In my business we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about loose parts. (We spend a lot of time picking up them up, too.) Loose parts play has certainly been around for as long as childhood, but the term was coined in the early seventies by British architect Simon Nicholson.
Nicholson was decrying an attitude that sees creativity as “…for the gifted few.” The rest of us are expected to passively enjoy the creations of the gifted few but are not considered capable of creating anything ourselves. He claimed that this false, although dominant, idea means the rest of us – and especially children – are deprived of the opportunities and the confidence to play around with variables and components, to experiment and discover – in other words, to be creative. And he was worrying about this 40 years ago – when kids still played outside until the streetlights came on and well before push-button toys and video games.
Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts is simple: “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”
Think of kids playing at the beach. The variables – the loose parts – are sand, water, mud, pebbles, shells, seaweed, sticks, buckets and shovels, bits of trash, even the sun and surf. And the play is wonderfully creative and inventive. Kids dig holes until they hit water, construct rivers and dams, build a castle and decorate it with mud squiggles, shells and tiny white stones. They attach a ragged beach towel to a stick for a flag. They invent games with waves, bury each other in the sand, and trace each other’s shadows. Even grown-ups get playful in an environment so rich in loose parts.
Nicholson called for schools, playgrounds, childcare facilities and even museums to be more like the beach: open-ended environments filled with loose parts that can be combined and changed and used for many different purposes. (He was writing at the dawn of hands-on children’s museums. I think we met his challenge!)
Kids can easily get the benefits of loose parts play at home. Loose parts are the simplest and least expensive and most malleable of objects – blocks, clay, sand and water, fabric scraps, pots and pans, shoeboxes, cardboard tubes, paper, tape and string. They don’t come with a story – kids create the stories. They don’t have an on and off switch – kids supply the action. There’s no wrong way to use them – kids make the rules. Loose parts play fosters creativity, resourcefulness, and problem solving. Because it’s self-directed and open-ended, it’s more likely to be sustained. It provides the best kind of learning.
More About Loose Parts Play
- What, why and loose parts in action
- Video: kids do amazing things with a pod full of junk
- Photo essay: kids manipulate their environment using loose parts
- The neuroscience of loose parts play and Imagination Playground