used for sorting and combining smaller loose parts.

Sometimes children will be content just carrying loose parts from one place to another, grouping and regrouping them in various ways, or gathering large numbers of items, such as leaves or rocks. At other times, their play will be more complex and sophisticated, with detailed sequences or patterns of items, or symbolic play where loose parts “stand in” for food or become an elaborate pretend scene like a zoo or farm, for example. Once you start thinking about loose parts and play, you will realize the many ways to reuse and recycle materials that were destined for the trash!   

Try adding the below loose parts into your home learning area. Find more ideas to encourage outdoor learning in Preschool Beyond Walls


Loose Parts


  • Buckets in a variety of sizes
  • Ropes, strings, or fabric
  • Pieces of PVC pipe, both whole and cut in half lengthwise (don’t forget connectors and elbows)
  • Spoons
  • Cups
  • Bowls
  • Plates
  • Muffin tins
  • Bundt pans
  • Cookie Sheets
  • Buttons
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Crates



  • Sand
  • Soil
  • Sticks
  • Logs (sized so children can move them easily)
  • Leaves
  • Stumps
  • Seashells
  • Tree cookies (a cross section of a log that is just a few inches thick)
  • Rocks in a variety of sizes
  • Acorns
  • Seed pods
  • Samaras, the official name for maple seeds(or “helicopters,” as children call them)
  • Pinecones