In many U.S. schools, recess time was already declining before COVID-19 forced classes online. As more and more educational activities take place on screens, how can we make sure that exercise remains part of our children's lives? One answer is to simply encourage our kids to be kids. Children are naturally active and inclined to move their bodies. Ginsburg (2007) provides an insight into the benefits of child-driven play on physical well-being:
“In contrast to passive entertainment, play builds active, healthy bodies. In fact, it has been suggested that encouraging unstructured play may be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children, which is one important strategy in the resolution of the obesity epidemic” (p. 183).
Encourage play and children will engage in physical activity, which is good for their long-term health. Use of loose parts can promote active play, as well as confidence and satisfaction in a child’s own physical abilities.
Providing loose parts for play creates more diverse opportunities for children to be active. Naturally open-ended, loose parts without a fixed purpose invite children to create and build—activities that require the children to move the parts. While interacting with the loose parts, children develop their gross and fine motor skills, including strength, flexibility, balance, hand eye coordination and reactive movement.
Including a wide variety of loose parts in a learning environment helps to strengthen both fine and gross motor skills. Small loose parts such as shells, lids, pegs, and corks stimulate pinching, picking up and pressing. These smaller movements help to strengthen the hand and finger muscles. Similarly, walking barefoot through sand or mud can help to strengthen smaller muscles in the feet. The sensations of different textures and surfaces can be felt through movement of the feet and wiggling of the toes. Larger and heavier loose parts require greater movement and strength. Children can strengthen their larger muscles by lifting, pulling, pushing and carrying loose parts such as buckets, tree branches and wagons. Play friendly spaces have catalysts and props for interaction, which encourage children to explore what their bodies can do (Donovan, 2016). Movement through play establishes healthy habits and positive attitudes towards physical activity.
How to use loose parts to promote physical activity
Create an enriching play space with the right loose parts and your children will instinctively engage in physical activity. This encourages even children otherwise uninterested in team sports or traditional exercise to join in and move, thereby creating a more inclusive play environment. (Play Wales, 2017). The reality is that all children are programmed differently. Some will thrive on running and jumping, while others are happiest using their hands to build and create. Loose parts accommodate all children, giving all the opportunity to move and be physically active in a unique way that appeals to their own ideas, interests, and instincts.
Spencer et al. (2014) describes how this play environment might look:
“In an open play space, children can engage in a range of gross motor activities/skills such as running, jumping, crawling, and rolling. With manipulative equipment such as balls, beanbags, and hoops in open spaces, children have even more flexibility in their outdoor play. Adding simple toys and building materials lets children have varied movement opportunities and the chance to partake in construction play and develop fine motor skills. Finally, offering props or costumes can encourage role play and fantasy play. Open play spaces could even incorporate a simple stage or performance area” (p.29).
The following ideas and activities are great for initiating physical activity:
- Hunter-gatherer pursuits, such as collecting and using natural materials, fishing, foraging and treasure hunts
- Climbing trees, boulders and ladders
- Trail making with natural props like ropes, stones and sand
- Balancing on planks of wood, logs or pipes
- Stacking boxes or crates
- Props or costumes for performances
Let your child lead the way
Loose parts help to establish a mind/body connection, linking discovery and imagination to movement. Unstructured, versatile play encourages engagement in a variety of activities. Children are more likely to engage in physical activities if they enjoy them, and children love open-ended play with loose parts.
Donovan, J. (2016, August). Enabling play friendly places. Environment Design Guide, 87(JD), 1-18. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26152194
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182–191. Retrieved July 27, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2006-2697
Play Wales. (2017). Resources for playing -- providing loose parts to support children’s play: A Toolkit. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://www.playaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/LibraryDownloads/loose-parts-toolkit.pdf
Spencer, K., & Wright, P. (2014, November). Quality Outdoor Play Spaces for Young Children. YC Young Children, 69(5), 28-35. Retrieved July 27, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/ycyoungchildren.69.5.28