At Nature's Explorers, we provide many opportunities for children to engage in what has come to be known as "loose parts play." This is open-ended play with a variety of natural and synthetic materials. This kind of play allows for children to construct their own learning, with support and limited guidance from adults. It was architect Simon Nicholson who first seems to have formally presented this idea of play, although children have been engaging with materials in this way throughout human history. (More on Mr. Nicholson's theory: https://louisapenfold.com/2016/05/23/simon-nicholson-on-the-theory-of-loose-parts/ .)
You find many examples of intentionally creating loose parts play for young children in Reggio-influenced programs and in RIE, which are two ways of thinking about work with young children that we are influenced by as educators. In the more recent AnjiPlay movement emerging from China (http://www.anjiplay.com/home/), you will find fantastic examples of large loose parts play that involves gross motor development and risk-taking, along with creativity and socio-emotional skills like cooperation and conflict negotiation.
As adults, it's fascinating to watch what children will do with the loose parts in the environment. In our program, some of the parts have been selected and thoughtfully presented by the teachers. Others have been sourced by the children themselves. This basket of rocks, for example, was collected by two toddlers working both together and separately over a period of days. These rocks have represented "porridge" in their sociodramatic play, have represented bugs, have been compared to balls, and were today gathered up and given away as "money."
We're inspired every day by the limitless potential of their imaginations!