Let the Children Play: Scoping Review on the Implementation and Use of Loose Parts for Promoting Physical Activity Participation

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DOI: 10.3934/publichealth.2016.4.781
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Active play has become a critical focus in terms of physical activity participation in young children. Unstructured or child-led play offers children the opportunity to interact with the environment in a range of different ways. Unstructured materials, often called loose parts, encourage child-led play, and therefore may also promote physical activity. The purpose of this scoping review was to determine what is currently known about how loose parts may influence physical activity participation. Following a systematic literature search, a total of 16 articles were retrieved, reviewed and categorized according to: (1) types of loose parts; (2) types of play; and (3) types of thinking. We found that there are currently a range of loose parts being used to support play, but the way in which they are implemented varies and there is a lack of clarity around how they might support the development of active outdoor play and physical literacy skills.
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AIMS Public Health, 3 (4): 781-799
DOI: 10.3934/publichealth.2016.4.781
Received date 01 June 2016
Accepted date 21 September 2016
Published date 26 September 2016
Let the Children Play: Scoping Review on the Implementation and Use
of Loose Parts for Promoting Physical Activity Participation
Natalie E. Houser 1, Lindsay Roach 1, Michelle R. Stone 1,*, Joan Turner 2, Sara F.L. Kirk 1,3
1 School of Health and Human Performance, Dalhousie University, 6230 South Street, Halifax, NS
B3H 4R2, Canada
2 Department of Child and Youth Study, Mount Saint Vincent University, 166 Bedford Highway,
Halifax, NS B3M 2J6, Canada
3 Healthy Populations Institute, Dalhousie University, PO Box 15000, Halifax, B3H 4R2 and IWK
Health Centre, University Avenue, Halifax, NS, Canada
* Correspondence: Email: michelle.stone@dal.ca; Tel: (902) 494-1167
Abstract: Active play has become a critical focus in terms of physical activity participation in
young children. Unstructured or child-led play offers children the opportunity to interact with the
environment in a range of different ways. Unstructured materials, often called loose parts, encourage
child-led play, and therefore may also promote physical activity. The purpose of this scoping review
was to determine what is currently known about how loose parts may influence physical activity
participation. Following a systematic literature search, a total of 16 articles were retrieved, reviewed
and categorized according to: (1) types of loose parts; (2) types of play; and (3) types of thinking.
We found that there are currently a range of loose parts being used to support play, but the way in
which they are implemented varies and there is a lack of clarity around how they might support the
development of active outdoor play and physical literacy skills.
Keywords: loose parts; physical activity; active play; outdoor play; unstructured play; children;
physical literacy; affordance theory
AIMS Public Health Volume 3, Issue 4, 781-799.
1. Introduction
Active play is an essential component of children’s lives that contributes to physical
development as well as cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing [1]. Although there are currently
many ways to describe play, active free play can be described as any form of unstructured physical
activity participation [2]. Active outdoor play can promote social skills, motor development, and
overall physical activity [3]. The importance of active outdoor play is gaining prominence, in part
through the release, in 2015, of an active outdoor play position statement [4]. This statement
recognizes that ―access to active play in nature and outdoors, with its risks, is essential for healthy
child development‖, and it recommends ―increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play
outdoors in all settingsat home, at school, in child care, the community and nature‖ [4]. Not only
does play provide ongoing enjoyment, it also has the ability to support a variety of important
developmental milestones ranging from movement development to language, conversation, and
problem solving abilities [5]. In today’s society, characterized by lower physical activity rates and
more time spent in sedentary behaviours [3], there is a growing focus on the importance of play to
enhance physical activity and movement development, thereby influencing physical literacy.
Physical literacy is defined as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and
understanding to be physically active for life [3]. Previous research regarding loose parts and
unstructured play has focused on the implementation of increased structure during play time, even in
children as young as 35 years old. Research has yet to identify significant improvements in
movement development resulting from free play [6,7]. More recently, research is finding that
children may interact with unstructured materials in ways that allow for discovery and engagement
in a more physically active way [8], supporting the importance of incorporating loose parts and
unstructured play to encourage increased physical activity participation and physical literacy
development. Although motor development, the process of acquiring and working on movement
patterns and skills, is an important aspect of physical literacy, unstructured and child-directed
free-play is essential for various other aspects of children’s development and should therefore not be
overlooked [1,9]. Unstructured play is described as child-led play which has no specific outcome or
rules in mind, allowing for the child to work on decision-making and discovery on their own [1].
This is different from structured play which has a set outcome in mind and is often adult-led [1].
The idea and relative importance of creative, open-ended play for children’s development has
been accepted for years [10]. The theory of loose parts, entitled ―How NOT to cheat children‖, was
developed by Simon Nicholson in 1971. Loose parts are defined as materials that are variable,
meaning they can be used in more than one way so that children can then experiment and invent
through play [10], and these materials can be natural or synthetic. The theory itself arose from two
simple factors: a lack of evidence to support the idea that some individuals are born creative and
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others are not, along with an abundance of evidence supporting the fact that all children love to play
and interact with their surroundings [10]. From these observations, the theory of loose parts states
simply; ―In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of
discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it‖ [10]. Not only is
unstructured play important, but providing children with the right type of play materials should act
to enrich their playing environment, leaving more room for creativity and growth. Object affordance
is a theory that refers to how aspects of the environment can offer different opportunities for action
or use [11]. These affordances are different for each individual. One child may see a stump as
something to balance on, while another child might instead see this same stump as something to
climb. This philosophical concept connects the mind and body of the child with characteristics of
the environment [11], in this case loose parts. Characteristics of the outdoor environment such as
flat surfaces, hills, and trees all afford the opportunity for both physically active and risky play
in children [11].
Although the theory of loose parts was developed over 40 years ago, the use of loose parts in
practice to support play is unclear, and even less clear is how loose parts might support movement
and the development of physical literacy. Through the affordance theory, connections can be made
between loose parts and physical activity participation among children [11]. These connections are
likely based on the way each child interacts with the loose parts within their environment, but the
extent of these connections needs to be better understood. Therefore, the purpose of this paper was
to explore the existing knowledge on the theory of loose parts and to determine if and how loose
parts are being used to help promote children’s unstructured, active free-play.
2. Methods
The current review is considered a scoping review, as it focuses primarily on the extent of
information available, as opposed to the quality of the articles reviewed [12]. This type of review is
useful for exploring the extant literature available on a given topic [12].
To search for relevant scholarly reports related to ―loose parts‖, a literature review was
completed using the following online databases: Canadian Research Index, CBCA Complete, ERIC,
Periodicals Archive Online, ProQuest Research Library, Social Services Abstracts, and Sociological
Abstracts through the ProQuest search engine along with Academic Search Premier, SPORTDiscus,
PsychINFO, PsychArticles, the Teacher Reference Center and CINAHL, searched collectively
through EBSCO host. The keywords used were: loose parts‖, ―objects‖, ―plaything‖, ―toy(s)‖,
―material‖, ―natural‖, ―open ended‖, ―idiosyncratic‖, ―informal‖, ―free‖, ―outdoor‖, ―unstructured‖,
―informal‖, ―creative‖, ―explore‖, ―active‖, ―imagination‖, ―creative‖, and ―play‖. The inclusion
criteria required that articles be full-text editions from the year 1970-onwards, relating to children or
youth. To narrow down initial findings, subjects were tailored to early childhood education,
recreation, educational psychology, and teaching education. These criteria were included in order to
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ensure that the findings were relevant to the purpose of this research. Results provided 60 potentially
relevant articles from the EBSCO group and 15,000 from the ProQuest group. An additional search
was completed in Google Scholar using key words ―loose parts‖, ―play‖ and ―preschool‖ which
generated a list of 572 potentially relevant articles. The compiled 15,632 articles were then assessed
and only those whose titles and keywords that were related to the current understanding of loose
parts were included for a final number of 192 relevant citations. Duplicates were then removed
resulting in a total of 176 articles for review. See Figure 1 for a breakdown of the search process.
Both peer-reviewed and gray literature were included in this review to allow for a more complete
view on loose parts materials and how they are being used to encourage physical activity. The gray
literature such a magazine articles allowed for a practical view on the research perspectives outlined
in the peer-reviewed sources.
Throughout the search a number of set inclusion and exclusion criteria were developed to
narrow the search and tailor results to the specific topic of interest. Focus was to be on loose parts
use in normally-developing school aged children (12 years and under), specifically on the child’s
development or use as opposed to teacher development. Work had to be focused on the use of loose
parts, not on the design of playgrounds/play settings, or the type of play (e.g. outdoor play, free-play
etc.). Finally, those that focused on other learning outcomes such as literary or art-based skill
development as opposed to physical activity-related outcomes were excluded. Using these inclusion
and exclusion criteria a partial review of titles and abstracts was completed, narrowing the results to
44. Seven thesis and PhD dissertations were included in this list but were not included in the present
review, which focused on published data only. The focus of the thesis and PhD dissertations
includes the role of nature and outdoors in dramatic play, behaviours with open-ended materials, and
role of nature on children’s development. The reference lists of the compiled articles were also
scanned to check for additional sources that had not been generated during the search. Articles were
removed if they did not contain sufficient information to be adequately summarized for the current
review. For example, magazine articles comprised solely of lists of materials that could be found
around the house and used to stimulate play, were not considered to be loose parts. A final total of
16 articles were included in the current review.
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Figure 1. Search Outcome.
3. Results
Table 1 provides a brief summary of each article including the objective, population or target
audience, methods, publication type and general findings. From this it is clear that the literature is
broad and variable. The articles retrieved could however be categorized according to: (1) types of
loose parts; (2) types of play; and (3) types of thinking. The first category relates to the types of
loose parts that might be used to stimulate play. The second category relates to the types of play that
are encouraged and/or observed through the implementation of loose parts within environments. The
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third category relates to the different types of thought and the changing definition of the term loose
parts‖. Each is described in detail in the following narrative summary.
3.1. Types of Loose Parts
There is currently a very broad understanding as to what makes up a loose part, and the terms
used to actually define these loose parts are not clearly defined. For example, the term ―loose parts‖
is used interchangeably with ―open-ended materials‖. Both natural and synthetic materials were
included in the lists of loose parts that were described in the reviewed articles. Nicholson originally
described loose parts as materials that are variable, meaning they can be used in more than one way
so that children can experiment and invent through play [10]. Neill expanded this definition by
claiming that loose parts are materials with no set direction that can be used independently or with
other materials [13]. They can be natural or synthetic, and with the exception of safety and your own
particular environment, have no limitations other than a child’s own imagination. A detailed list of
examples which contained a large number of loose parts from other reviewed articles [8,1416], can
be seen in Table 2 [13]. The most all-encompassing definition of loose parts was provided by Sutton
who defined them as ―any collection of fully movable elements that inspire a person to pick up,
re-arrange or create new configurations, even realities, one piece or multiple pieces at a time. Loose
parts require the hand and mind to work in concert; they are catalysts to inquiry. Loose parts are the
flexible edge of an inviting open-ended interactive environment that allows participants to make an
imprint of their intention. Experiences with loose parts provide a profound yet playful way for
children to form associations between learning and pleasure‖ [17]. Sutton’s description of loose
parts aligns with the theory of object affordance described by Little and Sweller, subsequently
influencing physical activity participation among children, through their thoughts and movements.
The definition of loose parts is versatile and dynamic, fitting for the materials themselves.
Ultimately, any object can be used as a tool for play and discovery as long as it is available and safe
for the child’s age and development.
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Table 1. Summary of results.
country, year
Document type/
Key points
1971; USA
Original Theory of Loose
Partsexplores supporting
research that does not fall in
the fields of art, architecture,
or planning and uses this to
develop a program to promote
creativity in educational,
recreational and environmental
aspects of children’s lives.
Target audience:
parents and
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: Landscape
No methods specified.
Found research in the fields of community
interaction and involvement design along with
behavioural planning and design that supports
their theory. Discussed the widespread
acceptance of the loose parts theory and its
impact on curriculum development and
environmental education, stressing that the most
interesting loose parts can be found in our
surroundings. Even found the theory to apply to
the design of art galleries and science museums.
1981; USA
To determine how quality of
play and use of open-ended
materials changes in children.
Children ages
410 (n = 45),
including 24
males and 21
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: The Journal of
Qualitatively measuring
play activity with
open-ended materials
Children between the ages of 4 and 10 years old
were observed to see how interactions with
objects changed as development progressed. It
was discovered that the less developed children
took part in much more simple forms of play and
construction with the loose objects, while more
developed children had much more complex idea
of play and construction of the objects.
1983; USA
To observe how various
aspects of children’s pretend
play varies with high (e.g.:
dolls, tea sets etc.) vs.
low-structure objects (e.g.:
pipe cleaners, boxes etc.)
Explores the correlation with
Low income,
children aged
either 3.5 or 5
years old (n = 36)
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: Child
Videotaped children
playing in bouts of 30
minutes, twice with
Younger children engaged in significantly more
independent pretend play when provided with
high-structure materials however the type of
material did not affect cooperative play (children
playing together) in either age group. High
structure objects were found to elicit a larger
total frequency of pretend play than
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early child development
low-structure and twice
with high-structure objects
and compared behaviours.
low-structure objects. Findings were consistent
with El’Konin’s (1966) developmental views.
Drew, 2007;
USA [14]
To describe the benefits of
open-ended play for children.
Target audience:
parents and
Magazine article:
Scholastic Parent and
Child Magazine
No methods specified
The use of open-ended materials is believed to
influence many aspects of a child’s life. The
open-ended materials referred to include paint,
clay, mud, water, blocks, and Styrofoam. It is
explained how the ability to play can influence a
child’s ability to create a meaningful life. There
is less pressure on children as there are no rules
or goals to open-ended play, which also leads to
no possibility of errors, and in turn offering the
freedom for children to take part in play however
they see fit.
Mitchell &
Evans, 2008;
USA [5]
To explore how playground
equipment and loose parts
affects play behaviours and
provide empirical evidence
that children build spaces
when provided with
appropriate loose parts.
Preschool aged
(35 years)
children in a
child care setting
(n = 32)
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: Children, Youth
and Environments
Observed children in a
pre-, during, and
post-treatment phase to
explore differences In
play behaviour with the
inclusion of loose parts.
No previous work observed loose part effects in
an outdoor environment. Play behaviours were
observed before and after loose parts were
introduced. Inclusion of loose parts to a
playground environment increased constructive
play behaviours which consequently increased
dramatic play activities.
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Spencer, 2008;
USA [16]
Highlights the lack of un-
organized and open-ended play
in this generation’s children.
Target audience:
Online journal magazine:
No methods specified
Describes how play differs for each of the 4 age
groups of infants (birth-12 months) toddlers (13
years), preschooler’s (3–5), & grade school
children (5+), and provides suggestions on ways
parents can support their play to encourage
self-directed learning. Provides examples of
common house-hold supplies that can be used as
play materials.
2010; USA
Unpacking Imagination is a
loose parts playground idea
originally developed in New
Target audience:
Newspaper article: The
New York Times.
No methods specified.
This loose parts playground intervention was
developed as an attempt to diminish childhood
obesity and screen time in America. Unpacking
imagination features a ―playground in a box‖,
made up of foam blocks and shapes intended to
encourage children’s creativity and play. The
intent is that creative play be accessible to all
children with this form of playgrounds.
McGonigle &
Kruhm, 2011;
USA [21]
To explain how children’s
interactions with nature will
help form more physically fit
and capable individuals.
Target audience:
Magazine article: Natural
Life Magazine
No methods specified
This article argues that outdoor play can play a
critical role in encouraging physical activity and
increased interaction with the natural
environment. It is not only motor skills that are
the focus with natural play and loose parts, but
other aspects such as creativity and socialization.
The idea is to create environments where
individuals of a range of ages are free to play
and create as they wish.
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Sutton, 2011.
USA [17]
Explored the effects on play
behaviour with the inclusion of
loose parts to two outdoor
learning museum exhibitions.
approximately 50
interacting in the
museum setting.
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: Children, Youth
and Environments
Observed group’s
preference for location and
children’s interactions with
surroundings. Caregivers
completed enjoyment and
assessment surveys.
Inclusion of loose parts was found to increase
both the amount of time spent in the area and the
parent’s rating of that area. Furthermore, loose
parts increased the incidence of dramatic play
while improving children’s engagement and
understanding of the content in the area.
Interestingly, children were reported to use
materials that had not be intended as loose parts
for play.
Marshall &
2012; USA
To describe how to effectively
equip outdoor environments
for the use of open-ended
Target audience:
parents and
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: Teaching Young
Outdoor play spaces offer a wide range of
different opportunities when considering the use
of open-ended play materials. Outdoor play may
include aspects such as loose parts, music, mud,
water, and many other features stemming from
the indoor play environment. There is a
breakdown of how to implement each of these
aspects, along with what happens when they are
implemented and why.
Ryan et al.,
2012; USA
The study aimed to look for
common themes related to loose
part use and collaboration
between populations (children
vs. teachers) and across
recording techniques (drawings,
written records, photos)
regarding which proved to be
the favorite or most enjoyable.
200+ elementary
school children
made up the
child population
and 7 teachers &
1 play specialist
designer made up
the adult
Website: Western Society
for Kinesiology &
Mixed methods study
using the grounded theory
method to examine the
implementation of loose
Based on the representations formed by the
children and their parents, four themes were
developed in the study. The themes include;
pretend play, gross motor, construction, and
enclosed spaces. These themes helped further
develop the project as it was taking place,
resulting in interaction and engagement among
the children.
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2013; USA
To provide an overview of
existing loose parts and the
idea behind the use and
implementation of these
Target audience:
parents, teachers,
and academics
Journal article: Penn State
Extension, Better Kid
No methods specified.
The idea of loose parts was originally developed
by Nicholson, with the idea of the environment
and creativity in mind. This article describes
how loose parts can be incorporated into
playground, indoor or natural settings. There is
also a description of loose parts, which can
include anything from balls and hoops, to more
natural objects such as rocks and logs. The
article determined that children preferred loose
parts over more fancy, task specific toys.
Neill, 2013;
USA [13]
Explores the theory of loose
parts and why loose parts are
important to children’s
play/development. Suggests
different materials (natural and
synthetic) that can be used as
loose parts.
Target audience:
parents and
Curriculum Newsletter:
HighScope educational
research foundation
No methods specified
This article describes how children prefer to play
with open-ended materials, how using loose
parts works to develop problem solving skills
and the use of imagination in play. Also included
is a description of the materials required for a
loose parts seminar for teachers and details on
how these parts can be adapted for use with
children with special needs.
Drew & Nell,
2015; USA [8]
To demonstrate how open-
ended play materials can be
used and how they influence
different groups of individuals.
children aged 4
and 5 years
(n = 15)
Journal article: Teaching
Young Children
No methods specified
A workshop allowing 4- and 5-year-old children
to interact with open-ended materials. It was
described how this interaction influenced three
groups; the children, the teachers, and the
families. This article included materials such as
wood blocks, rocks, boxes, fabric, foam shapes,
along with many others.
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Oncu, 2015;
Turkey [2]
To explore children’s attitudes
towards unstructured play
materials, were interested in
looking at whether the use of
recycled objects could be an
adequate means of improving
creative thinking.
children (46
years of age)
from four schools
(n = 126)
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: Education
Children were observed
individually, were asked
about preferred play
materials and were then
provided with various
loose parts and asked to
demonstrate as many ways
as possible that they could
play with each object.
Determined that most children tended to use the
materials in an ordinary way and few used the
materials to foster creative play. They found
correlations with gender and preference for
certain materials (e.g. girls tended to use the
napkin more creatively than boys, while boys
demonstrated a higher prevalence of creative
play with the box, etc.) along with age, where
older children tended to participate in more
creative play overall.
Szekely, 2015;
USA [15]
To highlight playground
materials used in outdoor
environments, and how they
play a role in creative play and
Target audience:
Scientific peer-reviewed
journal: Art Education
In areas of Europe, adventure-style playgrounds
have been around for some time now, with the
intent of encouraging creative play and
incorporating it in an artistic sense. It is only
more recently that America has adapted a
similar, yet more conservative, way of
incorporating loose materials into public play
spaces, with a similar intent of enhancing
children’s creativity.
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Table 2. Detailed list of loose parts including natural and synthetic options [13].
Location/ Season dependent
Sea shells
Beach rocks
Large branches
Hay bales
Small twigs
Old street signs
Traffic cones
Car parts
Pine cones
3.2. Types of Play
Incorporating loose parts into a play environment opens up the possibility for various types of
play. Whether the child chooses to use them for creative, dramatic, exploratory, cooperative, or
constructive play, the loose parts are flexible and can be selectively chosen to ensure that they are
appropriate for any particular age group, with children being able to use them in ways that are
reflective of their own individual development [13].
Maxwell, Mitchell and Evans conducted a two-part study that first observed the type of play
behaviours on different playgrounds and then observed the additional effects of adding loose parts to
enhance play behaviours in an outdoor setting [5]. The authors explored different types of play,
focusing particularly on dramatic vs. constructive play, and how the addition of loose parts would
affect each. In their study, dramatic play was defined as play that involves imagination where the
child can pretend to be something, or someone else while constructive play is when children create
or build objects in a goal oriented manner. While both types of play were considered to be more
complex forms of play behavior, authors emphasized the importance of dramatic play for not only
cognitive, but social and emotional development as well, claiming that it is the foundation for the
development of abstract thought. However, the prevalence of dramatic play is decreased when
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enclosed spaces are not available, making it less common during outdoor play [5]. Authors
hypothesized that providing children with loose parts would function to increase the prevalence of
constructive play, and in particular children would build spaces in the outdoor setting that could then
be used to increase dramatic play. Furthermore, they believed that children would show a preference
for playing in areas where loose parts were provided. Results confirmed these hypotheses and, upon
removal of loose parts, both dramatic and constructive play decreased, demonstrating that the
addition of loose parts can affect various types of play behaviour [5]. Sutton also observed an
increase in dramatic play following the inclusion of loose parts [17]. In particular, increases were
noted in environments where the loose parts were suitable for thematic play, enabling children to
easily create their own storylines and incorporate these materials appropriately [17].
Drew and Nell supported the idea that loose parts provide the opportunity for a range of
different types of play [8]. Through the interaction with loose parts, it was discovered that while
children can derive benefit from loose parts environments, teachers and families also experienced
similar benefits [8]. Spencer, on the other hand, chose to detail how play differs depending on a
child’s age [16]. Her magazine article highlighted the appropriate loose parts for each age group,
and provided strategies for parents to help encourage age-appropriate, creative play [16].
3.3. Types of Thinking
Similar to types of play, some studies focused more on types of thought or thinking that might
be stimulated through loose parts play. Convergent thinking is based on logic and a set of rules or
guidelines that are followed [2]. Alternatively, divergent thinking is based on an individual’s
originality of thoughts, leading to creative thinking and creative play [2]. For example, Oncu
explored how the inclusion of loose parts would affect divergent and creative thinking [2].
Divergent thinking can be viewed as a type of thought which generally would lead to the expected
or ―correct‖ solution to a problem, as opposed to unique or original decisions seen in convergent
thinking. It is considered different from creative thinking as while divergent thinking tends to lead to
originality, the main component of creativity, you can still think in a divergent manner without
being creative. That being said, the ability to think divergently is viewed as an indicator of one’s
potential for creative thinking [25]. The study used the terms unstructured materials and loose parts
interchangeably, which were implemented to explore preschool children’s divergent thinking
abilities. The use of unstructured materials was thought to be able to foster more flexible thinking as
they could be used in a variety of manners. Ultimately the belief was that by improving divergent
thinking ability, overall creative thinking ability would also be improved. To test this, 46-year-old
children were provided with the materials and asked questions about what they could do with them.
Unfortunately, results showed that few children were actually able to use the unstructured materials
creatively. This may have been due to the study design, where children had to explain how they
would use these materials creatively, a task that may have been too advanced for the young children
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involved. Despite these findings, however, the authors still suggested the use of recycled and
open-ended materials to foster creative play [2].
Szekely emphasizes how loose parts in outdoor environments can foster a creative play setting,
while also encouraging children’s artistic abilities [15]. The idea behind adventure playgrounds is to
stray from conventional playground structures, and instead provide children with the prospect to
interact freely and creatively with the playground environment [15]. Initially created in Europe, then
later incorporated in a similar way in the United States, these playgrounds provide children with the
opportunity to choose for themselves what and how to play [15]. Loose parts further this creative
opportunity by providing an environment and materials that are open to the child’s own
interpretation. Instead of playing in an environment designed by adults with highly structured
materials, the child decides how each object can be used. There is a significant difference in
affordances for physical activity participation in centres where there are more resources, natural
elements present and the amount of outdoor spaces [11], influencing how much
moderate-to-vigorous physical activity children obtain in their respective centre. This ability to
manipulate one’s own environment encourages not only creativity but the development of problem
solving abilities. On top of the potential for physical and cognitive development, loose parts foster
social interactions between children making them share and create imaginative play
scenarios together [13].
4. Discussion
This review has identified the scope of literature on loose parts materials through the analysis
of several published, peer-reviewed studies that focus on the use of loose parts for active outdoor
play, along with several magazine articles. The review provides an overview of the potential that
loose parts might have as a means to promote physical activity participation and develop physical
literacy in children through unstructured play. However, the available evidence is limited,
particularly in how active play with loose parts might impact physical literacy. The search strategy
used was kept broad, resulting in a similarly broad range of information that then had to be
narrowed down manually. Furthermore, the term itself, ―loose parts‖, is ambiguous and
unfortunately, many of the generated articles related in no way to the concept of loose parts for play.
Another major limitation is that there was little comparability between the outcome variable that
studies were exploring. Some studies were interested in how loose parts affected creativity [2,15],
others were interested in play behaviours [5,8,17] and many studies were excluded as they focused
on variables such as language or artistic abilities rather than on physical activity or physical literacy.
Neill argues that the implementation of loose parts encourages a range of types of play
including creative play, exploratory play, or dramatic play [13]. Loose parts were also discovered to
provide a different way of thinking, fostering creativity and exploration of the environment and of
movements [2,15]. Furthermore, Sutton claims that including a large array of loose parts into a play
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environment can act to broaden children’s minds [17]. Consequently, they begin to see the whole
environment as a potential loose part to be used to enhance play [17]. It is also important to note that
cultural differences may impact the way in which loose parts are used. This is an area that requires
more research to determine how cultural differences in play and the use of loose parts may impact
physical activity levels of children.
Another limitation, inherent to loose parts, is that there is no way to predict how children will
choose to play with them. This makes it challenging to assess how loose parts might support
physical activity and physical literacy and reveals an important gap in the literature. While the
malleability of the term loose parts is beneficial for providing ample opportunities to incorporate
these types of materials into play, it does complicate research into the benefits associated with loose
parts. Prior to further exploration on the impact of loose parts, it would be beneficial to agree on a
common definition for the term, as well as the specific parts that should be considered ―loose parts‖
for research purposes. A common definition would allow for a mutual understanding of the concept,
while also allowing for research in this area to become more focused and comparable. However, as
discussed previously, what and how children use various materials for play is very hard to predict
and therefore harder to define. While there does seem to be a fair amount of research on the use of
loose parts, the quality is quite variable. For example, Oncu provided children with loose parts and
then had them explain how each would be used [2]. This specific approach may have been too
complex for ages of children involved. Other studies used observation to visually assess how
individuals interact with loose parts and also to listen to the types of interaction they provided [5,17].
Because each study took a slightly different approach and observed different key variables of
interest, it is difficult to make comparisons among them.
When school-aged children are given the opportunity for more outdoor free play after school,
physical activity participation increases and sedentary behaviours decrease [3]. Although there is
evidence suggesting the benefits to outdoor play in relation to physical activity participation, there is
currently minimal information on how loose parts play a role in the outdoor play environment.
Given the interest in loose parts to promote active outdoor play [3], we found no research that
explored how loose parts impact fundamental movement skill development in children. The ways in
which loose parts might be used for both free-play and organized games could help to promote
improved fundamental movement skills and it would be beneficial to outline some of the possible
movement skills that could be targeted through loose parts inclusion. This could also provide a
gateway for further research on how the implementation of loose parts influences physical activity
levels and enjoyment.
5. Conclusion
The existing articles relating to loose parts provide an overview of the loose parts that are being
used, how they are used, and the types of thought and play that these materials can encourage. It is
AIMS Public Health Volume 3, Issue 4, 781-799.
clear that the information currently available regarding the implementation and impact of loose parts
is both very broad and limited with respect to promoting physical activity and physical literacy.
Loose parts may include anything from logs and rocks to ropes and boxes, highlighting that it is
both natural and synthetic parts that fit into this category [8,1316]. Loose parts provide children
with unlimited opportunities to use these materials creatively in order to support the type of play of
their choosing, therefore encouraging physical activity participation in a range of different situations
and environments. Although there is still a lack of knowledge in this area, the current research
demonstrates that the implementation of loose parts does have a positive impact on children, as well
as their teachers and family members, but the true extent of this influence, particularly in the
promotion of physical activity and physical literacy is still unknown.
This review was supported by funds awarded to SFLK and MS (co-principal investigators)
from the Lawson Foundation, Active Outdoor Play strategy. SFLK also acknowledges salary
support from a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Canada Research Chair. SFLK and MS
conceived the study, provided scientific oversight and critical review of the manuscript; NH and LR
conducted the review and drafted the manuscript, JT provided critical review of the manuscript.
Conflict of Interest
The authors attest that there are no conflicts of interest to report for this research.
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J Environ Res Public Health 12: 6475-6505.
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5. Maxwell LE, Mitchell MR, Evans GW (2008) Effects of play equipment and loose parts on
preschool children's outdoor play behavior: An observational study and design intervention.
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17. Sutton MJ (2011) In the Hand and Mind: The Intersection of Loose Parts and Imagination in
Evocative Settings for Young Children. Child Youth Environ 21: 408-424.
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© 2016 Michelle R. Stone, et al., licensee AIMS Press. This is
an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License
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