Recently, I’ve had a number of queries from education staff regarding loose parts and whether they have to conform to toy safety and/or playground equipment guidelines. A few educators are under the impression that every item which children play with should conform to a safety standard of some sort.

 Free Play for Free Poster

In case you are wondering, loose parts are open-ended materials which have no specific play purpose. The term has became more widely known and used as a result of Simon Nicolson’s 1971 paper The Theory of Loose Parts, where Nicolson proposed that, “In any environment, the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” In other words, loose parts help to provide a rich play environment for children of any age.

With loose parts, confusion arises because the many of 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 seem applicable. 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.  More information about the Toy Safety Standard can be found on the British Standards website. Bear in mind too, that these safety standards are guidelines only and following them is not mandatory  within the UK. The British Toy and Hobby Association also has useful advice.

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. Of course these do not conform to a safety standard.

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 remote control is something many children quickly pick up.

Children learn lots through being able to freely play with and explore loose parts, whether these are natural or man-made materials. 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 assists with these approaches.

As practitioners who work with children we have a responsibility to ensure that the resources we make available to children are appropriate for their age and ability. Every school and organisation which introduces or uses loose parts should put procedures in place for their management and use. This is best created through shared discussions with staff, children and parents/carers and which considers the benefits as well as the risks of using loose parts. Some schools have play policies and risk benefit assessments put together through such participative approaches. This sits within the guidance contained in the Managing Risk in Play Provision document.

Parents and carers need to know about the use of loose parts and their benefits. Very often complaints arise when an accident happens and the parents are not aware that loose parts are being used. After all, there’s no adverts selling parents tyres and hoses for their child to play with and these items are not stocked by the Early Learning Centre and other toy shops.

It is advisable to have a system for checking and preparing all resources prior to their use by children. For example, I often sand down wooden items such as planks of wood which have a tendency to splinter at the edges and always remove wires from computer keyboards. Some times items are donated which are easily broken and simply not suitable for children to use. The Scrapstore Playpod system appears particularly thorough in terms of its approach to processing and preparing loose parts for play purposes.

Put in place a system for managing the loose parts which includes on going care and maintenance and disposal of worn or broken parts. Over the years I’ve acquired resources which are are quick-drying and reasonably robust. Ensuring suitable, accessible storage for loose parts makes a positive difference too.

Finally, it is worth thinking about how play with loose parts play is facilitated. The Playwork Principles or other professional guidelines are a good starting point. The HSE statement Children’s Play and Leisure – Promoting a Balanced Approach is a short, sharp useful read too. I’d also like to thank all the contributors to the question I asked about toys and loose parts on the Play in Schools LinkedIn group.

The poster in the photo  is included as a freebie for anyone who orders from the new Cosy catalogue which going into all schools and nurseries in early 2014. As you can see it features lots of loose parts and an illustration of the possibilities of their use.

And remember… with very young children, it will be the box and not the toy which will be played with on Christmas day which really says a lot about the value of loose parts to children.

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