In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article for a magazine called Landscape Architecture entitled “How Not to Treat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play.” A key aspect of Nicholson’s thinking was that “all children love to interact with variables, such as materials and shapes; smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism, and gravity; media such as gases and fluids; sounds, music, and motion; chemical interactions, cooking, and fire; and other people, and animals, plants, words, concepts, and ideas. With all these things all children love to play, experiment, discover, and invent and have fun.”
In the nearly 50 years since this article was published, the idea has grown, and more and more early childhood educators have made Nicholson’s theory a centerpiece of their play-based programs.
That the theory emerged from architecture is fascinating: It echoes, in a way, the work of Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi, who postulated that children have three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment—the realm of architecture. As Nicholson wrote, “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.”
He wasn’t talking exclusively about early childhood, but about educational environments in general. He included playgrounds and classrooms, but also places for all ages, like museums and libraries. His big idea was that we are most inventive and creative when we’re allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments, arguing that when we leave the design of spaces to professionals, we are, in effect, excluding children (and adults) from the most important, and fun, part of the process. We are, to use his word, “stealing” it from the children.
Loose Parts Play Is About More Than the Parts
Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, even those working in highly structured environments, knows this point about inventiveness and creativity to be true. None of us would, for instance, build a block structure for the children and expect them to learn anything by merely looking at it and listening to us lecture. We know the children must take those blocks in hand, must both construct and deconstruct, must experiment, test, and manipulate. We also know that their play, and therefore their learning, is expanded as we add more and varied materials to their environment.
The theory of loose parts applies that principle of building blocks to the entire environment, encouraging us to let go of our ideas of how a learning environment is supposed to be and to instead fill it with variables—things that can be moved, manipulated, and transported.
It’s important to remember that Nicholson’s theory continues to be a radical one, even as aspects of it become more mainstream. This is about more than toilet paper tubes and clothespins. It’s about more than old tires, shipping pallets, and wood planks. At its core, the theory of loose parts is a theory about democracy, about self-governance and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups to come together to shape their world according to their own vision.
The world is always ours to shape, and when we’re not shaping it, it’s shaping us. Nicholson’s insight was that our environment is too often a kind of dictator, one that is restricting rather than expanding our possibilities. As educators work with the “third teacher,” it’s important that we keep this in mind and always ask ourselves, “Is this stealing the fun from the children?” As loose parts play has entered the mainstream of early childhood education, we do need to remember to ask this core question.
I’m happy the concept of loose parts play has taken the early childhood world by storm these past few years. It seems like not a day goes by that I don’t discover a website dedicated to loose parts play, or a loose parts workshop for teachers, or a new book that will help us better understand it. Of course, it’s an idea that predates Nicholson, having been around since the advent of children, one that was once just implied in our standard understanding of play: When left to their own devices, kids tend to pick up whatever is at hand and goof around with it. But in the modern era, we have mainly used toys manufactured specifically for children as the hub around which play revolved.
Children continued to play with loose parts—some of which were these toys, broken, modified, or otherwise—but we adults lost sight of that. And as toys became cheaper, our homes and classrooms have come to be overwhelmed with them. But even now, children continue their loose parts play, often ignoring the actual toys. Who among us hasn’t joked that kids prefer the boxes the toys came in over the toys themselves?
Loose Parts Are Everywhere, and Free
So yes, I’m pleased that there is a renewed focus on the open-endedness of things like rocks and sticks and pine cones, of toilet paper tubes and mint tins and yoghurt containers, of old tires and planks of wood and house gutters. But I worry that in our embrace of loose parts play, we’re concentrating too much on the loose parts and not enough on the play. I worry when I hear teachers fussing about their loose parts collection, hovering over the children lest they damage or misuse or lose the precious loose parts.
The children I’ve taught have always been engaged in loose parts play, but I rarely use the term—I usually just call it junk or maybe debris. Whatever it’s called, the key element is that we don’t pay for it and have no concerns that it will be damaged, misused, or lost. Most of what you’ll find on our playground came either from the earth or from the garages, attics, and recycling bins of the families who have enrolled their children. I often say that one of the functions of preschools isn’t to use stuff, but to finish using it. We still have toys around, but most of them are broken in some way—the cars have lost wheels, the dolls have lost their heads, and the balls have lost their shape. These items lend themselves to “inventiveness and creativity,” as Nicholson noted.
We don’t need to go shopping for these things, and we don’t need to “teach” children how to play with them. Our world is already abundant with loose parts. Recycling bins are full of them, families’ cellars are chockablock. A broken toy is often much better than a new one. We can simply make junk available and step out of the way. This is how we ensure we’re not stealing the fun, and therefore the opportunity to learn, from the kids.