4 Ways to Support Problem Solving Through Loose Parts Play


This post was lost in the archives. Originally published by us in 2020

This week I visited a local service. While I spoke with the approved provider, I noticed some play unfolding in the mud pit nearby. A group of children were using a plank and some buckets to create what looked to be a bridge. As I began to listen to the conversation, it became apparent that they were in fact building a bridge - to get across the puddle without gum boots of course! I watched as the educational leader gave them space and time to work it out. When their first solution didn't work, she didn't step in and try to solve the problem for them, but simply supported them to think about why it might not have worked. They continued experimenting with various loose parts and I left them to it. 


This is the amazing thing about loose parts - the ability to utilise various items to solve problems, to create, to make sense of the world. But it isn't always as simple as dumping a bucket of reels, pipes and planks into the playground and hoping for the best. We often hear educators say "we tried loose parts, but the children didn't seem to know what to do with them." One of our roles as an educator is as an environment setter, and a scaffolder. Does this mean we need to spend hours creating perfectly designed spaces for loose parts play? No, but we do need to give some thought to the materials we provide, how we store them, and how we support children to use them. 



  1. Provide a variety of materials - things that are flat, things that are round, things that move, things that are big, things that are small... you get the idea! 
  2. Provide TIME - lots and lots of time. In her book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom suggests that children need approximately 40-45minutes to settle into play, to decide where to play and who to play with and what to do. When children have long blocks of uninterrupted play, they settle into more complex play. 
  3. Allow children to fail. Sometimes we see children working through a problem, or exploring, and we quash their approach (with good intentions) because we can see it won't work. For example, with the story above - I could see that the way the children had positioned the buckets meant that their "bridge" wouldn't be stable, however the outcome would be that they would fall 15cm and have to start again - not a big risk! This is risk assessment on the fly. But, by allowing the children to test their idea and fail, it gave them the opportunity to reflect on why their idea didn't work and go back to the drawing board. 
  4. Wonder. Instead of giving answers or asking questions that have a pre-determined answer, wonder with children. E.g. - I wonder why the plank didn't stay on the bucket when you stepped on it? 


Loose parts should be a key aspect of all environments and programs for children, but it is important that we - as educators - know what to do with them, and how to support children to use them. 



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