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Loose Parts Play in Nature

Depending on where you live, you either have NO ground materials aside from deep snow, or plenty of ground materials (how can there be this many acorns in the world!?). The basic premise of nature loose parts play includes the manipulation of the parts found in natural environments: stones, sticks, seeds, pine cones, leaves, mud, water, and the list goes on.

When children engage with loose parts they are exercising skills ranging from small motor to large motor, artistic and creative to mathematical, scientific, linguistic even... the list goes on.

In the classroom we categorize, store, and present loose parts in a certain way. So how to support loose parts play in nature? By letting go! Loose parts play is native to nature play. It's one of the universal truths about almost all natural environments: a seeminglly infinite supply of items of all sizes to manipulate. We don't have to collect, provide, or organize. We just have to take the children out and let them go.

Which is all well and good, but I know, I KNOW there are some reading this who are thinking, "yeah, but....". You want to make plans with those parts, enhance that play, extend those ideas. And I understand. So here are four ideas for finding a balanced approach to getting all teacher-y with loose parts play in nature:

Loose Parts Extensions in Nature

1. Containers: Some of the more puritan nature educators among us would argue that jean pockets are the only containers a child needs to carry loose parts in. But, let's find a middle ground. If you are going to provide containers, make sure they are made of a natural material. Wooden crates for sticks, bowls for acorns. Fabric totes for rocks. Wooden trays for shells. I consider steel to be a natural material as well, so metal buckets, wagons, or tubs might be found in one or two of my outdoor classrooms. Provide a few of these containers and the kiddos will collect, categorize, and cart their parts around.

2. Media (not that kind of media): A creative medium like water, play dough, sand, or mud takes loose parts play to the next level. When nature provides, encourage the mixing of materials (or just don't discourage it!). Otherwise, tote a bucket of water or open a sand table after you've noticed a certain someone filling their pockets with stones.

3. Books: Provide a basket of books that reflects the loose parts nature play you are observing. There are plenty of titles about acorns, sticks, rocks, leaves, and other items found in abundance on the forest floor. Go ahead- take 'em outside with you!

4. Provide Storage: Just a little storage. The organic materials we find on the ground belong on the ground, and serve an important purpose. Acorns that don't grown into magnificent Oaks provide forage for animals and decompose into the soil... so we want to put them back after we play! But, if there is some interest in keeping collections for the short-term, provide wooden trays, boxes, or bowls. Be careful if you keep seeds, nuts, or other would-be animal food in outbuildings- the critters might be attracted to them and make their way in! Similarly, when bringing items off the ground into the house or classroom, consider that there may be eggs or larvae living on or in them and watch closely for crawlies to hatch.

See you out there! LL


When not working with children and their caregivers, "Lady" Lisa and her family enjoy exploring the woods, lakes, and beaches that surround their northern Michigan home. She holds a masters degree in early childhood studies, a graduate certificate in teaching adults in the early childhood field, and accreditation in wilderness safety and the forest school ethos.


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