What are loose parts?

The original theory, proposed by Simon Nicholson, an architect, in 1971, simply states that in any environment, ‘the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it’

So, any resource or environment that allows for lots of possibilities has greater play value and therefore more development in terms of creativity and imagination.

What are loose parts to you?

Some say it is only natural materials like stones, shells, sticks. Others may say it is anything that can be repurposed such as pipes, tubes or beads and buttons. It is essentially anything that can be moved, carried, mixed, lined up, taken apart or used in different ways. There are no directions or instructions.

How and where do you store your loose parts?

Consider the accessibility and your supervision. Can you see children always playing with it? If not, then do you need to reconsider the storage and location of them?


Which children use them? (Age/development and SEND considerations)

What is suitable for a preschool aged child may not be suitable for a baby. Look at your items through the eyes of a child and consider what they may do with them and what may happen if they do that?

If using small objects, what level of supervision would you have with a preschool child versus a toddler?

You will need to consider not only the age but if a child has additional needs such as a child with autism may put things in their mouth, if aged 4.

The role of the adult

A key part of any environment is the adult as well as the resources and in the case of loose parts this is necessary when considering risks as well as interactions. The children’s curious brain will not develop if an adult directs the play too much with ‘‘That is not supposed to be used that way’. This has been researched heavily; however, an adult is vital to model and support a child to understand the risks and ways to manage themselves.

What are the risks?

Loose parts play comes with some associated risks. As a practitioner you need to be aware of the risks, how to minimise them and manage them. If you know what to expect you can lessen the issues.

  • Choking (the highest risk) Do you use a choking tube?
  • Children that throw things at others and cause harm (think heavy items such as stones).
  • Falling off structures made with large loose parts outside.
  • Being hit with objects by mistake, particularly in large-scale symbolic play outside.

These are things to be aware of and to be constantly vigilant of in the setting.

Be aware that these risks could happen and be prepared to step in before they do if possible.

Do you involve the children in your risk assessment and safety discussions?

What are the benefits?

When children see ‘possibilities’, they activate the curiosity systems in their brain. Neuroscience tells us that active curiosity produces positive biochemical responses and research revealed the differences in the brain development of mammals from an enriched environment when compared with mammals from an unstimulating one. 

Loose parts give them an element of risky play which is a form of play that is thrilling and gets children learning about boundaries and themselves.

Challenges the children and enables them to deeply focus showing high levels of engagement. 

What do the statutory requirements say? What do I have to have in place?

Risk assessment

3.65. Providers must ensure that they take all reasonable steps to ensure staff and children in their care are not exposed to risks and must be able to demonstrate how they are managing risks63. Providers must determine where it is helpful to make some written risk assessments in relation to specific issues, to inform staff practice, and to demonstrate how they are managing risks if asked by parents and/or carers or inspectors. Risk assessments should identify aspects of the environment that need to be checked on a regular basis, when and by whom those aspects will be checked, and how the risk will be removed or minimised.

It doesn’t say you MUST write all risk assessments however it does say it is helpful to make some written in relation to specific issues. Loose parts would be an area I would recommend having a written one for due to the high risks. You could write a separate one, include a whole indoor/outdoor space or have one for each room.

You have to remember that any written risk assessments are legal documents and you must ensure all staff have read, understood and signed them and of course put them into practice.

Use a simple, effective, easy to read, risk assessment. There is no set pro-forma you need to use although there are some key points that need to be included. I would recommend weighing up the risk and benefit in a risk benefit analysis. See my next blog for more guidance.

What will you do next?

Managed risk is a vital part of Early Years, and staff should not be put off. Following simple guidelines and supervision is key.

Remember that it is not just the Statutory Framework you need to adhere to, please also refer to HSE (Health and Safety Executive). Please read this in full;


Two of the key messages…

  • When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits.
  • Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits

In summary the benefits of loose parts play outweigh the risks if children are closely supervised.