How often have you heard parents say they are introducing their child in an activity to “build confidence”? I’ve certainly had this skill in mind as I’ve introduced my children to new experiences like music or sports. Confidence is a key component in childhood development. While all parents hope their children will have the self-confidence to explore their ideas and try new things, imparting confidence is trickier. It's a skill that isn’t as black and white as mathematics or literacy.
The good news is that play itself—that natural activity all children inherently know how to do—builds confidence. Play with loose parts is a part of play-based learning that helps children gain social, emotional, and intellectual assurance. Largely self-led, loose parts play encourages children to be inquisitive and to explore beyond the boundaries set by materials and structured learning. Research shows that play with loose parts builds the skills children need in their development, and that this play has several benefits.
Allowing children to take balanced risks is how children learn to confidently keep themselves safe. According to Huff Sisson and Lash (2017),
“Concerns about health and safety risks have limited what children are typically permitted to do in outdoor learning areas” (p.11).
Despite these concerns about risk, the benefits of outdoor play are fundamental to early childhood development. Outdoor space and natural elements give children the opportunity to challenge themselves with new and difficult tasks (Kinsner, 2019). With the guidance of a parent or teacher, children can learn to take calculated risks in a variety of situations, and further develop their confidence and decision-making skills.
The spontaneity of outdoor play can quite often be replicated through loose parts, and children can still experience the benefits of challenging and risky play at home. Imagination leads the way in explorative play; with improvisation and prompts, children can be guided to recreate outdoor adventures at home. In the event outdoor play areas are inaccessible or deemed unsafe, loose parts play can mirror the benefits of the outdoors, promoting healthy risk-taking in a safe and comfortable environment.
Guided play is when a child directs the play and adults provide some guidance to highlight learning opportunities. This can look like the adult asking questions or making observations. According to Weisberg et al. (2015),
“If you tell them, children will learn. But guided play works better; if you guide them, children are more likely to actively explore and learn more” (p.11).
Playing with loose parts with your child is a great way to experience guided play. For example, if your child wants to create a secret hideaway in the backyard or bedroom, you can help collect resources and advise on building techniques. As you glimpse the world your child is creating with cans and pipes, you can provide new vocabulary that your child can learn and practice while playing. As your child overcomes obstacles and brings an idea to life, he or she experiences the satisfaction of achievement. Additionally, since children derive security from a caregiver’s positive response to them, having fun with you adds to your child’s sense of confidence.
The recent COVID-19 crisis changed and challenged where children play and how they can play collaboratively, making the social benefits of loose parts play more important than ever. The use of loose parts is advantageous in its ability to create language-rich play and promote the development of social skills. In the blog Early Impact, Williams (n.d) explores the strong link between loose parts and storytelling as the thirteenth of fourteen benefits:
“In loose parts play, there is often questioning, narrating, taking on roles or voices, talking through ideas, negotiating and imagining. Children talk about what they are doing. They ask others what they are doing as well.”
Even if children cannot be around other kids, they can still exercise their social and conversational skills during play by sharing with family members their ideas, describing the situation, or verbally recounting events and adventures.
Incorporating the benefits of guided play, adults use play situations to practice language. The possibilities are endless, including ordinal numbers or positional language (“in”, “under,” etc.). This stimulates conversation and encourages children to think and talk about activities as they do them.
Reflection is also an important aspect of loose parts play that can be initiated by parents and teachers. Ask children to tell the story of their play. Where are they going? What are they building? Why? Reflection encourages storytelling and language development while giving children confidence in their social skills.
Loose parts play gives children the chance to confidently create and explore their own ideas. The child decides what loose parts or outdoor play environments will “be.” For example, to one child a stick is a magic wand, whereas to another child the stick is a shovel. According to Flannigan and Dietze (2018),
“The way children perceive a loose part influences if and how they use it in their play. Since loose parts do not have a predetermined use or outcome, with experience, children can adapt them to be used in multiple ways” (p.54).
The use of loose parts encourages unstructured, autonomous play with minimal rules and guidelines. Children play based on their interests, promoting higher engagement and a greater opportunity to develop skills and build confidence. Research by Flannigan and Dietze (2018) indicates that by frequently changing a play or learning environment, parents and teachers can ensure children are regularly challenging themselves and using their imagination to create a sense of wonder.
Children flourish when they play with loose parts. Parents can rest assured knowing that loose parts and play-based learning naturally develops confidence in children, without parents having to teach this skill specifically. Confidence is one of the intrinsic outcomes of loose parts play.
Flannigan, C., & Dietze, B. (2018). Children, Outdoor Play, and Loose Parts. Journal of Childhood Studies, 42(4), 53–60. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.18357/jcs.v42i4.18103
Huff Sisson, J., & Lash, M. (2017). Outdoor Learning Experiences Connecting Children to Nature: Perspectives from Australia and the United States. YC Young Children, 72(4), 8-16. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90013699
Kinsner, K.(2019). Fresh Air, Fun, and Exploration: Why Outdoor Play Is Essential for Healthy Development. YC Young Children, 74(2), 90-93. Retrieved July7, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26808918
Weisberg, D., Kittredge, A., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R., & Klahr, D. (2015). Making play work for education. The Phi Delta Kappan, 96(8), 8-13.Retrieved July 7, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24375880
Williams, M. (n.d.). 14 Benefits Of Loose Parts Play With Examples. Early Impact. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from https://earlyimpactlearning.com/14-benefits-of-loose-parts-play-with-examples/
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