Autumn Loose Parts Play: 20 Resources to Collect

Autumn loose parts play honestly couldn’t be simpler. You don’t need to go far outside your own front door to find a treasure trove of natural collectables that you can use in play during the Autumn season.

As the leaves change colours and the air gets cooler, Autumn provides a magical setting for outdoor play. This season, one of the most delightful and educational experiences you can share with your kids is Autumn Loose Parts Play. Ideal for children aged 3-7, loose parts play is all about engaging with open-ended materials—no rules, no instructions, just pure creativity.


using loose parts in an IKEA play kitchen. Including pinecones

So what are loose parts, anyway?

Are loose parts toys?

What does the term even mean?

There is, in fact, a whole pedagogy behind loose parts. The term was first coined by architect Simon Nicholson in 1971 when he wrote an article called , ‘The Theory of Loose Parts: How not to cheat children’ in the Landscape Architecture magazine.

In this article, Nicholson theorised we are at our most creative when we can manipulate the world around us. However, the opportunity to do so is not always readily available:

Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use the gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.

Simon Nicholson

Because of this, Nicholson proposed that more variables (loose parts) should be included within classrooms – and other educational settings – to help foster inventiveness and creativity in children:

In any environment, both inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Simon Nicholson

Although Simon Nicholson is credited with coining the term ‘loose parts’ children have always tinkered with random objects and nature treasures.

If you think about a child’s ability to turn a stick into just about anything or the jokes about children playing more with the cardboard box rather than the present, children do can play creatively with a whole range of objects – we just need to provide them with opportunities to do so.

Autumn loose parts play with nature treasures including conkers, leaves, acorns and dried oranges

What is Autumn Loose Parts Play?

Simply put, Autumn loose parts play, is just loose parts play with an Autumn theme.Think of it as a treasure hunt where the riches are all the fascinating, colourful, and texture-rich objects that Autumn offers. It’s not just fun, it’s also educational, stimulating your child’s imagination, fine motor skills, and understanding of the natural world.

A List of Nature’s Best Loose Parts in Autumn

Looking for ideas on what qualifies as a “loose part” for your Autumn Loose Parts Play? Here’s a list to kick start your collection:

  1. Mini Pumpkins: Perfect for stacking or pretend play.
  2. Conkers (Horse Chestnuts): Great for counting or making patterns.
  3. Pine Cones: Useful for texture exploration or as ‘food’ in pretend play.
  4. Leaves: For colour sorting, crafting, or simply crunching underfoot.
  5. Twigs: Ideal for building structures or making shapes.
  6. Acorns: Suitable for counting games or as ‘currency’ in a play shop.
  7. Smooth Stones: Can be used for storytelling, painting, or stacking.
  8. Corn Husks: These can be used for crafting or in sensory bins.
  9. Pompoms: Offer a soft texture and can represent fruits, animals, or just fun elements.
  10. Dried Orange Slices: Ideal for sensory exploration or as decorations.
  11. Fabric Scraps: For making flags, costumes, or other crafts.
  12. Buttons: Useful for colour sorting, counting, or crafting.
  13. Feathers: Can be used in storytelling or as costume elements.
  14. Bark: Good for creating ‘roads’ in a mini-city or ‘walls’ for a fairy house.
  15. Craft Sticks: Ideal for counting, sorting, or making imprints in playdough.
  16. Beads: Excellent for stringing, sorting, or laying out patterns.
  17. Corks: These float, making them perfect for water play.
  18. Rubber Bands: Can be used for crafting or to bind other loose parts together.
  19. Foam Shapes: For crafting, sorting, and building.
  20. Straws: These can be used for building structures or threading beads.

You can also add toys from your play space into an Autumn loose parts box. The following makes for great additions

  • Grapat coins and rings
  • Grapat or Grimms peg dolls
  • Woodland animal figurines
  • Store- bought loose parts from companies such as Grapat and Tick-it

Collecting the items is just the start. Encourage your children to:

  • Sort by Colour or Shape: This introduces basic concepts of categorisation.
  • Build Structures: Use twigs, stones, and mini pumpkins to build imaginative structures.
  • Craft a Story: Utilise the loose parts as characters or settings in a made-up story.

Why Autumn Loose Parts Play is a Must-Try

Autumn Loose Parts Play is more than just a way to pass the time; it’s a valuable learning experience. Your children will learn about textures, shapes, and the natural life cycle of the Earth, all while enhancing their creativity and cognitive abilities.

autumn loose parts play in a themed IKEA Duktig kitchen

What’s in the box?

The box featured here is an IKEA GLIS box and we use it to contain numerous fine motor resources, including Autumn loose parts. It’s certainly not as pretty as the gorgeous wooden trays I see on the ‘gram but they are useful for storage!

  • pom-poms in seasonal colours
  • acorns
  • woodland animals
  • pinecones
  • wooden discs
  • conkers
  • orange slices
  • sticks

an overhead image of an ikea GLIS box that contains autumn loose parts including conkers, acorns, pinecones, dried orange, pompoms and woodland animal figurines

8 Activity Suggestions

Okay so I said that it’s all up to the child, but these are some ideas that you could try:

Autumn Loose Parts in Small world play

There’s something so sweet about using real mini pumpkins in play. In the photo below, my daughter had taken her Maileg mice on a trip to the pumpkin patch!

a photograph of maileg mice carting mini pumpkins as part of an Autumn loose parts play scene

Exploring mathematical concepts:

What’s heavier and what’s lighter? All you need is a weighing scales in addition to the Autumn loose parts to explore basic mathematical concepts with preschoolers.

an overhead view of autumn loose parts being used as a weighing station to explore mathematical concepts

Pre-writing shapes and lines

Before learning to write, children need to be able to create basic shapes and lines. One of the earliest ways to practise this is by copying the pre-writing shapes with loose parts – as shown below.

a toddler boy is using autumn loose parts to follow lines that have been drawn onto a tuff spot tray


Mirror Exploration

Placing the Autumn loose parts onto a mirror can help young children explore reflection. Use a perspex (non-breakable mirror) with very young children.

A toddler explores natural loose parts that have been placed onto a mirror

Note, if you do this activity outside like we did, make sure that the mirror is not placed in direct sunlight!


Crossing the midline

Pinecones and conkers are a great resource for crossing the midline exercises – that is where the dominant hand crosses over to the other side of the body. Working on this helps children to become more competent writers in the future.

A 3 year old girl uses wooden tongs to move pinecones from one side of a Flisat table to the other side for a crossing the midline exercise


Nature Shape Match

Puzzles and matching activities help young children to work on their problem solving skills. To recreate this activity, simply collect a few nature treasures, then draw around them with a black marker. Place all of the items into a basket and invite your child to match the shapes.

a 3 year old girl matches up nature treasures to their outlines which have been drawn onto a sheet of white paper

Number Match with conkers

Number recognition, along with subitising and one to one correspondence are an important part of the early years of becoming a confident mathematician. Games like this simple conker match could be used in a variety of ways to help children become more familiar with numbers.

a 3 year old girl matches conkers to the corresponding numbers that have been written in an egg carton


Mud Kitchen

Take the Autumn loose parts you have collected outside to make recipes or potions. You can read more about our favourite mud kitchen resources here.

an overhead image of a simple autumn sensory play activity. Visible is a small child's hand who is picking up a conker to put into the autumn 'soup' he is making

Age Recommendations

Because of the small parts used here, I wouldn’t recommend the activities for children under the age of three. Please also be aware that conkers are actually toxic, so would be unsuitable for children who put objects in their mouths.

Key Benefits

Loose parts play can have many benefits for little learners. Depending on the way play goes, it can have the following benefits:

  • Creative thinking – how to create with the items produced
  • Problem solving
  • Connecting to the world around us – e.g. going on a nature hunt then using the treasures for play.
  • Early math – e.g. counting or making shapes
  • Language development – introducing new and seasonal words such as pumpkin, leaves and Autumn
  • Development of fine motor skills


If you’re looking for a memorable and enriching Autumn activity, it doesn’t get better than Autumn loose parts play. It’s engaging, educational, and absolutely enjoyable for children aged 3-7.

Grab a basket, put on your cosiest sweaters, and take your little explorers out to collect the treasures of the season.

Happy playing!


Sian x

Autumn Blog posts to read next:

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt story basket

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt pre-writing skills  activity 

21 Autumn Ideas for the Entire Family

Autumn Activities for Kids: 25 Playful Prompts


Are you currently planning all things Autumn?

If you enjoyed this hammering pumpkins activity idea, you might just like my exclusive membership, ‘How I drink my Coffee Hot’ too. The membership costs just $5 per month and you get access to 10 mini courses on a range of topics including sensory play, play spaces and starting school. Here are some membership posts that you might enjoy:

Autumn at Home Art and Sensory Camp

Family Rhythms for Autumn

Autumn Break with Kids 

Halloween with little kids? 

Sian Thomas
an image of This Playful Home founder, Sian Thomas. The photo includes a photo of her daughter when she was around 18 months old

I’m Siân (rhymes with yarn), a play advocate, proud parent to three, and former teacher. My mission is to infuse more joy and less overwhelm into the lives of parents. Discover play-based activities with me that not only make learning FUN but also forge deep connections with your young learners, creating memories to cherish forever.