Loose Parts and Risky Play: Low-Cost and sustainable ways to enhance the physical environment

Dr Shirley Wyver is a senior lecturer in child development at Macquarie University’s School of Education. With a key focus of her research and teaching on learning through outdoor play , Dr Wyver has shared her insights on risky play and loose parts, and how these relate to Quality Area 3.

Dr Wyver’s work investigates how outdoor play interventions can impact a range of physical and social outcomes for young children.

“Physical environments provide an important foundation and rich opportunities for children of all ages and abilities to learn and thrive,” Dr Wyver said.

Dr Wyver explained that affordance theory is frequently used to understand the relationship between a physical environment and children’s learning through play.

Affordances are the possibility of an action that can be performed on an object (i.e. a ball can be grasped and thrown), and this can vary depending on the child’s characteristics.

“Physical environments that offer a wide range of potential affordances can create more learning through play opportunities,” Dr Wyver said.

“When exploring changes to a physical environment, it is important to consider whether you will be increasing the range of possible affordances – with physical environments involving the use of loose parts and risky play typically offer a wider range of possible affordances.”.

An international group of experts reviewed the evidence on the benefits of active play for early development, creating a Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play which noted:

‘Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks— is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings.’

Dr Wyver noted under Element 3.2.1 (inclusive environment) services, as part of their delivery of quality learning experiences, must have opportunities for children to engage and learn to assess potential risks and make decisions based on their capabilities.

Services are required under Reg 168h to provide a child safe environment, this means avoiding any hazards that an infant or child cannot anticipate, which can happen when fixtures and fittings are poorly maintained (Element 3.1.2,Reg 103).

Dr Wyver encourages services to consider how safe approaches to risky play can be delivered, and how the use of loose parts can present a low-cost, high-quality improvement to indoor and outdoor physical environments.

The benefits of risky play and loose parts play

Recent research has found the involvement in risky play is associated with higher levels of physical activity, wellbeing in the form of showing fewer signs of distress and deep involvement in activities from children.

“Increasing opportunities for risky play therefore has important advantages,” Dr Wyver shared.

“During risky play, children encounter physiological arousal such as increased heart rate and start to understand how to regulate these experiences and this may support children in learning to manage everyday anxieties.

“We know Australia has a much more risk-averse culture, but we are becoming more and more open to risky play and the benefits it affords children.”

There are six categories of risky play that were first observed in Norwegian Forest Schools by Ellen Beate Sandseter, and are now recognised worldwide.

These include; great height, great speed, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble, disappearing/getting lost.

“The infant’s body is rapidly changing and rather than learning a set of skills to negotiate their environment, they need to be flexible and reappraise affordances in their environment,” Dr Wyver said.

“For example, falling from a safe height is an important part of learning to learn, and infants can be supported in a safe way, with changes in surfaces, gradients, and other challenges.”

“For older children, engaging in risky play can help them learn to mitigate and manage risk.”

Risk reframing

When changing the physical environment to offer more opportunities for risky play, it is possible that some educators or families may feel reluctant.

“Research I have been involved in shows reluctance comes from an understandable belief they may be neglecting their duty of care or concerns about perceptions of parents,” Dr Wyver said.

“It can be useful to engage in ‘risk reframing’ where together there is a new and shared understanding of the importance of introducing safe risks into the physical environment."

Supporting loose parts play

Loose parts play is generally considered to involve use of materials with no obvious play purpose and typically include items with a range of durability.

Dr Wyver shared that services can consider introducing loose parts play to safely modify a physical environment or enhance an already rich environment, so children can have opportunities to make decisions about the physical environment.

“Indoors often involves smaller objects that can be used for construction and outdoors objects are generally larger and can be used for imaginative and highly physical play.” Dr Wyver said.

Services can first start with observing the children, and dependent on the children’s ability and comfort levels, can then take taking small steps when introducing new elements of risky or loose parts play.

“In many ways, loose parts play captures the intentions of Element 3.2.2 (Resources to support play-based learning) as children can find multiple purposes for the materials.”

Loose parts play can also foster cooperation when larger materials are used, and children’s decisions on selection and combination of materials provides a wide range of affordances for regardless of age and ability.

“Cardboard boxes, large and small, can be an important part of a service’s loose parts collection,” Dr Wyver shared.

“Cardboard breaks down quickly when used in play and can then be composted – this can also used as an important lesson in sustainability, contributing to Element 3.2.3 (Environmentally responsible), by re-using materials.

Dr Wyver shared children should have regular opportunities to engage with the natural environment.

“Playing in nature or with natural elements offers open-ended experiences to children, and through loose parts this engagement can provide important learning through play,” Dr Wyver said.

"However, it is important to consider a storage solution for loose parts that is suitable for your location and plan in accordance with Element 3.1.2.

“For some service this may be lockable storage, but for others it may be acceptable to leave items on the playground – this is all dependent on the risks of animal or water In some areas collecting in loose parts.”

Resources to get started

  • A toolkit from Play Scotland provides some helpful ideas, information on checking loose parts before and during each session and a ‘Getting started guide’ with key steps including:

  • Work out your approach to evaluation right from the start.

  • Involve and educate staff, parents and carers about the use and benefits of loose parts.

  • Accessing training to equip adults with knowledge, skills and confidence is likely to be a worthwhile investment.

  • Get your procedures in place for the management and use of loose parts.

  • Try out some taster sessions.

  • Develop an ongoing action plan.

  • Work out where and how you will store your loose parts.

  • Take time to review.

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