Loose Parts Basics
Though architect Simon Nicholson developed the “Theory of Loose Parts” over 40 years ago in 1972, the theory and movement has recently gained new momentum as parents and educators return to natural materials and environments to support children’s learning and creativity.
For young children, loose parts are simply materials that can be moved, arranged, manipulated, stacked, carried or combined in multiple ways. Loose parts are the most effective tool for providing open-ended play opportunities where children do not use any specific set of directions or instructions for how to interact with the materials that are available. Explaining the basis of his theory, Nicholson stated, “Children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.”
Both synthetic and natural materials can be included in a loose parts collection, though the bulk of what you will typically find in a loose parts center should tend toward natural materials. Here is a list of some ideas for parts to include in an outdoor loose parts learning environment:
Stones and pebbles
Sticks and logs
Twine or rope
Opportunities for Learning and Development
One thing that many commercial toys lack is the opportunity for children to look at the toy as anything but what it’s been molded and marketed as. A battery operated toy microphone, for instance, is difficult to imagine as anything else; especially when the microphone is made of plastic, plays loud sounds and has been so specifically constructed. Loose parts, on the other hand, allow children to look at an object not as what it literally is, but as something that could be nearly anything that the child can imagine.
Open-ended play and loose parts not only encourage creative thinking; but also the development of sensory awareness and the opportunity for children to discover and master their environments. The autonomy that children gain through loose parts construction and exploration will support the child in building mental flexibility and adaptability as the child uses increasingly complex problem solving skills over time.
What’s most remarkable about loose parts play is that it supports learning in every single learning domain; language and literacy, science, math, art, music and physical fitness. An outdoor classroom with loose parts will:
Provide children with exposure to a broader range of vocabulary
provoke the child to construct higher order inquisitions about scientific processes and concepts; like life cycles, weather patterns and nature’s interdependent structure
challenge the child to use new strategies for accomplishing physical and mental tasks independently
Encourage gross motor development through ‘heavy work;’ pushing, pulling, lifting and rolling
Where to Start
Once caregivers and educators have decided to provide loose parts play opportunities, there may be some wonder about how to choose materials and whether the children will even be interested in the ‘new toys’ that have been offered.
Gathering materials must be done thoughtfully to ensure that there are a variety of sizes, shapes, textures and materials available. Quantities of each material should reflect the number of children that will be using the loose parts, and each different category of material should have its own space or storage so that all of the materials are organized, visually appealing and accessible to the children who will use them. A disheveled pile of sticks and rocks is very difficult to imagine as construction material; a basket of stones and crate of sticks, however, are much more likely to be selected by children who want to build a fort.
Outdoor learning specialist and loose parts advocate, Patty Born Selly, encourages parents and teachers to also be patient, and remember that “Chances are, these children have become accustomed to electronic toys or action figures.” If children seem confused about how to use the loose parts that are now being offered, or do not have an automatic attraction to the materials; parents and educators can serve as guides for the child as they become familiar with the new loose parts by using prompting questions (“What does the shape of this rock remind you of?”) or by modeling how to use the loose parts themselves. Once children see how one can build a town or racetrack from sticks and differently sized stones, the students will ask questions and engage because the teacher’s behavior alone is welcoming the children to explore. Soon, the instructor’s town is a distant memory as the children have become confident with their new materials and are now constructing a playground for the ants they’ve found nearby.