Loose Parts in Play: How a Child’s Imagination Tranforms “Junk”

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Without a doubt, the most played-with area in our home is a place filled with loose parts, which we lovingly refer to as the “junkyard.” The junkyard came to existence after one terrible week in March when we all fell like dominoes to a stomach virus/head cold/ear infection trifecta of germs. Between doing loads of laundry and having little to no energy to do anything but lay on the couch and throw snacks out randomly, I did the only thing I could do to survive – I found a new kids series on Amazon for my kids to watch while we all recovered.

loose parts

Thankfully, the show I chose with my eyes barely open was a huge hit with both of my kids. It followed three kids through various mishaps and adventures they got into because of the inventions they made and experiments they conducted. One of the kids lived on a junkyard, where the show was primarily set. My kids quickly became enamored with the characters and started inventing and building with anything they could find around the house, mainly gluing random things together. Initially, I was less than thrilled with this newfound activity. Glue everywhere, random newspapers and junk mail cut to shreds and scattered around the living room, and missing silicone cupcake liners and Tupperware lids. And most importantly how they squirreled these things into their room without me noticing.

I soon realized I had actually hit a parenting goldmine; my kids kept themselves busy for hours while making inventions and playing with them in elaborate, drawn-out scenarios. We set some family guidelines around scissors, glue, and clean up, designated a large cardboard box as our very own “junkyard,” and took a trip to SCRAP PDX to fill a basket with anything that interested them. Twenty dollars later, paired with various recyclables from our house (egg cartons, broken down boxes, toilet paper rolls, and magazines), the junkyard was complete. This box of loose parts is an invitation for open-ended play. There are no preconceived notions with the items in the box, no set expectations for what the items should become, or “right ways” to use them. There is freedom to explore and try things out and make mistakes or change the plan or abandon the idea and move on.

The loose parts junkyard has taken up a corner of our living room now for six months, and it is the only toy my kids play with every day. Each night, junkyard items are put back into the box and the next day everything is a fresh, blank slate, ready to be made into anything their creative minds can imagine. Strips of cardboard have been made into roads, used as ice skates, built a ceiling on a pillow fort, and become a ramp to race cars off the couch. Just one long, green ribbon has been used as Rapunzel’s hair, a leash for stuffed animals, even and Spiderman’s webbing. Cardboard boxes have many lives, from cars to caves to baby cribs and wagons. We’ve made a puppet theater that quickly became a sled, and finally a parking garage for Hot Wheels. They once made an entire instrument collection to become the Cardboard & Chopstick Band.

It is so easy as an adult to lose the ability to see the magic in the everyday things, especially the loose parts we throw away or recycle. We have a hard time looking at a piece of string and only seeing it as string. But to children, this box of loose parts is truly filled with treasures. They can look at egg cartons or a cardboard and see endless opportunities, and then engage that imagination and just play. Every time they dig through the junkyard, I can’t wait to see what ideas they come up with. Play is the foundation of childhood and it has been such an experience to see how much fun my kids can have with some cardboard and glue. Lots of glue.


loose partsKatie is an occupational therapist, recently turned stay-at-home-mom and relocated to PDX from Maine. Her days are filled with coffee, playgrounds, and providing seemingly endless snacks to her two children.

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Katie is a recent East Coast transplant from Maine, where she was born and raised. While trying to figure out how to create the life they wanted to live, Katie’s husband, David, was presented with a job opportunity in Portland. They decided to go for it and moved across the country with their two young children. Katie has previously worked as an occupational therapist in an early childhood setting, but with the move was presented with the opportunity to stay home with her kids and she took it! It has been an adventure switching to life as a full time stay-at-home mom to her five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. She spends her days exploring Portland’s playgrounds and coffee shops, looking for new vegetarian restaurants to check out, and trying to remember that slowing down is a good thing. Since arriving in Portland, she has begun making time for all of the things that have caught her interest over the years: yoga, cooking with local foods, experimenting with sustainable lifestyle choices, writing and getting outside in the always beautiful PNW.

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