Playing With Junk: The Benefits of Heuristic and Loose Parts Play

It seems a bit odd to let your baby play with an old whisk, a ceramic jug and an egg box but the benefits are huge.

Loose parts and heuristic play are buzz words being thrown around in the world of Montessori right now, but I believe that all children should be immersed in this kind of play every day.

Heuristic simply means to explore without intervention. For our children this is really important for their development – the freedom to really hone in on their natural curiosity without us getting too involved. Letting them explore and discover for themselves!

That’s not to say that our kids should be unsupervised – but to be able to give them the physical space and the audible space (yes, that means little talking!) to investigate means that they’ll enter a deep state of concentration much more easily. If we commentate too much or dictate their play, it’s possible that our children will miss opportunities to fully engage with the objects they’re exploring. It’s best to sit back quietly and watch what they do, only engaging when they invite us to, or from a safety aspect. 

A basket full of loose parts gives our children ample opportunity to get creative. At a young age, they’ll explore the objects through their senses but as they get older they’ll begin to use the items in different ways. They’ll see the objects as other things and engage in pretend play. The picture below shows exactly what I mean here. The girl creating this picnic scene was around 7 years old. 

Simple items that can be found around the home give your child a much greater sensorial experience than any plastic toy can. The thing with plastic is that it feels the same, it smells the same, it tastes the same. There is no variety. But to allow our children the opportunity to play with a basket full of ordinary household items boosts concentration, curiosity, creativity and independence, as well as providing a huge multi-sensory adventure for them too. 

A variety of regular objects from around the home will all feel different, smell, taste, look different. And it’s not just the sensory aspect that massively benefits our kids – this kind of play boosts early mathematical and scientific skills because the materials all weigh differently, the light bounces off of them differently, they can be manipulated differently, they need to be handled differently. Children learn important life lessons too, like cause and effect (if you drop a rock on that ceramic sugar bowl, it’s going to break). 

A really easy way of providing your child with heuristic play opportunities is to create a treasure basket for them. It’s really simple and really inexpensive and it is suitable for all ages, from around 6 months upwards. The most important thing is that your child is able to access the basket independently (with supervision if appropriate). So if they’re sitting up confidently, that’s the perfect time to introduce some loose parts play. 

All you need to do is, grab a nice big basket and fill it with old junk. Stuff that’s lying around the house that you don’t mind becoming a “toy”. Do be very cautious of including anything that could be a choking hazard (nothing smaller than an egg), sharp items, or items that could potentially be toxic (old keys often contain lead). Also be vigilant and regularly check for broken items like glass and ceramic. It’s okay to let our children play with items made from these materials, as long as we are properly supervising.

The real trick, though, is to create variety. Choose metal objects, wooden, ceramic, glass, fabric items, items from nature, items that can move when manipulated, items that have lids, items with hinges, items with fasteners, big items, small items, items that can go inside other items, items that can be tasted, items that can be smelled, items that have interesting textures, heavy items, lightweight items… basically you want to empty your cupboards and pop anything interesting in the basket. But also collect stuff as you go. You want to start with at least 20 items, and eventually build it up to around 80.

Even after watching many, many children interact with loose parts play, it’s still fascinates me how differently they interact with the objects. I’ve seen science experiments, role play, budding musicians, to name a few! And this kind of play is not exclusive to young children – even children aged 10 enjoy the creativity this kind of activity offers.

 So give it a try and see what your child creates! I’d love to hear what is in your basket, it may give me ideas for mine!

Emma Huggett of Organic Learning Hub: Experienced Teacher and Montessori Enthusiast

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