Spark Imaginative Play by Choosing Alternatives to Single-Idea Plastic Toys

Photo Credit: Uniting Preschool Caves Beach

This guest post story is written by Michelle Ryan from Uniting Preschool Caves Beach

Plastic Free has become an often-heard phrase in many areas of our lives, including the early learning years at our preschool. It’s well known that new plastic toys are made from fossil fuels, have a limited lifespan, and are non-recyclable. In addition, research shows concerns about toxins in toys that could be harmful to children’s health. 

Making careful decisions about the types of toys – and how they come into our spaces – is key to choosing sustainable alternatives to plastic toys that spark imaginative play. Reducing plastic use at our beachside suburb preschool is fundamental to helping children become socially responsible citizens and show respect for the environment. 

Plastic Free Loose Parts Play

Plastic free play shifts the focus from single-use ideas and toys to loose parts play that values children’s curiosity, imagination, motivation to learn, ability to problem-solve critically, social connections, expanding language, creativity, and persistence. 

We promote three sustainable play options for children at preschool that increase their imaginative play and creativity. They are simple suggestions that provide ample play opportunities:

  1. Reuse. Repurpose. Recreate
  2. Real Experiences and Tools
  3. Playing in Nature

1. Reuse. Repurpose. Recreate

Natural Materials -Spark Imaginative Play by Choosing Alternatives to Single-Idea Plastic Toys

Photo Credit: Uniting Preschool Caves Beach

Looking at things to reuse in different ways is an excellent start towards embracing loose parts play. Anything you might not need is a possible play idea for children. 

We often use the things we already have at the preschool and happily collect & reuse containers, cardboard tubes, boxes, cards, and wrapping paper for art making.

Then, add glue, wool and crayons and watch the children transform the resources into something completely different. 

Buttons and beads can be used for making patterns or as decorations for buildings, fabrics and ribbons for art, or designing roads for their toy cars to drive on. Children prefer to play with the box their bought toy came in because they can change it into anything they want.

We can set up these ideas in interesting ways that invite children to play. For example, on a mat, as a tower, grouped in similar items, on a piece of coloured paper, in front of a window or maybe in a sand / sensory tray.

Setting up the loose parts items in a different place can spark new play ideas. 

2. Real Experiences and Tools

Real Materials and Tools -Spark Imaginative Play by Choosing Alternatives to Single-Idea Plastic Toys

Offering real experiences using real tools values children’s capability and competence. By having opportunities to use actual items, children learn how to be responsible for their safety.

Child-sized or adaptable real tools ensure success when children know they can use them easily. 

Excellent examples of real experiences and tools include woodworking, sewing and water play.

The woodwork table has a range of softwood offcuts, fabric, bottle lids, and corks at preschool.

These resources are accessible for children to use with the hammer and nails and ideal for developing great physical and problem-solving skills, such as “how do I join the different materials?” In addition, we add hardware-sourced actual measuring tapes and spirit levels for real-life engineering and maths play.

Open weave sewing material (such as linen and hessian), thick cotton yarn and large-eye needles allow children to sew clothes for toys, embroider patterns or make character toys using their drawings on the fabric

Outdoor Pipes and Balls - Spark Imaginative Play by Choosing Alternatives to Single-Idea Plastic Toys

Photo Credit: Uniting Preschool Caves Beach

Pipes, spools, golf balls and toy cars are used regularly in the preschool sandpit. The relationship between cause and effect comes to life when children add water.

The greatest source for these resources for play at home includes clean offcuts from builders, cable reels from electricians, or pipes from plumbers.

Local bulk waste collections, tip shops, resource recovery centres, and Buy Nothing Project groups are a minefield of things that children can reuse for real experience play.

3. Playing in Nature

The best type of play is in nature. At our preschool, we find as many ways to connect to nature play, where plastic really loses its shine! Nothing compares to the dynamic environment and feeling of going outside.

Nature play provides its own sensory smorgasbord for learning

Children of all ages can feel, see, hear and taste in endless variety. Taking children outside to feel how the daily weather affects the natural environment each day and through the year with the seasons. 

Being outside is a very different sensory feeling from the commercially available plastic “sensory” toys.

Nature Play - Spark Imaginative Play by Choosing Alternatives to Single-Idea Plastic Toys

Photo Credit: Uniting Preschool Caves Beach

Collecting natural items like sticks, leaves or flowers to make art, patterns, write their names or even create some stick wings or wands with string or wool is a favourite outdoor playtime at preschool. Adding boxes, bottles, shells or seed pods to the preschool sandpit or water play area lets the children measure, sort, and decorate. 

Mud kitchens are certainly a great thing to have in your backyard. We often see creative cooking ideas, such as transforming basic non-edible materials into three-course meals and re-creating the magic of a memorable family campfire.

Perhaps you could have a family adventure, collect natural items to play with at home, and create your own nature play area?  

Real Play is Unlimited

So many amazing resources are free for us to discover, reuse and stop from ending up in landfill. Most importantly, the three nonplastic play possibilities support children’s learning and curiosity to find out more about the world around them. 

Going plastic free doesn’t limit children’s learning. In fact, open ended play has no limits or boundaries with scope for imagination. Likewise, real play is not limited to the predetermined picture on the plastic toy packaging. 

Children are learning that the world is full of opportunities and imaginative play is in the everyday by getting outside in nature, using real tools and experiences and reusing & repurposing.

Some links in this post are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you choose to make a purchase from these Australian businesses.

About the Author

Spark Imaginative Play by Choosing Alternatives to Single-Idea Plastic Toys

Michelle Ryan

Director of Uniting Preschool Caves Beach

Michelle learns from children each day about the world around us. She’s inspired by how children show their curiosity, theories and ideas through play and communication. Caves Beach Uniting Preschool values building respect & connection for each other and the natural world, working closely with families and the community. Michelle is reminded everyday to be in the moment and connect through moments of wonder.

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