How to encourage sensory play with loose parts
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How to encourage sensory play with loose parts

26 February 2020 By Emily Hatfield - Digital Marketing Apprentice at YPO

young children playing with loose parts

Taste, touch, smell, sight and sound - the early years of childhood is a valuable time to engage in sensory play. Engaging the senses from a young age can help with developments and learning. Introducing loose parts is the ideal way to encourage this!

Children (and adults) retain the most information through associating certain things with their senses. From the moment we are born, we use our senses to explore and make sense of the world around us.

It can often be difficult to find ways to keep young children excited and occupied, whether it be at nursery or on the weekends at home.  Using loose parts and other natural resources is a vital way to ensure that when working with children, you’re allowing them to learn and develop as well as exercise their senses.  

Sensory play benefits 

What makes sensory play such an important activity is the endless amount of benefits it can have on a child and their development. Introducing new materials and textures enriches their understanding of the world around them. Key benefits of sensory play with loose parts include;

Improving cognitive development helps little ones learn:

Early years is an essential stage for young ones to make cognitive links between the world around them and how they process it. This cognitive growth will improve thought processes, understanding and reasoning as they grow up.

Children become more aware of the world around them:

At a young age, our senses are our only means available to help us understand the world around us. What we can gather from our senses helps us process information and adapt to our surroundings.  

Practising problem solving helps youngsters grow in independence:

It's clear that even when we're young, we begin to overcome problems and decide things for ourselves. Especially through the use of loose parts, children are continuously finding ways to bring imagination to reality for themselves.

Loose parts (natural and man-made) 

What a loose part is, is entirely up to you and your early years children. Allow a child to be imaginative, independent and creative, turning any object or resource they fancy into something entirely different.


There’s a reason why the toy that came in the cardboard box at Christmas was played with once or twice, but the cardboard box was played with for many more times to come. Traditional toys only have one real use and their entertainment does wither. The box it came in on the other hand, can become almost anything, a castle, a robot friend or even a baking oven.

Although it's easy to look around the house and in charity shops for loose parts, it's also great to go outdoors. Nature provides us with so many other resources from tree bark to sand, pinecones to shells and pebbles. Did you ever go out on a walk as a child and hunt for the perfect stick to become your sword or staff, that's loose parts play!

Our previous blog 'Introducing loose parts in early years' will give you some inspiration on what a loose part can be and where you can find them.

Introducing loose parts into play

The beauty of using loose parts in early years is that you don't need to think what a child can do with the resources. Determining what that piece of rope is or what potential kitchen utensils have to become something entirely different, is not up to you.


Little ones can use their own imagination with loose parts and will most likely tell you what something is. Materials and resources are open-ended and have a multitude of uses. If there is no limit on what constitutes a loose part, then there are no limits of what they can become!


What they decide an object is going to become comes entirely from their senses. Children are usually drawn to certain items, whether that's because of their touch, the way they look, smell or taste. A child's ability to see the potential in everyday materials and resources is amazing.

What's next?

You probably are already incorporating loose parts play into your early year's nursery or home activities in some kind of way. But ensuring that you're doing this to practice sensory skills too is what's important.


Encourage little ones to touch and smell, choose and source loose parts that have texture, shape, patterns, bright colours, mouldable and structured, smells, make noises and even have a taste (where possible). Avoid dictating what they should do and instead ask them lots of questions about what they want to do with the materials.

Always ensure that there is adult supervision, but otherwise let your little learners run free. Without knowing it, they will work together, adapt to challenges and become much more aware of the world and the resources it can deliver.

For even more resources and ideas read our Little Learners Magazine Issue 10. This issue is centralized around loose parts and includes all kinds of activities to incorporate them into everyday play
Categories: Education

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