Upcycling & re-purposing our play

We live in hugely wasteful times, which has massive consequences for our environment. As consumerism drives our society here at Jigsaw Day Nurseries, we are intent on taking a different path to create a brighter future for the children we care for.

Over the years upcycling and re-purposing has taken an ever more prominent place on our agenda. It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of presuming that the answer lies in the next new shiny toy or trend however we take far greater satisfaction in finding an everyday item that has been discarded and turning it into something magical for our children to enjoy at nursery.

Not only does this approach have a significant impact on the environment as we play our part in helping reduce waste and demand for new production it also has an incredibly positive developmental impact on our children which is explained in more detail in our ‘Loose Parts’ summary below.

In this section we have shared with you a handful of things that you could do at home or in your setting which will have a meaningful and positive impact for our natural world.

Never has getting it right for both your children and the environment been so easy and embracing your ‘inner womble’ may well be one of the most liberating things that you do!!

Upcycling & Re-Purposing:

To coin an old phrase ‘One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure’ and never has that been truer than at Jigsaw.

The opportunity to re-purpose and recycle is all around us every single day, the challenge is to switch our brains to think in that way.

At Jigsaw our challenge is to minimise waste and to maximise opportunity. Before anything leaves our building, we will look to evaluate to see if we could re-purpose the item in a productive way which would stimulate our children.

In virtually every room and outdoor space across our nurseries we have examples of items which have taken on a new lease of life.

Nursery Rooms

In a typical room at Jigsaw examples of upcycled and re-purposed items would include: Offcuts of piping & guttering used for ramps or rolling, offcuts of decking upcycled as racetracks and roads. Old egg cups act as paint pots, and old tea sets let us host afternoon tea at dressing up time. We’ve even transformed old cat scratching poles into magical play stations, the possibilities really are almost endless!!

Forest School & Outside spaces

Around our outdoor areas at Jigsaw examples of upcycled and re-purposed items would include: Wooden bed heads re-purposed as pirate ships, wooden draws and wardrobes used for storage and dens. Old kitchen utensils such as mashers and pans used as props in our mud kitchen, old pallets repurposed to make music walls and bird hide galleries as well as discarded off cuts of wood to make tables and benches, amongst many, many others.

Loose Parts Concept:

The Loose Parts theory first came to prominence in the 1970’s and has heavily influenced child play experts ever since with theorists believing that it is ‘the loose parts’ in our environment that that will empower our creativity. In reality however loose parts has been around for as long as children have played with sticks and stones.

A loose part can be defined as almost any item, it can be man made or natural and used in multiple ways with no pre-designed outcome. They are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials.

Often you will find that children would rather play with materials that they can use and adapt as they please, rather than expensive pieces of play equipment. When children interact with loose parts, they enter a world of “what if” that promotes the type of thinking that leads to problem solving and theoretical reasoning. Loose parts enhance children’s ability to think imaginatively and see solutions, and they bring a sense of adventure and excitement to children’s play.

Not only is loose parts an incredibly powerful developmental and educational approach for children it is hugely supportive of a more sustainable approach to child resources.

So, what is a ‘Loose Part’?

Loose parts are a wonderous range of resources that surround us all at home and in our natural environment. The great things is the concept is all about upcycling and re purposing.

Examples include:

  • Nature: Stones, Twigs, Logs, Sticks, Gravel, Bark, Flower Heads, Feathers, Acorns, Branches, Moss, Cones, Planks of wood, Leaves, Conkers
  • Metal: Curtain rings, Spoons, Paper clips, Nuts & bolts, Bottle tops, Screws, Door Knobs, Springs, Thimbles, Washers, Bangles, Can tabs, Keys, Tins, Chains.
  • Recycled: Paper tubes, Containers, Textiles, Wheels, Guttering, Drain Pipes, Pallets, Cable reels, Tarpaulin, Ropes, Buckets, CD’s, Tyres, Crates, Vinyl LP’s

A useful idea is to dig out some old hessian / recycled bags or storage boxes from around the house and start to collect items as you go.

How can I get started with loose parts?

By its very nature there are no rules for the loose parts approach. Once you have your resources and they are available to your children, with some gentle encouragement the rest is over to them.

Sometimes at the nursery we like to set out our resources which draws the children into play. At other times they are left in their storage containers and the children are able access them freely throughout the day.

Below are just a few ideas of how we engage our children with loose parts at Jigsaw Day Nurseries.

Crockery & tea sets play

Costume jewellery play

Loose play items at nursery

Key takeaways to succeed with Upcycling, re-purposing, and loose parts.

  1. Adopt the ‘Womble’ Mindset – Modern society tricks us into believing we need to buy new items to be happy. In reality far greater happiness can be achieved by expressing your creativity and re-purposing an item giving it a new life. What could be better than re- invigorating your child’s imagination whilst taking a positive step for our planet!!
  2. Think about how you can access resources – Our homes and gardens are a great place to get started. Take a walk around and see what items are lying around that could be re-purposed for your collection. Car boot sales, jumble sales, garage sales and charity shops are also excellent resources to be explored. After that get into nature, sand, stones, conkers and leaves amongst countless other items are great things to add to the collection. This approach is accessible for everyone on all budgets.
  3. Kick things off – They say the best way to get things started is to stop talking and start doing. Get your hands on some storage (Your first opportunity to upcycle and re-purpose) and make a start on your collection. Once you get into the flow, you will find you see items and opportunities everywhere. Watch your children’s creativity flow and development grow as you provide them with this whole new world of imagination and opportunity.
  4. Get Creative – Once your collection starts to grow think about how things can evolve and move to the next level. An old and tired item can take on a new lease of life at extraordinarily little expense with a little thought and creativity. Instagram & Pinterest are just two great resources available to stoke those creative juices and inspire you into action. Once again not only do your children and our planet gain but the process of being creative is also widely recognised to have huge well-being and mindfulness benefits as well.

As we reach this hugely pivotal moment for our planet every single one of us has a decision to make and a part to play in shaping both our own and our children’s future. The decisions we make as individuals at micro level undoubtedly stack up be that for the positive or the negative. The UK toy industry is said to be worth between £3b to £4b per annum making the UK the largest toy market in Europe and the 4th largest in the world. A staggering quarter of parents in the UK admit to throwing away toys that are in perfect working order with an average child owning around 4 toys that they have never even played with. With that in mind there is clear room for improvement and by adopting some of the practices mentioned above you can take your first steps towards a hugely creative and far more sustainable future for our children.


Founded in 1999, Jigsaw is a small, family-owned Children’s Day Nursery group based in Chester, UK.

Caring for the environment and our natural world is a fundamental part of the Jigsaw ethos and key learning objective for the children we care for.

Our children are our future so not only do we have a responsibility to take mindful decisions which safeguard their future planet we also have a duty to teach and guide them to ensure we are shaping sustainable citizens who will lead the way in years to come.

Related Posts

Stories to Inspire

Q&A – How can we innovate for conservation?

Find out at this Q&A session (chaired by Veronica Pickering), how Gautam Shah and Mark Spalding think we can innovate for conservation.

Make a Difference

Taking the small steps

For small organisations at the start of their sustainable journey the road ahead can be daunting. Jigsaw will share with you some of the small changes which could get you moving on that journey.

Make a Difference

Plants to fuel our future generations?

Could an increased focus on plant-based eating be the future of food in our educational settings? Find out how you could dramatically impact your carbon footprint with some simple but considered changes.