Am I the only one who spends hours reading toy reviews and guides at Christmas or birthday time – determined to find the ultimate toy for my kids and my pocketbook? I’m always sure I’ll find that perfect toy that will engage my kid’s minds and bodies and make them magically want to leave their ever calling screens behind. Lately, I’ve found that I don’t have to go far or spend much. In fact, some of the best learning toys of all time both for cognitive and emotional development are in my own home and backyard (and I’m guessing, yours too!).
The Five Best Learning Toys of All Time
In his book How To Raise A Wild Child – The Art and Science of Falling In Love With Nature, Dr. Scott D. Sampson (Dr. Scott from Dinosaur Train!) referred to an article in Wired Magazine called “The 5 Best Toys of All Time.” I looked it up and was half-surprised to learn that rather than high-tech toys or well-crafted games, the list consisted of:
- Cardboard Tube
Any parent who has watched their child play more with the boxes their Christmas presents are wrapped in knows that this list is spot on.
Dr. Scott calls these examples of toys “loose parts”. Things with no designated role. In other words, “toys that can be adapted to an almost infinite range of purposes limited only by children’s imaginations“. If you think about it, the list of what could be a “loose part” is pretty long.
He goes on to say:
“Take the top toy on this list – the stick, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2008. Sticks come in an amazing array of sizes, shapes, colors, textures, and heft. Indeed, no two are exactly alike. You can use a stick to make interesting patterns in sand, snow, or dirt. You can balance a stick on your hand, or lean on it as you walk. Sticks can easily transform into wands, scepters, telescopes, fishing rods, shovels, and, yes, swords (or the higher-tech version, lightsabers). A bunch of sticks – or better yet, logs – make terrific building materials, with construction possibilities spanning towers, chairs, houses, and hideouts. Big sticks offer kids opportunities to test their strength.”
Examples of Loose Parts
Water • sand • dirt • sticks • branches • logs • driftwood • grasses • moss • leaves • flowers • pine cones • pine needles • seeds • shells • bark • feathers • boulders • rocks • pebbles • stones • balls • hula-hoops • jump ropes • tires • straw • buckets • cups • containers • digging tools • hammer and nails • chalk • blankets • scarves • ribbons • fabric • tarps • clamps
Blocks • building materials • manipulatives • measuring • pouring devices (cups, spoons, buckets, funnels) • dramatic play props • play cars, animals, and people • blankets • materials • water • sensory materials • recycled materials (paper tubes, paper, ribbons, caps, lids, wood scraps, wire, foam, cardboard) • tools • art materials (markers, paints, pens, stamps, etc) • craft materials (buttons, spools, natural and colored popsicle sticks, beads, straws, paints, brushes)
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Loose Parts Outside Are Better
I’m sure we have all seen this first hand. As my kids have grown and had more play time outside, I’ve noticed that not only do “loose parts” keep them busy for hours but that they come away so much happier and indeed, healthier. They seem to be alive in a different way than when they have just spent an hour playing Minecraft on the iPad. Eyes are brighter, confidence is stronger. Maybe it’s all of that fresh air and Vitamin D? Loose parts are the best learning toys.
Dr. Scott says: “There is a rapidly growing mountain of evidence indicating that this kind of nature play is critical for [children’s] physical, mental, emotional, and social development, as well as their everyday health.”
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Unstructured Is Best
Dr. Scott emphasizes that “loose parts” play needs to be unstructured. Kids need to feel like they are the ones making the rules. He suggests to simply “get kids outside, get out of the way, and let them play.”
The idea of loose parts sounds so simple – and cheap! And in my experience it is. We do sweep up dirt a lot more over here and use more stain remover (who am I kidding? I rarely use stain remover – our children just look like orphans most of the time). But the benefits have been more than worth it! I’ve been amazed at what loose parts have done for my kid’s creativity and overall happiness. I don’t feel guilty at all telling them to get outside and “PLAY”!
Now that you know there is a name for them – what are your favorite loose parts? I’d love to hear what role loose parts played in your childhood or how you are implementing them for your children now. Loose parts are the best learning toys.
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