Play & Recess

Integrating Loose Parts Play Into Recess

Providing materials such as milk crates, tires, and pieces of wood amplifies student curiosity and imaginative play at recess.

June 18, 2024
Courtesy of Dan Fisher

As an experienced elementary school principal and father of two elementary-aged children of my own, I have always been preoccupied with mental health and the benefits of recess time and outdoor play. I was fortunate early in my career to discover the transformative power that loose parts play (LPP) can have in school culture and student and staff wellness.

Loose parts play is, quite simply, the provision of any open-ended play items for students to use and enjoy. At my school, we provide milk crates, pieces of lumber, tarps, tires, and other items for the students to enjoy. If you work in an elementary school, you’ve likely already seen students engaging in some version of LPP: collecting and “selling” pine cones to each other, building structures out of snow, or playing with other found items. An LPP program takes children’s natural curiosity and attraction to this sort of play and amplifies it.

The Benefits of LOOSE PARTS PLAY

The research on LPP and its benefits is clear and impressive. For example, studies have shown that moderate to vigorous physical activity goes up by as much as 20 percent in schoolyards that have these kinds of objects for available, compared with schoolyards that only offer traditional sports or fixed elements like slides and swings. In each of my schools, once we implemented LPP, we found that while some students still chose sports at recess, our other, less sporty students now had exciting and physically challenging activities to enjoy as well. Students gleefully engaged in collaborative play such as fort-building, creating a series of “subway stops” around the yard, or running various imaginary businesses.

Kid playing with elephant made of milk crates
Courtesy of Dan Fisher

Creativity also increases on LPP schoolyards. This has been measured in academic studies, but anecdotally I have seen amusement park rides, animal statues, forts and structures, spontaneous tugs-of-war, balancing challenges, and a whole host of invented games and projects on LPP playgrounds. Adults who stand back and watch a group of children as they navigate through the process of using a limited number of loose parts to solve a problem or complete a particular building challenge will be immediately impressed with the required levels of communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.

The positive impact of LPP on school culture and on teacher stress levels is clear, from the joyful and inclusive play that typically results from providing students with loose parts. I have noted younger children playing happily with older children during LPP and students with special needs finding their way into LPP activities, whereas in the past they might not have felt comfortable joining the group.

Supervising teachers who learn to “say yes to play” and provide guidance to students, rather than having to enforce a list of what not to do on the yard, find that supervision becomes a more enjoyable task. Finally, parents see LPP schools as places that truly center student needs and student voice. Rather than requiring children to be little adults at recess, LPP schools take the energy, creativity, and occasional messiness of childhood and celebrate it.

Getting started with Loose Parts Play

Understand the difference between a risk and a hazard: Hazards are things that will legitimately cause harm to children; cars, broken glass, used needles, and exposed wiring are hazards, and we remove these from playgrounds. Risks, however, are fundamental to learning. All children are drawn to opportunities to take developmentally appropriate risks when they play, whether that’s jumping from one tree stump to another or seeing who can build the highest tower out of milk crates.

In my own schools, I’ve helped parents and staff with this distinction by having them recall some of their favorite play memories from their own childhoods. These conversations at staff meetings and parent council meetings have inevitably led to lots of positive talk around the benefits of rich and “risky” play. 

Define your play policy: If you add up lunches and recess times, a grade-eight student will have spent almost a year and a half on the playground by the time they graduate. How intentional is your school’s approach to play and outdoor time? If you asked your students, they would say that recess and lunch are the most important parts of the day; do they receive thoughtful consideration from the administration?

Coming together to create a play policy that supports healthy outdoor time is vital. You may consider referencing the United Nations’ declaration on the rights of a child to play or the Canadian Public Health Association’s statement about play when starting this process.

Here are some positive policy statements:

  • We believe that all children have the right to engaging, developmentally appropriate play.
  • We play in all types of weather.
  • We trust our students to make good decisions when playing.
  • We trust our staff to say yes to play when supervising.

Start small: Provide students with one item to try out, and build up over a period of weeks. I like to start with old tires, because they can be left out on the yard overnight. Your first loose part will allow you to see how the students react; how the staff adjust; and if any conversations need to be had around storage of loose parts, managing or sharing them, and any other logistics. As time goes on, you can add more items.

Gather advocates and allies: There are likely already teachers and parents in your school community who see the value in open-ended, loose-part play. Work with your local play allies to explore what LPP could look like at your school. Explore and connect with organizations like Outdoor Play Canada, OPAL UK, and your own school board to learn more about what has been successful in other schools.

Celebrate wins: Promote student creations, the additions of new loose parts, and your overall enthusiasm for LPP in newsletters, bulletin board displays, LPP class challenges, and assemblies. Trying out this new, child-centered approach to outdoor time will require some new ways of thinking and doing for teachers, caretakers, parents, and students. Capture and share your growth across your school community!

If your school has integrated loose parts play into recess, please share a little about your experience in the comments. What sorts of materials do you have? What benefits have you seen? Do you have tips for other schools looking to get started?

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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