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Make the Most of Your Backyard with Loose Parts

One of the best perks of summer is endless hours of outdoor play! I love to see children happily building, creating, climbing and having fun in the backyard. One way we can extend and enhance this play is by adding loose parts.

What are loose parts?
Loose parts are objects and materials that children can move and change freely. These materials come with no specific set of directions and can be turned into whatever children imagine. A fallen log may turn into a school bus or a sheet may become the sail of a boat. These items can be lined up, put together, taken apart and used in many inventive ways.

Benefits of Loose Parts Play
Loose parts play allows children to open their imaginations and create their own play scenarios, nurturing essential STEAM skills (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). Planning and collaboration are fostered as children agree to create the same vision with non-specific materials. Engineering and creativity follow as they build their play scene.I have been amazed watching a group of children run in “terror” from a stick on the ground deemed a slithery snake. The child who first labels the snake shows leadership and creativity. The other children are displaying cooperation and collaboration. The entire group (having a ball) are using their imaginations in loud and dramatic play.


Adding Loose Parts to Your Own Backyard
One of my favorite backyard additions has to be the sturdy milk crate. The more the better! These simple crates become obstacle courses, ships, trains, bridges, even deserted islands. They are strong enough for children to stand on, yet light enough for them to easily maneuver. Grocery stores are limited in donating crates, but I have had luck asking friends and neighbors for any they might be willing to share. (Tip! I was able to order milk crates online and have them shipped to my door by simply googling “authentic milk crates”. By doing so, I was sure to get crates truly strong enough for the climbing of lively kiddos.) Wooden boards are another excellent element for backyard play. Boards of various lengths turn into balance beams, oars, bridges, forts, ramps and more. One extra benefit of adding longer boards is the teamwork needed, as they are too heavy for one child to move easily. If you are concerned about splinters, you may be interested in purchasing boards made of wood composite, found at your local home improvement store. (Tip! If purchasing boards, ask if they have a “scrap pile”. This is much cheaper and you will still be able to have them cut to the lengths you request.) Old bed sheets and clothes pins are a MUST if your backyard includes low branches, lilacs, fencing or even patio furniture. You will quickly see capes, tents, and forts take shape as children’s imaginations run wild.  (Tip! Permanently fix a bucket for clothespin storage in your play space. This helps children understand where pins belong if not in use, as well as spare your lawn mower!) Don’t forget about all of the natural loose parts already available in your backyard. Adding baskets for children to collect pinecones, sticks and feathers is always a nice way to extend creative outdoor play. These penny-wise treasures just might come in handy when mixing up magic potions…The possibilities are endless when it comes to adding loose parts to outdoor play. Other suggestions include: bricks, rocks, wood rounds, logs, tires, hula hoops . . . Obviously, this list can never be complete, but hopefully it will get your gears moving in the loose parts direction!

Introducing Loose Parts Play to Children
Many children may simply grab these additions with gusto and begin creating. Others may need a little coaching. Try posing questions or challenges to children. Ask them if they would help build something specific (i.e., a kitchen out of milk crates). Vocalize your own problem-solving and discuss the many different ways of building. Let them know there is absolutely no wrong way to work with these materials. Once they see your enthusiasm, they will follow your lead and begin engineering with you. As parents, it may take an open mind when these materials end up anywhere but where expected. Remember, children playing with loose parts are developing so much more creativity, imagination, problem-solving, STEAM skills and confidence than they would playing with most modern toys. Be proud of your clever and cluttered backyard full of ingenuity and charm. (Tip! Designate a specific time each week as family “pick up” time . . . schedule this just before you mow.)

Sara Reichstadt is the Education Coordinator for the six NAEYC-accredited Twin Cities Kinderberry Hill Child Development Centers

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