The best, most educational toys an infant or toddler can have are right under parents' noses and, mostly likely, are free or very low cost.
To adults, pots, wooden spoons, empty boxes, and even Corian tile samples, silicone muffin cups, and Velcro hair rollers may look like a bunch of unrelated junk, but to children, these everyday found objects open up an endless world of creativity and development far beyond their age.
It's called the Theory of Loose Parts and was proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the early '70s. His belief: an environment filled with real-world materials that can be moved, manipulated, and merged into various combinations is infinitely more beneficial for children than one filled with static, fixed-use toys or equipment. The idea behind the educational philosophy is simple: Give young children access to everyday items and see where their imaginations take them.
California-based early childhood professors Miriam Beloglovsky and Lisa Daly wrote the book on the topic in 2014's Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children, and are back with a sequel, Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers.
While the first book centered on loose parts and preschoolers, the women say the play philosophy is just as beneficial for children under 3.
"For infants and toddlers, they are more fascinated by 'What can I do with this object? What's the most intriguing aspect of it? Does it make a noise? Can I move it in some way?' Loose parts are particularly captivating for them because they are really exploring the textures, how it feels, how it sounds, and how it tastes," says Daly, a professor of early childhood education at Folsom Lake College in Folsom, Calif. "They're really using their senses a lot. They're curious scientists, exploring and investigating just as preschoolers are."
Beloglovsky and Daly are currently conducting research in childcare programs on how Loose Parts is changing children's learning and development, and are already making some incredible discoveries.
"We found out infants are using the loose parts for symbolic representation at a much earlier age than has been previously stated in research," Daly says. "They are taking a tile, for example, and pretending it's a car or a telephone. In early Head Start, one of the things they measure is children's symbolic representation; the children were scoring very low in that area. With the infusion of Loose Parts, their numbers have skyrocketed and they're using symbolic representation at a much higher level, more like a young preschooler rather than an infant or toddler."
Symbolic representation is a critical part of a child's development and tied to future reading and writing ability as numbers and letters are symbols, Daly notes.
They also have seen children who have separation anxiety or the need for more self-regulation make social-emotional gains when they're working with loose parts because they're so open ended, Beloglovsky says: "It doesn't require them to have a perfect answer or put together a perfect puzzle."
The idea for the sequel resulted from audience feedback at Loose Parts presentations the pair give to educators across the country. One of the most frequent questions: How could Loose Parts be adapted for infants and toddlers, and is it safe?
"The No. 1 thing we always tell educators and parents is ongoing supervision from adults," says Beloglovsky, a professor of early childhood education at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, Calif. "For the book, we tested every single loose part we put in the [infant and toddler] environment through a choke tube to make sure nothing could go through that. We also did a lot of research on toxic materials and made sure that even the maple wood rings we use are all sealed with natural materials."
The authors transformed three childcare programs, replacing traditional toys with loose parts, and made an interesting observation.
"We've learned that the more children handle things, the less likely they are to put them in their mouth," Daly says. For example, young children were more entranced with pouring stones from one vessel into another than they were trying to put them in their mouths."
In addition to vetoing any material that could slide through a choke tube, the pair also nixed PVC pipe, magnets, petroleum-based Styrofoam products (such as pool noodles), or any objects that had an attached part that could possibly be pulled off.
"We did research," Beloglovsky adds. "If there's a doubt, research it." All of the loose parts highlighted in the nearly 300-page book were play-tested, monitored by adults, and passed a choke tube test. She added that anything that is FDA-approved is considered safe because the material is intended to be used with food.
One of the best aspects of Loose Parts is that materials can be found in any home or outdoors (sticks, wood, bricks, stones, etc.) and are free. Forget those play kitchen plastic toys, they advise, pull out your pots, muffin tins, measuring cups, and wooden spoons. Upcycle that metal food can by removing the label, cleaning, and ensuring it's free of sharp edges. A host of mind-expanding toys could be as close as your recycling bin.
"[Children] love using things that adults use," Daly says. "They like to do imitations of adults."
Daly adds she has been surprised by how competent and capable infants and toddlers are when working with loose parts.
"I'm amazed at how they do things," she says, noting the story of a toddler she watched work through a problem. The boy placed Velcro hair rollers into an empty milk jug. When he wanted them out, he tried turning the jug upside down, banging it, and shaking it, to no avail. Then he noticed a nearby cup.
"He took the jug and turned it upside down as if he was pouring into the cup," Daly says. "In other words, 'I've seen my Mom or Dad pour from a carton and it comes out into the cup. So if I do that, the rollers are going to come out into the cup.'"
"We've seen tremendous excitement on the teachers' behalf and how they're really beginning to see the capacity and capability of young children," Beloglovsky adds.
Teachers and childcare providers are noting that loose parts are so engaging, children are more focused and engaged in their play, and play longer, as well. (You can find examples of some of their favorite materials on their blog, Reflective Perspectives.)
Regardless of any loose parts offered to children, Daly recommends having as much of one material on hand, as possible.
"It's better to have more of fewer things than few of a lot of things," she says. "If you're trying to build something, if you have a lot of the same shape and size, the uniformity makes it easier."
Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers offers a host of new loose parts ideas paired with color, real-world photography to inspire safe play in an infant-toddler environment. The book also shares classroom stories and proven science, explaining why this style of play supports children's development and learning.