"Loose Parts," is a term that may sound unfamiliar for some but we've all witnessed "loose parts play" and most likely participated in it as a child.
Loose Parts Play: Fabric Scraps
The term "loose parts" refers to an object that can be used alone or combined for play. A loose parts play object has no set of specific directions and can be manipulated by the child to allow for both physical and creative experimentation. The term loose parts can include natural objects not intended to be used as toys and also man made objects intended to be used as toys (like blocks) in either case they are open ended materials. There are many advantages for including loose parts in a child's play environment. Loose parts encourage creativity, problem solving, natural exploration, and when used by the child, child directed learning and play.
We have a non-toy loose parts cupboard in our home. It isn't very big and isn't too full (purposely!), but it is used daily and holds my children's favorite loose parts play materials. Two words of caution I would add to any discussion of loose parts play indoors: Safety- for a child younger than three (everything in the mouth stage child) make sure loose parts are large and not a choking hazard and Warning- loose parts will appear all over the house (or at least they do in our house!) so be ready to step on them when you least expect it or vacuum them up when you least want to.
I keep the loose parts in small baskets that I typically find at goodwill. I try to keep the cupboard organized and the materials easily accessible to find and retrieve. Keeping the baskets small allows for a limited and manageable supply of loose parts. I find it is better to have too few than too many, especially for clean up.
Inside the cupboard we have rocks, pinecones, and wooden containers.
Shells, a nesting doll (used to hold and hide many things) and small colored sticks
A few pieces of yarn, mini clothespins, pipe cleaners (because tying can be difficult) and wool roving.
And that's it. Not a whole lot of stuff but just enough to encourage creativity and child directed play. Here are some of the ways they are used and enjoyed.
Yarn and Fabric Squares
The possibilities for supplies and uses are endless and only limited by creativity. Loose parts don't have to be small either. Play silks, cardboard boxes, large lids from containers, thrifted pots and pans, beanbags and more. Please do share what is popular with your little ones, I would love to know! Also, to share and inspire, I've started a flickr group called Early Childhood Loose Parts Play if you care to share your photos of loose parts play and join.