What do we play with in outdoor occupational therapy sessions?
Explaining the benefit & magic of loose parts
If you look into a room full of bright toys you might easily see hours of play potential for your child.
The same is true when you see all the interesting balls, mats, and swings of a typical occupational therapy sensory gym. It doesn’t take much imagination to see your child having fun with all the swings, toys, and trampolines inside.
Then, you look at what Bearfoot offers — outdoor occupational therapy — and it’s easy to ask yourself… What are you going to do for a whole session?
Aren’t you going to need something to play with?
What if my child needs the extra equipment of a sensory gym?
As an adult, it’s easy to miss the abundance of play opportunities in the outdoors. Let’s be honest, your imagination has faded a bit. You see objects as they are. Not for what they could be.
Kids see objects entirely differently. With the imagination of a child, unconventional objects come alive as incredible play materials.
Raise your hand if…
→ you’ve got a pile of rocks in your car or house, courtesy of your kiddo.
→ you remember a time when your child fell in love with a piece of “junk.”
→ recall your child being more obsessed with playing with a box than the "cool" toy that came inside.
There's an official name for these unexpected play materials. These open-ended objects of play are called loose parts¹﹐² and we’ve seen kids play better with these random objects than with traditional toys!
Not surprisingly, nature is the perfect place to find and play with loose parts.
What are loose parts?
Loose parts are the natural and everyday objects that children find and use in a variety of ways.¹﹐² These objects can be moved, combined, taken apart, or explored. With no instructions or defined purpose, these materials aren’t just junk - they are a blank canvas for creative, imaginative, and child-directed play.
It’s the stick that can be a shovel or a wand. The cardboard box can be a house or crash-landing zone. It’s the rocks that can be sorted, stacked, or served as imaginary food.
And this is what’s cool too - kids naturally gravitate towards this play because it draws on their natural curiosity, drive to explore, and need to express themselves³. Compare this to single-function toys like those unboxing surprise sets. Once the novelty wears off, they move on. Hence, all the abandoned toys in your toy room.
In fact, teachers have noted that when loose parts are added to playgrounds, children engage in more physical activity and creative play⁴.
Some Examples of Loose Part Play Materials
Loose parts can either be non-organic items or natural materials from the outdoors. Here’s a quick list.
Non-organic Loose Parts Play Materials
Stuff around your house, yard, or recycling bin:
Pots & Pans
Natural Loose Parts Play Materials
Objects you find and pick up outside:
Pods & acorns
What makes open-ended play materials (i.e. loose parts) so good for kids?
Beyond just being fun, loose parts offer:
Flexibility — There are endless ways they can be used with no right or wrong answers. The same object can be used differently based on the skill level and lead of the child. This also means kids of different skill levels can learn together¹.
Endless creativity — Without a single function, loose parts encourage kids to use their imaginations.⁴ Rocks can become castles or items like rope, sticks, and leaves can be combined to create a fairy house or mud pie.
A bridge to skill development — Play in itself is a way for kids to practice essential skills. And loose parts play offers motivational opportunities to build strength, coordination, and self-regulation³. Here’s where the OT comes in. Keep reading to learn more about skill development.
As therapists (and parents), providing opportunities for our kids to benefit from loose parts play is simple (thank goodness). We can provide the environment with access to safe, loose parts and follow the kids’ lead as they explore, create, and imagine. Voila!
You’ll be amazed by what they come up with and how immersed they become when using these open-ended play materials.
Using Loose Parts to Address Goals Within Occupational Therapy
Now that you get the concept of loose parts, let’s circle back around to how these materials help us create fun, high-impact outdoor occupational therapy sessions that help kids achieve what previously felt impossible.
In a nutshell, we don’t need a bunch of specialized equipment or toys because the best materials for play are already outdoors.
That’s not to say our therapists enter the woods for sessions empty-handed. We strategically carry-in items to supplement sessions. These could be items like a swing, scissors, a hammer, chalk, or some paper.
Here are some examples of how loose parts play supports occupational therapy goals to help your kid thrive.
Pretty much all loose parts have a sensory component, especially loose parts found in nature. Whether your child is banging them together, building (and destroying), or moving through them — loose parts are part of immersive experiences that activate all the senses.
The creativity and unscripted nature of loose parts play offer many opportunities to practice self-regulation. The trial and error of playing with loose parts invites kids to practice managing their frustration, adjusting to the situation, and controlling their bodies.³
Loose parts play encourages shared missions between kids, which comes with rich social skills practice like negotiation, idea sharing, and taking turns.³﹐⁵
Loose play materials are meant to - and can - be moved. So while kids are moving rocks or tree branches, at the same time they are working their muscles.⁴
Stacking, moving, and constructing all require coordination. The loose parts materials also provide motivation, meaning kids are less likely to give up when they don’t succeed on the first attempt.⁶ This provides the repetition and practice to hone those coordination skills.
Attention & Problem Solving
Give a child a pile of loose parts and they’ll have to think through how to use them. Whether they end up constructing something new or sorting the items, they’ll be flexing important brain skills like attention, organization, and coming up with a plan. In fact, loose parts play has been shown to increase engagement, attention, and problem-solving.⁵
Play Materials Combined With Expertise
The right guidance is the key to transforming everyday loose parts play into therapeutic activities that move a child towards their goals.
Obviously, loose parts can be found everywhere, for free or laying around in the most unexpected places. And there's nothing stopping you from getting all these amazing benefits by playing with these with your child. In fact, we encourage you to follow your child’s lead if they raid the recycling bin or a rock pile.
What makes us unique is the intentional way that we set kids up for success in our sessions by reducing typical distractions and knowing how to make adjustments based on a child’s emotional or physical needs. Kids get to have an incredible time, be themselves, and work towards their goals.
If your child has physical, emotional or sensory challenges, check out the occupational therapy services at Bearfoot OT. Click here to learn more about our outdoor occupational therapy in the Bay Area.
Daily, L. & Beloglovsky, M. Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children.
Daly, L. and Beloglovsky, M. (2015) Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. Redleaf Press: St Paul p.x.
Maxwell, L. E., M. R. Mitchell, and G. W. Evans. 2008. Effects of play equipment and loose parts on preschool children’s outdoor play behavior: An observational study and design intervention. Children, Youth and Environments, 18 (2), 36-63.
Science Daily (2014) Health benefits from free play confirmed by research. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140303083547.htm
Cogorno Maldonado, Rossana. (2021). The Impact of Extended Recess with Loose Parts Play on Montessori Primary Student Self-Regulation and On-Task Behaviour. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/maed/401
Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. (2018). Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305