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Introducing Loose Parts

Something that many practitioners worry about when using loose parts is the risks that may be associated with them. Firstly, there is a misconception surrounding loose parts that they are all items children can choke on. It’s time to forget what we typically see loose parts as being and instead keep at the fore front of our minds that they’re resources which are open-ended, resources which can be used in many different ways and resources that many settings already have. They are not just buttons, glass beads and bolts but they are blocks, lengths of fabric, leaves and sand. You can choose the level of risk you and your setting are comfortable with based on the ages and stages of the children you cater to; every setting is unique as is every child which is why throughout the following sections I will provide ideas as to how to introduce varying levels of loose parts play. 


Tinker Trays

Tinker trays are a great way to introduce smaller parts to your preschool children in a safe and contained way. Put simply, a tinker tray is a small amount of lots of different items that children can explore and, as the title says, tinker with. This is one of the very first ways that I introduced loose parts play in my setting and it very much started out as contained adult supervised experiences for the preschool aged children (3-4-year-olds).  


A tinker tray is no riskier than providing children with art materials such as pompoms, sequins, pipe cleaners and other small craft materials that we often use on a daily basis. However, the difference is that, tinker trays give children freedom and control. There is no outcome with tinker trays and therefore, there are limited rules as to what children can do with the items. This is the part that most early years practitioners find scary but let me reassure you that children are far more capable at exploring, dissecting, discovering and experimenting when they have freedom. As discussed previously, when children are given control they are far less likely to use the materials in ways that we don’t want them to use them.  


Tinker Tray Idea 


What you need: 


A tinker tray – this can be anything with compartments such as a cutlery or cupcake tray. 

Small loose parts – beads, buttons, nuts and bolts, match sticks, pebbles, corks, pompoms, etc.  

A Malleable material – clay, play dough, salt dough, mud, etc 


What to do: 


When you first introduce a tinker tray to the children in your setting, especially children who are not used to having this much freedom, a great starting point is the addition of a malleable material. To start with give each child a good handful of your chosen material and simply allow them to combine the items in the tinker tray with it. 


You can play alongside the children, modelling different ways that they might use the materials together. This may be by pushing items into the material, making prints with the items, covering the items and so on. As the children become more confident you will notice them combining the materials in ways you had never even imagined. 

Another reason tinker trays are a really useful resource for practitioners is because they allow us to introduce new ideas and topics without it being forced upon the children. Instead, tinker trays allow us to give children the control and freedom to decide whether to engage with the materials and the new topic or not. Think about filling a tinker tray with seasonal items or items that represent seasonal holidays. 


  • Flower buds  

  • Petals 

  • Straw 

  • Fake eggs 

  • Grass cuttings 

  • Bulbs 



  • Herb cuttings 

  • Shells 

  • Pebbles 

  • Drift wood pieces 

  • Sand 

  • Yellow pompoms 


  • Leaves 

  • Conkers 

  • Acorns 

  • Twigs 

  • Pinecones 

  • Orange pompoms 


  • White pompoms 

  • Silver sequins 

  • Small baubles 

  • Tinsel cuttings 

As you can see from the list above and the checklists in the previous chapters, there are a variation of loose parts to suit differing ages and stages, with varying levels of risk to ensure that even the most risk sensitive settings can offer some form of loose parts play. 

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