Feature Story

January 2013

A Celebration of Sticks (and Rocks and Pinecones . . . )

Patty Born Selly

We are all familiar with the kinds of toys that are commonly marketed to children: battery-operated whizz-bangs and “role-specific” toys, such as figures from television or movies, that often seem do the job of playing for the children. The problem with these kinds of toys is that they tend not to challenge children’s imaginations. Parents and educators are increasingly recognizing what child development experts have also begun to emphasize: Open-ended toys are good for children's brains and good for children’s play.
Open-ended toys, also called “loose parts,” are things with no designated role or purpose, objects that can easily be adapted to be any sort of plaything your child imagines. String, paper, fabric, and cups, for example, can all be transformed in countless ways by creative children. Nature is full of loose parts that parents and teachers can collect for free, and many people believe that loose parts from nature not only support children's play and development, but also can help foster connections with the natural world.

How Children Use Loose Parts

What makes loose parts so good for children’s play? Toys designed with one specific purpose and one particular role are, naturally, often used by children in only one way. Hand a child a basket of toy cars, and they will likely use the cars as, well, cars. The trains will always be trains. Action figures and dolls will consistently exhibit human behavior, and do human-like things (albeit, sometimes those humans have superpowers). Put another way: you will rarely see a child use a doll in play as a spaceship, or as a building material, or even as an animal, for that matter. 

Bring children out into nature, though, and watch how they integrate natural loose parts into their play. Pinecones, stones, sticks: all are wonderful, rich playthings full of possibility. Pinecones will be enlisted as characters in dramatic stories, food during pretend picnics, birds that can fly through the air, spaceships hurtling through space. They’ll be porcupines, hiding places for fairies, even hairbrushes. Rocks will be currency, cars, boats, or building materials. Flowers become jewelry. When given the opportunity to use their imagination, children will always rise to the occasion.


The Benefits of Loose Parts

While children’s play with loose parts is charming and fascinating for adults to watch, we should remember that this kind of imaginative play is also important for children's growth and development. As with so many things in young children’s behavior, there is more going on than meets the eye. Open-ended toys help foster creativity, collaboration, and sensory awareness. They offer countless opportunities for cognitive growth. Children who use open-ended toys intuitively know that these objects have multiple uses, and, when given the materials consistently, children use them for many different things in play. In this way, open ended play objects encourage divergent thinking and creativity .  
Loose-part play allows for rich cognitive skill development and mastery. It is full of variation, requiring mental flexibility and adaptability. Loose parts allow children opportunities to discover and master their environment by naming things and then assigning them roles, a skill that education pioneer Jean Piaget recognized as one of the most important building blocks of learning.  
Take the ever-popular stick, for example. Sticks, like many other loose parts from nature, are inherently unpredictable: they may be heavy, light, wet, or dry. The texture may be unusual or inconsistent. No two sticks are alike in size, shape, color, heft, or function. Sticks are tools with which children can manipulate their environment. Sticks make great building materials, props for dramatic play, tools, and even musical instruments. Children can poke and drag sticks, making interesting patterns in the snow, sand, or leaves. Sticks can sometimes give children opportunities to test their own physical abilities: just think of the sense of accomplishment brought by carrying something that is twice as long as your own body! 
(By the way, if you're uneasy with the idea of children playing with sticks, you can work with the children to set some simple rules to keep everyone safe. Teachers have told me that some of the rules they've used to keep stick play safe include: no sticks longer than your arm, no touching other people with the sticks, or no hitting anything with the sticks.)
Another benefit of loose parts is that they are inherently flexible. With sticks, rocks, or bits of bark, a child may choose to make a tall or short tower, a structure he can go inside, or one that he can stand on. A fence, a ladder, a chair. The sheer variety of ways in which a child will play with an open-ended toy is inspiring. Every day, the objects can be something new. This novelty is important. When children tire of their playthings, they simply turn them into something else. With loose parts, there is always “something else.” 
In addition, loose parts are always age-appropriate. A two year old may delight in dropping rocks into a puddle and pretending they are boats, while an older child may use those same rocks for building a fenced-in area for “horses’ he imagines out of small wood chips. Another child may be determined to balance the rocks to make a tower. 
Loose parts also encourage different types of learning: science and math skills are practiced through building and construction. Watch how children use small rocks as currency, or practice their one-to-one correspondence as they pass them out to their friends. Loose parts challenge young minds to find new ways to organize, classify, sort, and arrange. See how children use loose parts such as rocks for measurement, experiment with balance and weight, and make observations about subtle details such as color and texture. Children’s imagination and language acquisition are strengthened through the narration, storytelling, and description that happens during dramatic play. Listen to the children’s words as they describe their objects and how they are used. Children notice and pay attention to the variations and details that are present in loose parts, and this offers creative stimulation as well: just sit with a child and look together at a handful of stones. You may be surprised at what you learn! 
When children build, lift, move, and create with objects of different sizes, shapes, and weights, they are using their large and small motor skills. Small motor skills are put to practice also when children manipulate and play with small objects such as pebbles, flowers, acorns, and seeds. They may use loose parts as decorations, art objects, and pattern-making elements, thereby tuning in to their own aesthetic sensibilities.

Incorporating Loose Parts

Some children may at first be stymied by the idea of playing with rocks. Chances are, these children have become accustomed to electronic toys or action figures, and may simply have had few opportunities to play with simple objects from nature.  
Parents and educators can encourage play with open-ended toys by simply making them more accessible. When you're outside, think about what's available to you now. Gather up appealing stones, shells, acorns, or pinecones as you find them and soon you’ll have quite a collection of objects that will satisfy many play urges for children. 
Put the blocks and the nature objects in a prominent place, and make the "programmed" toys a bit harder to get at. Give the children time, and gently encourage them to incorporate loose parts into their play. Some educators gradually replace more prescriptive toys with loose parts, while others take a “clean sweep” approach, removing all the prescriptive toys and replacing them all at once with loose parts from nature.
Whatever approach is right for you will certainly work for children. Remember: What children really want is to play!

Ten Ways to Play with Rocks

While loose parts are often their own source of inspiration, here's a list of “top ten” ways that my own children have loved to play with rocks, just to help you get started if desired:

10. Use them as trucks. Long, flat rocks became bulldozers. Small round ones were steamrollers. Big ones were perfect wrecking balls.

9. Use them as blocks. They make fantastic building elements. We created a cave, some bridges, and a "garage."

8. How many can you stack to make a tower? Which kinds of rocks work best for stacking?

7. Use them as characters in a puppet show. Pick up a rock and make it "talk" to your child. He or she will likely get the other rocks involved in the conversation and you'll soon see each rock's personality emerge.

6. Wash them. You can do this in the sink, a puddle, a pan of warm water, or a water table.

5. Paint them. An old favorite, this activity never gets old. Tempera paints are bright and bold. What effect can you get using watercolors? How about pastels? Water? Crayons? Mud?

4. Paint with them. Instead of using brushes, use rocks. Dip them in paint, press them on paper, and roll them around in a tray lined with paper.

3. Sort them. Let children decide on the categories: size, shape, color, where they were found, boy/girl (for some reason, in our house, rocks have gender).

2. Hide them around the house. In our house, we never seem to tire of "hide-and-seek" games. The kids love it when I hide their stuff so they can search for it. Rock hunting inside is a new challenge.

1. Roll them around on various surfaces and compare what happens. Watch how they move, listen to the sounds that they make. This is especially fun if you've first dipped the rocks in paint. (See #5 above.)


About the Author

Patty Born Selly is the mother to two young children and author of Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth (Redleaf Press, 2010) and the forthcoming Connecting Young Children and Animals (Redleaf Press, April 2014). She writes about children and nature at her blog, Small Wonders. Patty is currently the Executive Director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St Catherine University in Minnesota and also serves on the board of the Minnesota Children and Nature Connection. She can be reached at [email protected].



Sylva, K. "Play and Learning" in Harvey, D., and Tizard, B., Biology of Play (Heinemann)

Guilford, J. P. (1967). The nature of human intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill. 



Loose parts, design


How interesting and timely..Our Early Childhood Education Team recently completed a professional development for educators entitled "Sticks, Stones and Pinecones: Using Loose Parts for Play". The theory of “loose parts” was first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970's. Nicholson believed that it is the 'loose parts' in our environment that will empower our creativity. As educators, we focus a lot of our attention to the loose parts available inside the classroom, but what about the outside..Are you providing opportunities for the children other than stationary commercial play equipment? Parents, many opportunities await the young explorer just outside your back door..Get out there and use your imagination alongside your child! Thank you for sharing your article.
Thank you for sharing this inspiring article! I don't mean to be a bummer but when in a state or national park, the expression "take only memories, leave only footprints" is very valid. It's illegal to start a rock/shell collection or even to gather bags of acorns when on protected land. As educators, we want to set a good example of leave no trace principles, even at a young age.