Loose parts - materials that can be moved around, repurposed, used for design and redesign and tinkered with - provide infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments.
The loose parts of nature itself - tree stumps, branches, rocks, seeds, leaves, sand, mud, water - things that we know children naturally gravitate to and enjoy exploring and playing with, are powerful and lend themselves to collaborative and creative exploration.
Loose parts can also come from a variety of other sources - old boards, cardboard boxes, tires, tools, pipes, buckets, planks, ropes, pvc pipes, nuts and screws, for example are all equally filled with infinite possibilities.
Materials can be placed in a specific area indoors such as the block area or a table top with no instructions and you can observe how children interact with it. Or you can be more intentional and place a combination of loose parts together with a question and see what the children come up with or decide to do with it to answer the question
Examples for early learners:
string, buckets, rocks and a pulley next to a tree or marbles and a few cove moldings on a table top can be a loose parts lab for a simple machines unit.
hoola hoops left on top of a slope outdoors can kickstart a lesson on force and motion and speed
rolled up newspaper in a block area can spark curiosity about how to build with paper and can be linked to concepts like cause and effect, balance and weight
Use the same idea for middle school and high school students with a variety of loose parts and age-appropriate or topic specific questions that can accompany them