The theory of loose parts is the theory that free play using ad hoc daily materials can be beneficial to a child’s mental and physical health.
The concept of the theory of loose parts has been attributed to architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970s. It has been used in playgrounds in the United Kingdom and other areas in Europe as far back as the post-war era.
The Loose Parts of Nature Encourage More Complex Play
The term “loose parts” was coined by the architect Simon Nicholson to describe materials with different properties that can be handled and changed in many ways.
According to the theory, the richness of an environment depends on how strongly people can interact with it and make connections. It was confirmed by specialists in early childhood education.
For example, mussels can play while playing without precise instructions either in a collection, in sand scoops, or saucers.
As a further illustration of the need for open-ended material for children, Joan Almon, the former director of Alliance for Childhood, explained that good children’s toys should only consist of 10% toys and 90% children (quoted from Linn, 2008).
When children are encouraged to develop their ideas from loose parts, they begin to learn. Not only do they ask their questions, but they also develop their answers and discover new opportunities.
Develop Skills with the Theory of Loose Parts
Besides, the game of loose parts evolves with the child’s growing competencies (Daly and Beloglovsky, 2015), which offers opportunities for various creative ways of solving problems.
The natural environment offers children in all their simplicity and complexity a variety of experiences to play and learn. Nature creates a wide range of loose parts with patterns and sequences that cannot be easily imitated with artificial material.
Just think of the intricate patterns of a pine cone or the spirals of an opening fern. Just as remarkable is tree bark with its variety of textures and the numerous insects it offers a home.
These relationships can be discovered, checked, and understood reasonably – as is best for children to learn. Thanks to its higher level of complexity and diversity, nature offers materials for longer and more complex play (White and Stoecklin, 2014).
Nicholson’s Theory – The Theory of Loose Parts
The architect Simon Nicholson first spoke of the theory of loose parts in 1972. He assumed that it was the free parts of our environment that developed our creativity. According to him, free parts that can be moved, designed, redesigned, and reworked created infinitely more opportunities to develop creativity than static materials. Overall, the more materials there are, the more people can interact.
What Did He Do To Prove the Theory of Loose Parts?
Nicholson is an architect, who essentially redesigned the playground equipment, replacing the static play equipment with fusing free parts to bring about the children’s natural creativity and their inventive spirit.
Nicholson believed that creativity is not a gift that few people have. He assumed that all children are creative, curious about the world, and extremely motivated to experiment and discover new things.
If you consider the child as curious and creative, competent and capable, intelligent, and full, you create environments that this reflects. Children learn more easily in a laboratory environment where they can experiment, have fun, and discover things that interest them. An environment rich in open and real material invites children to experiment, build, invent, tinker, manipulate, and play.
And the Results Were…
Nicholson encourages us to rethink the environment for children. How much of this material activity toy makes it possible to invent or was invented by another? How innovative can a child be?
We must tip the scales in favor of children. Leave room for each of them to invent, divert, reinvent, deconstruct, and let their creativity flourish. This is the theory of loose parts.
What Can We Categorize as Loose Parts?
For preschoolers (less than 6 years old), the loose parts are the elements that can be moved, worn, combined, redesigned, aligned, diverted, disassembled, and recombined again together.
These are materials or objects without a specific set that can be used alone or combined with other materials. They can be natural or synthetic. They can be offered to children for free play.
Some examples: Sand, feathers, gravel, fabrics, twigs, wood, balls, buckets, baskets, crates, boxes, newspapers, tires, pods, shells, pine cones, cubes, bags, etc. The list is of course far to be exhaustive!
There are many reasons to include free rooms in the children’s play area:
- Free rooms can be used the way children want and adapt to many games.
- They promote creativity and imagination.
- They develop many more skills and competences than most modern plastic toys.
- They can be adapted and manipulated in an almost unlimited way.
- They encourage open-ended learning.
- Children themselves often choose free parts as a priority over-elaborate toys.
- The free pieces are pretty and poetic.
- Most of them are cheap, or even often free!
Children don’t always use things the way adults expect them to. The free pieces can sometimes be completely diverted to become the support of a game. (For example, a scarf can be in turn a head covering, a blanket, a hammock for dolls, a rope, etc., without limit)
The more the theory of loose parts moves in with you, the more important is their sensible, clear accommodation. I would keep the currently available offer clear, especially for smaller children, otherwise, 1001 small parts fly around quickly.
On the other hand, more than one type of loose parts is extremely inviting for sorting and other activities, as well as stimulating the creative game ideas. However, the accommodation and presentation of these treasures go beyond this article – if you are interested, I would be happy to write about them separately.
In conclusion, I would simply like to invite you to pay attention to how this kind of play material is received by your children. Maybe it looks just as attractive as it does with us? Have fun with it!