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Loose Parts: Sensory Tables & Creativity for All

Loose parts: creativity for all

What seems to be the buzz-word in early childhood education? Loose parts! I was fascinated to learn more about this theory, developed by architect Simon Nicholson in 1972.

The theory of loose parts, in sum:

‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.’ ~ Simon Nicholson, Architect (The Theory of Loose Parts: An important principle for design methodology, 1972)

Basically, the more materials in a space that people can tinker with, move around, and design, the more creativity and interaction there will be. For kids, this means they learn more, and all the latest brain development research supports this. Sensory play – or playing with loose parts – encourages kids to discover, learn, and build skills and confidence.

Take a museum for instance…what parts of the museum are most popular? Usually the ones where there are some sort of loose parts involved. Maybe an interactive exhibit where you can manipulate objects, or walk under them or, do something that interacts with the space.

Anyone who has ever been in a preschool classroom can attest that the post popular activities are the water or sand table, finger painting, and building blocks…all of these are sensory play using loose parts! Kids are just naturally drawn to the very activities that will be most beneficial for their learning!

This doesn’t affect just kids, by the way. As adults, we might have bought into the myth that creating and having a direct relationship with our space is for some sort of creativity elite – the architects, the artists, the ‘professionally creative ones.’ Nicholson reminds us that loose parts should be an important principle of design in spaces for all humans. It’s in our nature to tinker, innovate and create.

Now, what are some specific examples of loose parts? Here are some simple ones that you can find in nature:

  • Pinecones
  • Sticks
  • Rocks
  • Pebbles
  • Leaves
  • Seashells
  • Dirt
  • Sand

And others that I know kids love:

  • Water beads
  • Rice
  • Crinkle paper
  • Straws
  • Bingo chips & magnet wands
  • Pom poms

What loose parts are you using in your sensory tables this week? Happy playing!

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Sensory play: how to contain the ‘mess’ and still have fun!

Sensory play: how to have less mess and more play

Do you love the idea of sensory play, but don’t look forward to the mess involved?

Sensory play is not an option for our two-year-old son, it is a must. He seeks it out. He’ll scoop up dirt from the garden and run inside with it to see what it will do when he rubs it into our shag carpet. He’ll dump the whole bowl of blueberries on the ground and squish them just to see how it feels. Even as a baby, he would get his food EVERYWHERE but his mouth, just because he craved that extra sensory stimulation.

Sound familiar?

Messy child sensory play

Needless to say, sensory play can get messy, and for many parents this makes them think twice about encouraging sensory play. But experts agree that sensory play is highly beneficial for kids. In fact, the messier the better, they say. So, what is a parent to do?

Here are five ways you can minimize the mess and maximize the fun.

  1. Use a sensory table. Now, I might be biased because I hand-make affordable SensaTables. But in all seriousness, using a sensory table – or even just some sturdy bins – places natural boundaries around sensory play and allows for kids to explore items and materials at the same time.
  2. Protect your floors for easy clean up. If you have carpets, consider an office floor mat to protect the carpet. For hardwood floors, consider an old blanket with a non-slip rug pad underneath. I love the blanket method the most because you can just roll up the mess and dump debris in the garbage. And if it gets dirty, I just throw the blanket in the washer and don’t have to get out the floor mopping gear.
  3. Use a waterproof apron like this one with sleeves. That way their clothes will stay dry and clean, or have a much higher chance to! Make the apron a part of the ‘sensory play routine’…
  4. Create a ‘routine’ for sensory play. It can be a simple one, but as you know, kids thrive on routines. Here’s one we use: apron on, blanket under the table, play, wash hands, remove apron.
  5. Have a few simple rules. Two good rules we use are ‘items stay in the bins’ and ‘we don’t eat what’s in the bins.’ Many children will appreciate a full explanation – for instance throwing items might cause other people to slip and fall on them later, and eating the items might make them sick. If some items escape the bins, ask your child to help you clean up before playing can continue.

And, here is a bonus one: chat with your child as they play. Part of the joy of sensory play is that kids can have mindful self-directed fun. And that is great for their development! But equally important are the language and social skills they gain by talking with you about what they are doing. Introduce words to describe what they are sensing – is it slimy? crunchy? soft? Doing so will encourage them to play and also stay aware of their surroundings. In turn, you’ll notice messes are minimized, and fun and learning optimized!

Lastly, remember that messy fun is often what the best memories are made of. The clean up might seem like a big task now. But if you can turn it around into a positive experience with your child, those memories will last a lifetime.

Happy playing!