In Praise of Loose Parts

Editor’s note – this is a revised version of a blog post originally published in PlayGroundology in 2014. It speaks to a study led by Dr. Brendon Hyndman on the introduction of loose parts at an Australian primary school.

Canadian research teams are making important contributions to our understanding of play’s critical role in childhood and beyond. The Dalhousie-led Physical Literacy in the Early Years – (PLEY) project is helping to create a better understanding of how integrating loose parts materials into outdoor play spaces impacts children’s health, and the impact on educator and parent attitudes, beliefs, and understanding around physical literacy, active outdoor play and risk-taking during play.

We hope that you will be able to join us for one of the Summer of PLEY events. First up on the calendar is the Pop-Up Loose Parts Play adventure on the Halifax South Common – more info and RSVP here on Eventbrite.

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In play, ‘loose parts’ are skirting the edges of nirvana. Ask any kid. Now they probably won’t call them ‘loose parts’. They’re more likely to use the generic and all encompassing ‘stuff’ prefaced by cool, awesome, or great. It might even go the way of ‘this stuff is epic’.

Simple play is best for kids
Students at Emmaus Primary Catholic School – Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jay Town. Source: HeraldSun


Wood, rope, tarps, tires, milk crates, cardboard boxes, fabrics and apparently hay bales too can make up a loose parts inventory. It’s what the kids do with it that’s a real blast. They create, they build up and pull down, they improvise, they move, groove and PLAY!

Now, thanks to Australian researcher Brendon P. Hyndman we have empirical evidence that loose parts in primary schools go way beyond a good thing. From the perspective of increasing physical activity, engaging a broad cross-section of kids and being light on constantly squeezed budgets, this study shouts out ‘Eureka!’ embrace loose parts play.

Here are selected comments from A Guide for Educators to Move Beyond Conventional School Playgrounds…. published in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education.

the way they interact with each other…it’ s lovely to listen to…the co-operative play has really increased…they do negotiations…interactions between levels has been fantastic

kids in my room have mixed with kids they wouldn’t normally hang out with…there’s not a…set number that can or can’t be involved

students became a lot more complex in what they did…it was a real journey…there was…dragging, pulling and moving…then came the building phase…then came the dramatic phase…but all of those remain there

Quantitative data, as the charts below demonstrate, also offer a compelling storyline – given the opportunity, kids will choose to build and play with a variety of loose parts so much so that it becomes the dominant play activity.

Ausie Journal of Teacher Education

Given that many kids in Australia and elsewhere are getting the bulk of their physical activity and play within the school setting, in excess of 50% in some instances as cited in Hyndman’s study, these findings are significant.

The effects of the loose parts intervention were measured at various stages over a 2 1/2 year period and engagement remained steady.

“…teachers’ perceptions were that student exhibited increased amounts of excitement, engagement, creativity, problem solving and physical activity during their play with the introduced movable/recycled materials.”

Loose parts are an important part of the playwork canon and have strong roots in the UK within adventure playgrounds and with groups such as Pop-Up Adventure Play. David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground has also a taken a page from the loose parts experience in the creation of the big blue block play environments.

Loose Parts

All hail loose parts. They are the jazz of play bebopping the kids along in a wonderfall of spontaneity. There are downsides though that can’t be dismissed. As more and more schools, neighbourhood groups and play schemes embrace loose parts, it just might start proving difficult to source the ingredients – milk crates, cardboard boxes and of course hay bales!

Here are kids at a loose parts pop-up play event held on the Halifax South Common two years ago with the UK’s Pop-Up Adventure Play and local not-for-profit CanadaPlays Association.

Get ready for more of the same kind of fun, excitement, laughter and smiles on July 22 as the Summer of PLEY rolls out a loose parts pop-up on the Halifax South Common adjacent to the Pavilion building.

Welcome to Play Outside NS

Play Outside NS publishes the latest on the activities and research of Dalhousie University’s PLEY (Physical Literacy in the Early Years) project. Readers will also be able to check in on great Nova Scotia play stories, get insights on children’s play from across the country and catch up on news from the international community.

It’s all kicking off with the Summer of PLEY, a series of events for kids and adults scheduled for July and August. First out of the sandbox is a loose parts play pop-up on the Halifax Commons – the kids won’t want to miss this. Save the date for July 22. More details soon.

Save the date July 22 for pop-up loose parts play fun on the Halifax Commons

A special guest is lined up for a public talk in August on a developing theme – risk and play. This topic continues to generate interest and engage a broad range of people including parents, caregivers, researchers, designers, healthcare professionals, educators, recreation leaders and more. The speaker’s evidence-based research, candour and common sense are well respected by media, academics and the broader play community. Stay tuned for more details…

There is more in store that we will be sharing here, on Twitter and on Facebook. We hope you will be able to join us in person and/or online. We’re always interested in your thoughts and comments.

Excerpted from Ariel Aberg-Riger’s An Illustrated History of New York City’s Playgrounds in The Atlantic‘s CITYLAB – May 16, 2019.

But wait, it’s not just about us. This week there have been a couple of international media stories focused exclusively on play. The US experience offers An Illustrated History of New York City’s Playgrounds published in The Atlantic‘s CITYLAB. Interesting perspectives and did we mention great graphics too?

In the UK, The Guardian ran Children are stuck inside more than ever – how can we give them back their freedom? in their Cities section. It’s a fair question – how do we do it? Both publications have a longstanding commitment to reporting on children’s play.

To close out this first post, hats off to funders, volunteers, kids and teachers of a growing international movement – Outdoor Classroom Day. It’s happening in a community near you on May 23. Get the kids outside. Bravo to the 20+ Nova Scotia schools taking part this year…

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