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  • Writer's pictureVicki Manning

Loose parts play in the garden

We love playing with loose parts, and when the weather is nice we like to take our loose parts play into the garden. If you fancy giving loose parts play a go (and I thoroughly recommend it), the garden is a great place to start.

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Loose parts are any object, either natural or man made, that don't have a pre-defined purpose for play. Open-ended materials such as these invite curiosity and encourage imaginative play, as children are totally free in how they use them.

You may have seen pictures of some beautiful classroom setups with baskets full of bits and pieces, recycled boxes etc, and thought it looks a little overwhelming and messy. Don't let this put you off! You can introduce loose parts play in any scale to suit you.

As a SAHM of three boys I understand the sheer amount of tidying you have to do on a daily basis. Some days I feel it's about 50% of the job, with the rest being chef, councillor, launderette, secretary, personal shopper, hostage negotiator... have I missed any? 😂

The benefit of loose parts play outdoors is that you don't have to tidy constantly to avoid being surrounded by mess, you can leave their play undisturbed and close the back door!

I struggle to ignore a pile of Duplo in the living room but can look the other way when there are a few stones strewn across the lawn

So if you don't want to have bits and pieces everywhere, try loose parts in your garden!

Here are our favourite loose parts for playing in the garden:


Sticks hold an age-old fascination for children and they are such a versatile toy. Avoid the urge to ban them on the grounds that they are dangerous, you just need to lay down some ground rules (no hitting, no running with them etc) and your children can have so much fun.

We keep a stash of small sticks that are ideal for stacking, posting, counting etc in a pot and then a handful of large 'walking' sized sticks are propped up by the back door - these are often made into impromptu dens when the weather is better.


Stones are probably our favourite of all the loose parts we play with in the garden - they can be carried around and dumped in trucks, made into stone soup, used to build miniature walls for houses, for maths invitations etc - they are just so versatile!

We also like to decorate them with paint pens or marker pens for a nice bit of creative therapy. Check out our Instagram account for some of our stone creations.

Some of our stones are from a garden centre but most are where we've collected the odd pebble at the seaside or come across an interesting stone on a walk. We're always careful just to take one or two so there are plenty for others to enjoy.

Pine cones

I have a confession - I'm slightly obsessed with pine cones! I can hear my husband's sigh when I run off during a family walk and scour the floor under a tree. I just love how many sizes and shapes you can find.

As a result our tub of nature finds is now overflowing with pine cones, so I add some to their loose parts play outdoors. They're a great tactile addition and when used with smaller things such as pebbles can make lovely sounds. Mr 6 currently likes to add them to his garden 'cooking' ands Mr 2 enjoys placing them all around the garden.

Old pots and pans

Pots and pans are a fantastic addition to the loose parts in your garden, and can be picked up for pennies from car boot sales and charity shops. Just look out for stainless steel so that it doesn't rust. Things like balti dishes, milk pans and pudding bowls are perfect as they are small so easier for little hands to pick up and move.

We have a flexitub full of smaller pots and pans that we keep in our playhouse, along with a handful of metal spoons and a whisk, which Mr 2 and Mr 6 love playing with. They are often cooking 'meals' for me to sample!


You've probably already got some pegs at home, if not in the garden then likely kicking about in a drawer. Pegs are really handy tools for developing fine motor skills and they're so fun for children experiment with - seeing what they can be pegged onto. They are also great for pinning material such as sheets or scarves to make dens in the summer.


Scooping, pouring, brushing - soil is a wonderful sensory element to add to your loose parts play. If you're worried about the mess, or you don't have a big garden, just use fresh compost and pop it into a tub. If you have the space to create a mud patch, top soil works really well and mixes with water to create some fabulous mud pies!

Pipe offcuts

Leftover pieces of hose pipes and PVC piping are amazing for water play! But they can be played with in so many more ways. Think standing upright and balancing stones on top, for marble runs, for telescopes, talking through, skittles, and if your boys are anything like mine - swords... 😜

Pre-school children in red and blue rpuddlesuits playing with guttering
Pic: Lincolnshire Early Years Alliance


Another great one for water play as well as sand, children can observe the forces of gravity at work when things such as stones, cars and water slide down, slower or faster depending on what angle they tilt them at.

Cable reels

Small cable reels ones are ideal for stacking and adding a bit of height to play. You can usually pick some up for free from local builder's merchant, just put out an appeal on Facebook, or make a couple of calls.

We have one painted in chalkboard paint (which can be drawn on), one with a free sample of astro-turf on top (perfect for small world play) and one left plain (rust and all). If you have room to add some wooden planks, your child can have fun combining them to climb up or create ramps.

Water beads

Originally designed for decorative flower displays, water beads or 'orbeez' have become a popular sensory toy - just add water and they will grow like magic. We love them because they feel amazing, they are really colourful, they're great for scooping and pouring, plus they are totally biodegradable. You can get small beads or giant ones, both just as much fun.

Plastic plant pots

Small plant pots are great for stacking, building and transporting. There's no need to buy them, just recycle and pots you get from garden centre or supermarket purchases. If you don't buy plants, then large yoghurt pots make a great substitute.

Want to give loose parts play a go? Check out my ultimate loose parts checklists, available from my Etsy store.

Have you tried loose parts in the garden? Let me know!

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Hi, I'm Vicki!

I'm an author and mum to three energetic boys who love learning in a playful and creative way! For more playful learning, creative inspiration and crafts, visit us at:



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