Discover: Loose Parts Leaf Play Ideas for Any Season

Is there anything simpler and more enjoyable than setting out an interesting mish-mash of supplies and watching your kiddos create something amazing? Loose parts invitations are perfect for those days when you need a quiet, creative activity STAT – set out supplies and let them at it.

Leaf-Themed Loose Parts Play – Table of Contents

I’m a leaf-lover in every season, but when fall rolls around I become a hoarder of leafy branches and colorful fronds. The kaleidoscope of leaf colors autumn brings to many parts of the US is so lovely, but there are so very many places that don’t experience the same “traditional” fall we do here in the upper Midwest.

paper leaves and loose parts play items sitting on a white background

Digging into the many types of autumns people experience across the globe has led me to experiment with homemade leaf-making and the creation of leaves from other materials that can be used in any season, climate, or circumstance along with loose parts for lots of different styles of play.

This type of nature-inspired loose parts play is purposeful play, allowing children to freely experiment, satisfy curiousities, make discoveries, build inventions, and most importantly, enjoy the process and have fun.

And no matter where you are located or what the season, the inclusion of leaves in ANY play activity is a great way to sit down (or get outside) with your little ones or students and spend a bit of time reconnecting with nature.

paper leaves and loose parts play items sitting in a tray on a white background

Leaf-Themed Loose Parts Play Supplies:

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

LOOSE PART SUPPLIES:

  • Paper, felt, silk, or wood leaves
  • Sticks, twigs, leaves, acorns, conkers, pinecones, or other natural materials
  • Ribbon, paper scraps, feathers, smooth-edge sea glass, beads, googley eyes, and other decorative supplies
  • Scrap wood, wood slices, cardboard, or paper tubes
  • Sensory bin supplies like playdough, beans, or oats
  • Clothespins and spools
  • Scissors and a hole punch
  • Magnets, pulleys, roping, nuts and bolts, screws, washers, etc.

FOR PLAY PREP:

  • A few sheets of paper, heavy cardstock, or watercolor paper
  • Our free printable leaf activity kit
  • Our free sheet of photocopied leaves
  • Coloring supplies (watercolors, coffee, crayons, oil pastels, etc).
  • Self-laminating sheets (I use this kind) for paper leaf reuse
  • Trays, bowls, bins, or similar supplies
  • A mirror or light box/light table
  • A magnifying glass

SAFETY NOTE: If you’re working with children under the age of four or any child who may be tempted to put toys in their mouth, all loose parts should be at least 2 inches in length or diameter. Small parts and play accessories should meet federal small parts standards.

The Value of Loose Parts Leaf Play 

In my experience, when nature is incorporated into play, the lines between the outdoors and inside, “learning” and “fun,” art and science are blurred (for us adults, as well!). While younger kids may not have these classifications for spaces or time that we apply, they are certainly influenced by our use of them.

“Young children (often) find the world incredibly restricted–a world where they cannot play with building and making things, or play with fluids, water, fire or living objects, and all the things that satisfy one’s curiosity and give us the pleasure that results from discovery and invention.”

Architect Simon Nicholson, developer of the Theory of Loose Parts

Children’s instinctive curiosity in the natural world is a treasure to be honored and nurtured. This kind of play helps to foster their own intuitive styles of learning. It inspires imaginative creation and intentional creative exploration that happens on their own terms.

paper leaves and loose parts play items sitting on a white background

Preparing for Leaf Loose Parts Play Activities At Home or in a Classroom

When leading children in many of the invitation activities you’ll find on this site, I tend to consider my role as one of a “guide”. l prefer to observe, answer questions, offer suggestions, prompts, or ideas, and help when needed. Though this leaves quite a bit of the creation and play up to the kids themselves, there are typically a few ways I like to prepare that can help ensure successful play experiences for every kid.

Here are a few prep ideas you might be able to use when guiding your own loose parts leaf play experience…

  • You can introduce a variety of textures, create a reusable set of leaves, and always have leaves suitable for any season available by using paper leaves, DIY felt leaf cutouts, or painted or stained wood leaves. Self-laminating sheets can be used for paper or cardboard leaves so they can be cleaned and reused again and again.
  • Planning on keeping some collected nature supplies around for year-round use with your leaves and loose parts activities? Learn how to prep nature supplies for loose parts play and why it can be an especially important step in play preparation.
  • Involve children in the process of collecting loose parts, play spaces, and choosing the play activities they might like to try. If using leaves from nature, head outside with kids and play the role of observer rather than facilitator, as they collect their own set of leaves before playing.
  • If your kiddos really get into this kind of creation, consider creating dedicated loose-part play areas. They can be as simple as a special tabletop or bookshelf, where available loose parts are stored in baskets, bowls, bins, or buckets. OR, you can take it outside and create a devoted spot where you keep items like twigs, sand, stones, pails, etc. For outdoor leaf-themed loose parts play, you can’t beat a blanket or towel spread out under a tree!
  • Anticipate a variety of experiences and approaches. Whether you’re playing at home or guiding in a classroom, creating spaces or activities that allow for all types of interests encourages curiosity, exploration, and inclusiveness. Some kids may be more drawn to construction activities, while others enjoy sensory stimuli. Some children may prefer working on their own, and others may relish the social time they get to spend collaborating with other kids. In my experience, you don’t always even have to plan for this, so much as to observe and allow it to happen organically. This is where embracing the role of “guide” comes in handy, and why I’ve tried to share many different types of leaf-themed loose parts ideas.
  • As a compliment to loose-part play, encourage experimentation by incorporating science supplies or creating a “lab” area, where kids feel free to do some experimentation. As a leaf-specific example, I love this leaf color and chlorophyll experiment for kids.
paper leaves and loose parts play items sitting on a white background

Ways to Play with Loose Parts and Leaves Throughout the Seasons

These activities are ideas that anyone can enjoy – whether you’re celebrating a fall like ours right now, or on the other side of the globe preparing for a tropical spring!

Keep in mind as you scroll through: if you don’t have access to a printer or are missing materials, you can simply draw your own leaves, and whenever I can, I provide ideas for alternative supplies. All of these activities were created with ease of use, cost-effectiveness, and eco-friendliness in mind.

Start with a Simple Loose Parts Leaf Tray

The tray we set out featured some of my favorite natural materials for loose parts play. Leaves, feathers, bark, sticks, and paper scraps offer a variety of textures. Sea glass and cabochons have great natural transparency (just check to make sure all your glass pieces have smoothed edges first).

I cut out and watercolored a few of our large leaf templates to act as a “backdrop” for using loose parts to build and decorate, but you can simply print and let your kids color themselves.

Introduce Leaf Cutting

Pairing collected leaves and natural materials with a set of kid-safe scissors (as we did for our mouse mail play activity) is a wonderful way to introduce scissor skills and encourage fine motor development.

You can create leaf confetti for use with your loose parts by using scissors or different sizes and shapes of hole punches to cut real leaves into confetti. Collecting a variety of colors makes it all the more exciting to toss into the air or throw on a project!

Create Habitats, Dens, and Structures

Using paper tubes, cardboard boxes, or playdough as a building base and leaves, plus a selection of their favorite natural loose parts, invite kids to create animal habitats, hibernation dens (as we did for one of our fall play trays), or small world structures.

Pinecones, straws, spools, pom poms, paper scraps, etc. can be stuck in or glued to the structures.

Experiment with Leaf Painting, Printing, and Stamping

Lay out with paper or fabric scraps, a brayer, and paint on a tray to let kids experiment with printing and stamping leaves. Children can dip the leaves into the paint and place the leaves onto white blank paper, or paint the leaves themselves. You can cover paper with office-supply stickers and large leaves, use a brayer to cover with paint, then take off the leaves and stickers for a printing process that helps teach kids about positive and negative space.

In summer months, when both leaves and sunshine are typically abundant, you can experiment with arranging leaves and loose parts on cyanotype paper to make loose-part leaf sun prints.

For a variation on leaf painting for winter months when natural leaves are harder to come by, I’ve used baking soda to cover the leaves with a coating of “snow”. You can brush on baking soda. After you’re done, you can help your littles rinse with water, squeeze out, and lay on a towel to let fully dry.

Seasonal Leaf Sensory Bins

Choosing colors inspired by the leaves in your neighborhood or the hues of the season, make your own dyed rice, use dry beans, or make water beads you can combine in a bin with a selection of leaves.

For an autumn leaf sensory bin, you can add scented pumpkin playdough or items with different shades of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns.

Add Water to Your Loose Parts Leaf Play

Water interaction with loose parts creates ripples, dripping sounds, and reflections. Water makes certain objects float, and others begin to fall apart. Invite children to experiment with, and observe these interactions by providing a bowl or tray and pitcher of water with their loose parts. Simply throwing everything together into a loose parts soup provides provocations to investigate.

Adding leaves to the mix creates wonderful nature associations. Use an eyedropper to gently cover different types of leaves with water – how does the water run off (if it does at all)? Put other items on the leaves now – does the water make them fall off, or help them to stick to the leaf surface? Pound or grind leaves with other objects, add water, then observe what happens to the color of the water or leaf pulp.

Though we often think of water play as a spring or summer activity, autumn and winter are fantastic times to freeze leaves (real leaves or felt leaves work well for this!) and incorporate them in a bit of loose parts play. How do the frozen leaves interact with other objects and materials when they’re solidly frozen? What happens as they start to thaw?

Build 3D Trees from Loose Parts

Using playdough, a cardboard box, or a wood base with small holes drilled into it, insert twigs, then invite kids to decorate with leaves and other loose parts. Small clothespins, clips, or stickers can be used to attach leaves and other decorative items. Beads can be threaded onto the twigs, or a hole punch can be used to punch holes in real or paper leaves and thread them onto branches.

Create Leaf and Branch Arrangements

An activity inspired by my early Montessori day, use small vases and bowls to create arrangements of leafy branches, twigs, flowers, and other supplies. Add water, or let dry, and observe to see what happens to the leaves over time and how the colors, form, and overall shape of the arrangement changes. 

Make Leaf Mandalas or Loose Parts Leaf Collages

Make colorful mandalas using a variety of leaves and assorted loose parts. This can easily be made into a collaborative activity by inviting one child to create one half of the mandala, and another child to create the mirror image.

Create 2D Leaf Landscapes

Start with a photo or full-page landscape torn out of a magazine, and let kids build leafy landscapes on top of the image using collected leaves, paper or felt leaves, and loose parts.

Sketch Leaves and Loose Parts

Create a still-life scene using leaves and loose parts, then sketch. If using real leaves, you can provide a magnifying glass for close-up examination.

Trace the Shadows of Leaves and Loose Parts

Here’s an idea that comes straight out of my own college art experiment archive: Tie string or twine onto leaves and an assortment of other loose parts. Tie them all onto a branch, piece of long cardboard, or other material you can hang in front of a window or outside. Using large pieces of paper or newsprint, trace the shadows made at different times throughout the day.

For a simpler variation, arrange leaves and other objects on a light box or light table and trace.


For a preview of a few of the pages of our free printable leaf activity kit and some simple ideas for use, watch the quick video below!

For more fun kids’ leaf activities try making paper leaf puppets or magic noisemaker leaf wands.

*A note about affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Blick Art Materials, Amazon, Etsy, or Woodpeckers Crafts. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click through to make a purchase we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!

Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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