Many people have noticed that when a child is given a gift, they often play with the toy’s packaging or the gift wrap.
Whether commercial or handmade, children’s toys were usually simple or homemade in previous generations and were made of durable materials.
In children’s learning environment, mass-produced plastic toys with limited use are now a permanent fixture. The toys are designed for specific services and offer limited opportunities for imaginative play.
A trend in the marketing of durable toys coincides with environmental concerns and educational interest in materials that enable children to play in many different ways.
Researchers and educators refer to “loose-parts play” as a type of play where children play with and reuse materials that can be used in many different ways. It can be done with natural or manufactured materials (such as cardboard, sticks, pots, and pans not intended for play) or commercial toys such as blocks or stackable cups.
In the 1970s, architect Simon Nicholson first used loose pieces when he wrote about playgrounds and educational design.
In collaboration with colleagues, I am researching which materials – including those purchased in stores and those that are natural or upcycled – are best suited to certain types of quality play for young children.
What is Play?
Play is defined as an activity pursued purely for its own sake, characterized by its process rather than its end goal. Researchers acknowledge that play is complex, even though its definition is debated.
Play is also described as an integration process. It provides an ecosystem in which children can connect previous experiences and represent them differently. They can imagine possibilities, explore, create, and discover new meanings.
Children’s play themes and materials, their social interactions, and the understandings they demonstrate all show high complexity.
The more complex the game, the more it impacts development. A small amount can improve children’s performance in subsequent cognitive development tasks.
Benefits and skills of complex play
Play develops cognitive skills that are also important for learning.
The themes of children’s play are usually based on the concepts inherent in the toys and materials available.
As noted above, the materials and toys children use to play over the years have changed dramatically. This is due to societal shifts, technological advances, and changes in child development.
Today, many early learning and childcare communities use loose parts to provide high-quality opportunities for play. These opportunities encourage children to explore their environment, use their creativity and imagination, and develop cognitive skills.
Education in Canada
Alberta, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia explicitly mention the importance of loose parts play in their early childhood education guidelines. For example, the Nova Scotia Curriculum acknowledges that loose parts play encourages ” creative and open-ended learning.”
Six other provincial frameworks do not use the term “loose parts,” yet they stress the importance of this type of play. Although many parents, educators, and policymakers recognize the benefits of engaging children in loose-parts play, there needs to be more basic evidence about children’s indoor playing with loose materials.
Play opportunities for Equitable.
Children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds begin kindergarten with a disproportionately lower level of literacy and education than their more advantaged peers.
Toys are often out of reach for families with low income. If early childhood programs and professionals helped parents up-cycle household items (like egg cartons or plastic tubs), could they offer equal play opportunities to all children?
Cognitive and Language Development
We collected data using video recordings (one session with loose parts, the other with a limited-purpose toy) and parent questionnaires.
We are now analyzing the crucial relationship between children’s loose object play and cognitive development. We also consider key social determinants like gender, socioeconomic status, and maternal education.