In his original October 1971 article outlining the Theory of Loose Parts, Simon Nicholson, explains that loose parts are variables in an environment that spark inventiveness, creativity, and discovery. These environmental variables–ranging from pretty shells, to loose bricks, to seagulls–serve as springboards for explorations, props for play, and tools for discovery. They help children unspool their internal play narratives. A simple cardboard box is a race car, a spaceship, a chance to experience Dark, an opportunity to be alone, a castle, a home for monsters, something to transform with scissors and markers, and more. One reason loose parts are so engaging is because their potential is so wide open and unlimited.
Until we adults start limiting that potential–making loose parts less loose.
Over years of observing play, I’ve noticed that at times well-meaning adults often take steps that break loose parts play. Sometimes it is inadvertent, sometimes it is done for ‘safety’, sometimes it is done to meet an outcome or learning goal. In all cases, it takes control and power away from kids–limiting their play, creativity, and learning.
Let’s take a look at 3 simple ways to keep loose parts play loose:
When we adults try to guide, predict, organize, and limit the way kids use loose parts we make the variables less-variable. For example, placing ramps and balls next to each other in the play space planning/hoping/expecting kids to roll the balls down the ramps and do some STEM learning limits the potential of those materials.
That expectation primes you to redirect the kids back to the right way of using the materials if they stray off your expected course. The ramps become less loose–they can’t be flipped over and used as balance beams, or used to roof a block structure, or used as ninja turtle weapons. Limiting adult expectation on how kids can use materials frees the kids up to follow their own play narratives.
Loose parts should be mobile. Let the loose parts roam. The ramps and balls mentioned above have more play potential when kids can move them where they need them. In the dramatic play area the balls may become oranges, or crystal balls, or Poke Balls, or dinosaur eggs. Outside they may spark games (“Let’s play kickball!”) and contests (“I bet I can throw the fartherest!”). In the Art area they may become a way of applying paint. In that big open area, someone may even decide to roll them down those ramps.
In lots of early learning environments, the blocks must stay in the block area and the dramatic play props have to stay in the dramatic play space. This rule probably makes clean-up easier by limiting the mess, but it also limits play and makes loose parts less loose.
The potential of loose parts is often limited by adult worry. This results in ramps that can’t be moved because someone might drop one on their toe and the balls can’t be thrown because someone might get hit in the head. These efforts to ease our adult worry limit children’s play–the loose parts become less loose. The fretting and worrying also limit learning–including learning how to recover from a sore toe or head bump. One way to fret less is to get in the habit of assessing risk when you worry about something–we’ve put together a form to help with this. It important to keep kids safe, but attempting to avoid all activities that could result in a scratch, scrape, or bump fails to prepare them for life. It’s also important to remember that kids are generally injury adverse–very few of them want to drop a heavy wooden ramp on their toes.
In the end, limiting your adult expectations as to how materials should be used, allowing loose parts to move around as the kids see fit, and fretting less about what could maybe go wrong, empowers kids to be the boss of their own play and guide their own learning. It’s also very empowering–and who doesn’t want to feel a bit more in control and powerful?