What is an Invitation to Play?

I had never heard the term “invitation to play” outside of the context of actually inviting friends over for a play-date until a few months ago.

After seeing the term on an education blog, I did a lot of research, and here’s what I discovered.

An invitation to play is basically creating a scenario where your child is free to play, learn and explore.


Invitations to play usually consist of setting out a few loose parts (like seashells, pennies, paperclips, or rocks) and a vehicle for exploring those parts (like play dough, a magnifying glass, a scale, or another sensory mixture). Invitations to play are a way of literally inviting your child through play to explore, create and make their own learning connections from real life, every day items.

Invitations to play can be for one child, or many. It all depends on how you choose to set it up.

One day I did host an actual play date for about ten kiddos. I set up an invitation to play using small paper plates, glue sticks, markers, faux flowers and zillions of miniature foam  shapes. I laid out each loose part item in a pretty sectioned container and carefully placed the markers in a kid-friendly jar at a child-sized work table. I stood at a corner wielding a hot glue gun. It was amazing to see what they came up with! Some made party hats, others simply decorated their paper plates, and some made what looked like elaborate, colorful gardens.

Today I set up three separate invitations to play, or “centers,” if you will.

At Station 1: A baking tray, magnetic letters, and fluffy pom-poms from the dollar store.


At Station 2: A cardboard box filled with uncooked rice and a variety of cups, spoons and containers.


At Station 3: Long lacing strings, wooden lacing animals, and a short-sorting box.


I have a two, three, and five year old learning at my house daily. Who knows what they will see and create? The possibilities are endless and that’s what I love about invitations to play.

Here are some of my ideas for loose parts, sensory items and extention tools for invitations to play!

Loose Parts Ideas:

small rocks
twigs or sticks (w/ no sharp edges)
small pieces of wood, driftwood or small branches
flowers or flower petals
marbled stones (the kind that are flat on one side)
bits of string
miniature foam pieces
fluffy pom-poms
small containers or measuring cups/spoons
plastic silverware (for older kiddos)
magnetic letters or other magnets
pretend plastic food
faux flowers or leaves
wooden or foam stamps

*An Everyday Story has fabulous information about the Loose Parts Theory! Check it out!*

Sensory Ideas:

Play Dough (it’s fun when you scent it with an essential oil or when the kids are involved in making it!)
Modeling Clay
Soapy Water
Cornstarch/Water Mixture (Oobleck is what we call it)
Macaroni or other pasta
Sand or Kid-Safe Synthetic Sand
Bubble Wrap
Bubbles & Wand
Easter Grass or Craft Grass
Shaving Cream
Sugar or Salt
Water Beads
Finger Paint
Water (simply in a large container with a towel or mat under it)
Grass (just set the loose parts on the grass for a fun sensory experience for very young ones)
*Mud, if you’re very brave!*

Extention Tools for Play and Learning:
*These are just a few items I’ve learned are valuable to keep on hand*

Plastic spoons and forks
Measuring cups or spoons
Sculpting tools specifically for play dough or modeling clay
Baking trays (for magnets)
Glue sticks
Writing utensils and notebooks
Paper plates and paper bags
Large plastic mats with fabric on bottom (Find them at your local dollar store!)
Large rolls of butcher paper
Construction paper

Sometimes when I create an invitation to play, I keep it all in a small container or box to use later. It’s worth it if the invitation is a hit and the kids are begging for it the next day or week. My rice bin and lacing toys are in their own containers for weekly use!

The oldest learner was able to make connections about how the rice might fall through the slotted spatulas and spoons.

Invitations to Play are not only a chance for the kids to be innovative, but a chance for you to use your creativity as well! The possibilities are literally endless! Look around your house, garage, garden. What do you have that you can safely use or make to create a happy and inviting learning station?

One child had the idea to match each letter he found with a pom-pom. Love his creative thinking!! We changed the letters up to give him some more colors.
After ten minutes at each “station,” the kids sat down at our big chalk board table with their own notebooks and drew their favorite part of the activity. I made a model for them to look at. They did a great job!

Have some great invitations to play ideas? Please post a comment! I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Playing! (I mean, learning!) 😉



2 thoughts on “What is an Invitation to Play?

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