The Theory of Loose Parts

The Theory of Loose Parts - An Everyday Story‘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, Architect

In 1972, architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts; the idea that loose parts, materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and tinkered with; create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments. Basically, the more materials there are the more people can interact.

Think about a gallery or a museum, which exhibits are you more drawn to: the paintings on blank walls or the interactive pieces? While the paintings are undoubtedly beautiful or invoking in some way, it is always the interactive exhibitions, the ones which I can engage with physically which draw my attention, inviting me to come and experiment.

As an architect, Nicholson was talking mostly about playground and school design and rethinking the static play equipment and environments, proposing instead one incorporating loose materials to engage children’s natural creativity and inventiveness.

Small world play scene using natural materials from An Everyday StoryMuch like Malaguzzi said, Nicholson also believed that creativity was not for the gifted few, that all children are born as creative beings, curious about the world and keen to experiment and discover new things.

‘Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few.’

‘This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.’ (The Theory of Loose Parts: An important principle for design methodology, 1972)

The Theory of Loose Parts - An Everyday StoryIt reminds me of Malaguzzi’s image of the child. If you believe the child to be inquisitive and creative, competent and capable, intelligent and whole, then you will create environments which reflect this.

‘Children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.’

I think what Nicholson is saying here is, an environment which is rich in open-ended materials and real materials,  invokes children to experiment, engage, construct and invent; invites them to tinker, to manipulate and to play.

Reggio activities with mirrors and loose parts - An Everyday StoryNicholson encourages us to think; how much of this material/activity/toy have I invented (or been invented by another)? And how much can the child invent?

We need to tip the scales in favour of the child. Leave room for the child to invent, to re-invent, to deconstruct; to be creative.

This is the theory of loose parts.

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You can read Nicholson’s paper here. I particularly like how it reflects the time in which it was written (early 70’s) and how he predicts the nature of schools in the future:

The whole education system, from preschool to university, is on the verge of changing: for who needs these institutions in their present form?

I wonder if things have changed as much 40 years later as he had hoped…

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23 comments on “The Theory of Loose Parts”

  1. katepickle Reply

    We adore loose parts here… so lovely to read some information and theories about why it is so great.

    Oh and I love those little felt balls… they are amazing!

    • An Everyday Story Reply

      Aren’t they beautiful? I got them from ZartArt. They come in a range of colours for all the seasons. And I don’t think they were too dear either.

  2. Stephanie@Twodaloo Reply

    Something about loose parts always makes me excited even as an adult- I think it’s all the possibilities that exist in the beautiful bins and piles of materials. Wonderful post!

  3. Kelly Reply

    Thank you for sharing such interesting information about the theory of loose parts. I agree that we do need to leave room for children to invent, and I love seeing your photos of your spaces at home. Very inspiring! I’ve recently moved most of the art/craft supplies to be at a level where the kids can get to them (not all, but lots anyway) and I am already noticing different creating going on, based on all the loose parts available to them!

  4. the monko Reply

    We have lots of accessible lose parts that, as you say, encourage creativity, but I’d never known there was a theory behind it. Thanks for enlightening me. My favourite lose parts are flat marbles, they are so pretty. But goblins favourites are branch blocks our wooden blocks so he can build stuff. I’m sharing your post on my fb page (I thought I’d let you know because I’m doing it in my phone do I can’t tag your page). I love your stuff coming up on my feed, you are one of the few blogs I have in my personal as well as blog page feed

  5. fromamummysheart Reply

    Absolutely love The Theory of Loose Parts. A very well written piece! I read someone else’s blog post on it a good few months ago now, and we are hoping to incorporate an area into the outdoor space for our daughter to dig in mud and have some tree branches and rocks and stuff that she can move around and create with. Also I have come up against perplexed looks and questions as I do not buy her toys like other people think of toys lol, but she’d rather play with a teapot and fill it and empty it over and over than a plastic toy with all its flashy lights and noises. I’m not sure how much the education system has changed yet, but at least in the UK there is definitely an undercurrent of increasing change as more and more parents sit up and take stock and decide they can educate their children far better at home and at home their children are free to be as creative as they wish and not have it stifled because they must conform to a set curriculum 🙂

  6. Bek @ Justfordaisy Reply

    I absolutely love this post. The theory of loose parts is what inspired me to create an outdoor playscape for my daughter that was non traditional and more focussed on the environment and a collection of loose parts. Thank you for providing more insight and such delightful images!

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