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.
So what are loose parts, anyway?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
- woodland animals
- wooden discs
- orange slices
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!
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.
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.
Placing the Autumn loose parts onto a mirror can help young children explore reflection. Use a perspex (non-breakable mirror) with very young children.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Autumn Blog posts to read next:
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