The Theory of Loose Parts

What are Loose Parts?

If you are someone who is interested in play, or early years education, then you may have come across the term Loose Parts. This is a term coined by architect Simon Nicholson in his 1971 article How NOT to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts. It can refer to both large, outdoor equipment and smaller items more suited to indoor play. Loose parts are ordinary, open ended items which children can use in many kinds of different ways. They are not provided with any specific purpose in mind, and can often be gathered from the natural environment, found in your recycling bin, or else bought very cheaply.

Why are they such a valuable resource?

The more my children use loose parts, the more I appreciate their value. They are so versatile, and with a bit of imagination, they can become anything. They offer limitless opportunities for play. Their role and purpose in the play can be altered and adapted as the play develops, enabling the children to take their games in any direction they choose. Providing such versatile resources inspires curiosity, innovation and creativity in the children, and in my experience, gives them much more engaging and rich play experiences. Nicholson says that the theory of loose parts is as follows:

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.

Simon Nicholson (1971) How NOT to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts

How can I use Loose Parts?

How can’t you use them?! Once you start thinking about it, loose parts can be used in any number of ways! They can be props for role play, tools for experiments and investigations, game-pieces, or become pieces of art! I’ll share with you two of the ways we use them most frequently in our home.

Small World Play

We love using loose parts to create ‘small worlds‘! They help to make small world so much more inviting and engaging, and really open up the play possibilities. As an example, T and I recently made a farm scene together. We could have simply put out her barn and farm animals, which she would have played with for an hour, at a push, before tiring of it. Instead, we had a look through our loose parts and T chose some crushed weetabix; a sensory scarf; glass pebbles; sticks and wood slices; star anise; and pieces of cedar cone and the play went on and on for four days! She had so many ideas for how she wanted to use the loose parts and as storylines developed in her head, the loose parts were used to play those storylines out.

Playdough

Regular readers of this blog will know that playdough is one of my absolute favourite play resources! Much like loose parts, one of the great things about playdough is it’s versatility! I love pairing the two together, and seeing how the children play. Some times we have a theme (for example, this Arctic Playdough setup) and sometimes I just choose a range of resources and see where they take it. Either way, the inclusion of loose parts makes for some really enriching, engaged play.

What kinds of things should I be looking for?

Almost anything can be used for loose parts play, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money. The natural world is a great place to start – here you can find cones, pebbles, sticks, seeds, shells, all of which make great play resources. Another good place to look is your recycling bin – bottle lids and cardboard tubes are fun items. You might find other items in charity shops or craft stores. If you’re after outside resources, then things such as crates, planks of wood, guttering and tyres provide lots of opportunities for creative play and exploration! Once you start looking for loose parts, you’ll find that you see them all over the place! Of course, do be mindful that small items present a choking hazard and should not be used with very young children (for children under eighteen months, why not try a treasure basket instead?). Additionally, when collecting natural items, make sure you know what you are collecting, as some items may be poisonous. Here are some of the resources which we’ve collected over the past couple of years:

Learning through Loose Parts Play

Because loose parts facilitate such a broad range of play, they can also contribute to a wide range of learning opportunities. Here are just a few examples:

Maths

Loose parts can be sorted, classified, counted, weighed, used to create patterns; used to develop one-to-one correspondence; measured or used to measure.

Literacy and Language

One of the stand-out benefits of loose parts play in our home has been the stories that have been inspired while playing with loose parts. T has a ‘quiet time’ each afternoon and playing with loose parts (or the addition of loose parts to something else) is often how she chooses to spend it. It’s not uncommon for me to spend a minute or two eavesdropping on her play to hear the stories she’s narrating! As well as the creative element of this, I hear her incorporating newly-learned words in to her storytelling as well as phrases and vocabulary she’s collected from stories that we have read.

Science

Loose parts are great for exploring scientific concepts such as forces (e.g. friction or gravity), sound and magnetism.

Physical Development

Depending on the resources available, both gross and fine motor skills may be developed. With larger resources such as crates, planks and tyres, children will develop large muscle movements, and may practise skills such as balance, jumping, and co-ordination. With smaller items, they can practise fine motor skills. I often include scoops or tongs with our loose parts for the children to use.

Creativity

In addition to the storytelling which I often find comes with loose parts, they can be used to inspire so much other creative play. Even deciding what they represent is a creation in itself!

• Role Play

Use loose parts in role play – they can be money, treasure, medicine, moon rocks. You name it!

• Music

Loose parts can be used to explore sound and see how different items and materials produce sound. Try putting a few different items in to a number of containers and shaking them. How does the sound differ? Stretch some elastic bands over an empty tub and see what sound they make when you pluck them. Take a stick and hit things*! Can you make a rhythm?

*not siblings, parents, friends or the television!

• Art

Something we do occasionally but definitely need to do more of is transient art! This is temporary art made of objects which are later cleared away and reused. Loose parts are ideal for this! Try collecting some items next time you’re out for a walk, and make something together before you go home.

black fabric with a variety of loose parts arranged to look like fireworks exploding
Transient art on a firework theme

Play with loose parts has a huge amount to offer. As I explained at the start of this article, their versatility is what makes them such a valuable resource. They offer so many learning opportunities, and these are offered through play and exploration, rather than formal learning activities. This is always my preference with T – I love to see how she develops through playful learning experiences. As Nicholson states in his original article:

In early childhood, there is no important difference between play and work, art and science, recreation and education – the either/or classifications normally applied by adults to a child’s environment. Education is recreation, and vice versa.

Simon Nicholson (1971) How NOT to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts

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