Using Loose Parts in Schools and Nurseries

PLEASE NOTE: This page is currently in draft form whilst further advice is being sought.

Any organisation, school or setting which works with children that wishes to introduce or use loose parts with children needs to have clear procedures in place to enable this to happen successfully.

With loose parts, confusion arises because the materials are not toys. A bread crate is designed and manufactured to be used as a bread crate. It was never designed to be used as a toy. Therefore the Toy Safety Standard BS EN 71 does not apply. The BS EN 71 Directive defines a toy as “any product designed or intended, whether or not exclusively, for use in play by children under 14 years of age.” There are some exceptions to this, such as Christmas novelties.  For more information about the Toy Safety Standard, see Appendix 1.

There are lots of resources and products that are used in schools and homes which are not toys. For example paper and pencils are not toys, yet we give them to children to use on a daily basis. We may even show children how to make paper boats and aeroplanes to be used as toys.

Children need to experience using products which are not toys. It is necessary to learn how to live in a world which is ungovernable by safety standards for every facet of our lives. For example, learning how to use scissors is a useful skill. Being able to operate a TV is something many children quickly pick up.

Children learn best when they are able to play freely. They need to be able to use real resources in their play, not just toys. Many education approaches such as the Steiner Waldorf system or Montessori classes advocate the need for real experiences in order to acquire life skills. Playing with a variety of loose parts can assist here too.

Loose parts can be:

  • Bought either new or second-hand, e.g. from charity shops, education catalogues, E-Bay.
  • Donated by business, voluntary and other organisations.
  • Gathered sustainably from the environment, e.g. pine cones from a wood.
  • Household items donated by staff, parents or children.

Your school or organisation is responsible for the management, maintenance and supervision of any loose parts however they are acquired.


Know the purpose of introducing loose parts and the benefits for your children

There are lots of good reasons for using loose parts, not least because of the high levels of engagement, creativity and imagination demonstrated by children when playing with loose parts . It is important that all the staff and the parents and carers also understand why your school is taking this approach. Have an open afternoon where parents can see the children playing with loose parts and have an opportunity to ask questions, raise concerns and learn more. Ensure that statements about the school’s approach to play and the use of loose parts are included in the school handbook, website, health and safety policy and other policies as necessary. Some schools choose to develop specific play policies.


What information is available to help schools and early years settings?

To enable schools and other organisations to think carefully about their approach to developing play, there are several useful documents:


Do check resources and make sure they are suitable for your children

The resources need to be as safe necessary for children to use. Set up a system of checking any new items, regardless of where or how they were sourced. If you have purchased a product which you think is not fit for purpose, then return it and let the company know why. Be aware that every school and setting is different so what works well in one school may not necessarily in another. You know your children best. 

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has some toy safety tips which settings may wish to consider in the context of loose parts.


Think about the accessibility of your loose parts

Loose parts need to be easily accessed by children. Much of this depends on whether your organization needs a portable system because you visit different places and schools or whether you operate from a fixed site such as a school or adventure playground.

Fixed site

  • Containers or sheds outside in the play area work best. Make sure children can access this independently and that the doors are wide enough to allow this to happen. Long narrow sheds are not good!
  • Think about which loose parts can be left outside. Naturalised play areas with sand, stones, bark chip and vegetation by their very nature have a lot of natural loose parts left outside. A good example can be seen here around the availability of stones at Cowgate U5 Centre:
  • Size matters. The approach of both the Scrapstore Playpod® and Imagination Playgrounds is that they are mainly composed of large loose parts which are much quicker to tidy away. Little loose parts like cones and shells can easily get scattered outside. Think about how these will be made available to children.The easiest solution is usually to have them as part of the outdoor environment.

Portable systems

Have a storage system back at base which allows you to pick and choose the items needed for your next play session. Share ideas with other professionals. Many schools and play organisations have kit bags of themed loose parts, e.g. for water play, den building and construction.


Consider the routines around the use of loose parts

Generally the most successful play projects happen where a whole school approach has happened and training has been provided for all staff. In particular, the playground supervisors have gained play qualifications and follow the Playwork Principles.  Usually time and investment has happened and the school grounds are continuously developed through a participative approach.

Loose parts do need ongoing care and maintenance. For example, if stuff gets wet then who ensures it is dried and put away? Are children encouraged to show and tell adults if something gets damaged or broken? What variety is planned throughout the year for the loose parts so that they remain fresh and interesting. For example:

  • Christmas tree brashings can be donated in the New Year
  • Cardboard boxes can be brought to school one dry week in the summer
  • Hay bales can be added in the autumn
  • Sand can be topped up annually in the spring



Put together a risk benefit assessment which considers the hazards posed by the use of loose parts and how these will be  managed. Make this a living document which shows it is being used, amended and adapted. Also bear in mind the quote from the Canadian Forestry industry, “Health and safety is not just paperwork. It is about effective communication, personal responsibility and looking out for each other.


School Visits by a Play Professional

If a play worker is  visiting a school or other childcare facility to provide play sessions with loose parts, then check they have a clear process in place and a risk-benefit assessment of the sessions.

In my experience, starting with a small group of children (i.e. one class rather than a whole school) works best. If it happens during class time, then the teacher can see what is happening and the benefits of free play with loose parts. Even if the overall aim is to put in place a lunch time play project this small start ensures that effective communication happens and everyone better understands the purpose of playing and learning with loose parts.

  • Ensure that parents are also informed about what the play sessions involve and knows that their child needs to wear sensible clothing and footwear. Very often complaints arise simply because a parent do not know nor understand why their child has been playing with loose parts such as tyres, crates and guttering.
  • Decide which part of the school ground is best to be used. Usually a defined space helps initially unless you are happy with the loose parts being scattered far and wide and not being retrieved at the end of sessions. Note any concerns which may need addressing before the loose parts sessions begin and ensure these are addressed or move the loose parts play to a different part of the grounds.
  • Make sure the resources included in the session are appropriate for the ability of the children and the ethos of the school. If in doubt, play safe. For example, do not begin with sticks or ropes if this could cause a problem. Introduce these items later on, in a managed way.
  • Check the numbers of children and supporting adults who will be in attendance. Be realistic about how many children can attend a session.
  • Consider a briefing session with children and any adults in attendance prior to the play session beginning. This is where ground rules and behaviour expectations can be drawn up. Keep these short and simple. Have them displayed if necessary.
  • Some adults may need support to understand that their role is to facilitate play rather than interrupt or intrude upon the children playing. If necessary give them a job to do. For example, give them a sheet with some of the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes and see if they can observe any of these being covered through the free play session.
  • Remember to have a quick debrief. Discuss what worked well and what would be even better. Remember to thank the play works who undertake the sessions.
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