Loose Parts Play with Infants and Toddlers

I am slightly obsessed with the theory of loose parts play. Just slightly. The school that I work at was the first inspiration, but now that I have a sweet kiddo of my own, I have been able to delve deeper with it. I recently read Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers and it has me giddy!

The basic idea behind this theory is that by providing children with open-ended objects to interact with you are growing problem-solvers and creative thinkers. Loose parts have infinite play possibilities.

Simply put, these loose parts may be used to construct, transport, for imaginative play, or for sensory  exploration. It is our job to see their potential. I love the idea of thinking beyond an object’s intended purpose and looking at it with a child’s eye. It stretches my imagination! Sometimes, though, its just “Hey, this is an interesting set of objects…I have no idea what a one year old would do with it, but let’s find out!”

I love visiting thrift stores, garage sales, and a local store that sells re-used/re-purposed home materials with an open mind. Ah, the treasures that are to be found there!

When my little guy was still an infant, I loved setting out a beautiful woven basket full of interesting odds and ends for exploring. Now that he in approaching his 2nd birthday he is capable of more and more complex interactions with things. Now I can set out a more traditional provocation/invitation (a few loose parts that can go hand in hand).

I gathered some of our favorite loose parts play ideas for infants and toddlers below.

Items collected in infant Discovery Baskets:

-natural items (shells, pinecones, sticks, rocks, bark, moss), also seasonal items like gourds, small pumpkins, and Indian corn in fall or cinnamon sticks and pine branches in winter

-large buttons

-tapes, cds, records

-different size, textured, and colored balls

-bendy foam curlers

Foam curlers have provided hours of fun!

-wooden rings

-fabric sample scraps

-recyclables (egg cartons, boxes, small and large cardboard tubes, containers with lids

-found objects from around the house (emery boards, brushes, calculators, flashlights, coasters…anything and everything from around the house that is safe for them to mouth and hold)

-kitchen utensils galore

-cotton balls

-popsicle sticks/small dowels

-blocks (wooden scraps, tree cookies, and more traditional cubed blocks)

-embroidery hoops with different colored/textured fabrics

-different DIY shakers

-wine corks and bottle caps (plus containers to put them into and dump them out of)

-bits of rope, chord, string, ribbon


-links of chain and carabiners

Toddler Provocations:

-glass pebbles/marbles, dowels, popsicle sticks and homemade play dough (some in a jar to push into, some out to explore and add objects to)

-large cardboard tube with basket of balls or cars

Cardboard tube and basket of balls

-small bowls filled with dry beans/lentils, scoops, and an egg carton

-pom-poms and cardboard tubes

-large wood cookie with sticky velcro dots, and objects with velcro dots

-tongue depressors with sticky velcro dots

-wooden rings and paper towel holders/mug tree (also cardboard tubes, napkin rings, bangle bracelets, jar lids)

Paper towel holder and mug tree with a collection of rings

-pipe cleaners (threaded into strainers, other containers with holes, or used with large wooden beads)

-cotton swabs and containers with holes

-wooden coaster set (he enjoyed stacking and unstacking, and carrying them around)

Wooden coaster set

-various small boxes with easy open lids and various objects to place inside

Boxes with different types of lids for storing treasures 

-clothespins and open weave plastic bin (still a bit tricky at 20 months)

-a thrift store collection of silky scarves, glasses, hats, bags and pouches

-craft foam, golf tees, wooden mallet

-drumsticks (and whisks, spoons, and other utensils) and various items for drumming on (pans, buckets, oatmeal containers)

-bin of water and cups, scoops, funnels

-bin of rainbow rice with jars, funnels, colored jewels and various sized spoons

-egg cartons with a collection of small objects

-balls and muffin tin

-mug tree fun with Christmas ornaments

When hanging ornaments on the real tree is too tricky…

-sandbox with various sifters/ funnels/buckets/scoops

-a metal tray, measuring cups, woven basket made to look like a pot, a spoon, etc.

-clay, mallets, golf tees, popsicle sticks, small dowels

-items on DIY activity board (objects for twisting, flipping, pulling, pushing)

-scrap wood for balancing on

-cushions and pillows piled for constructing and climbing

-uniform cardboard boxes for stacking and inserting

-wooden bowl and bells (we shook it, emptied and filled it)

Thick wooden bowl with small bells was an interesting exploration in sound!


Items I am inspired to try:

-convert an old light projector to a light table with colored, translucent items

-tile samples

-displaying objects with interesting textures in repurposed frames

-large nuts and bolts, springs, and other items for connecting

-muffin tins and various colored objects for sorting

-mortar and pestle with dried beans/corn, etc

-various potato mashers in mud, sand, or water

-large objects for pushing  or constructing (logs, huge plastic or cardboard tubes)

-containers with fabric or rope threaded through them for tugging

-creating a chicken wire frame for threading

-a wall of wheels for turning or a log with a steering wheel attached

-stumps for climbing and constructing

-frames and hoops with bean bags, balls, or other soft objects for throwing

-bottles or canisters for knocking down with balls or stacking


I think what I love most about loose parts play is that so much of it can be done with objects you already have around the house! Any additional items I have bought for a specific provocation have been purchased inexpensively and often second-hand. I am all about simplicity and encouraging a rich balance in play options. It is fascinating to watch my little guy explore his world, discover, and make connections during engaging, open-ended experiences!


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