Wednesday, February 10, 2010

theory of loose parts

Have you ever heard of the theory of loose parts? 

I hadn't until recently. 

It sounds like something you would find in an Engineering text book, not literature about play.

It seems that I have been living this theory at preschool without knowing it.

Let me tell you more.  I promise it is more interesting than engineering.

The Theory of Loose Parts

The theory of loose parts has begun to influence child-play experts and playscape designers in a big way. 

It was first proposed back in the 1970's by architect Simon Nicholson, who believed that it is the loose parts in our environment that empower our creativity.

What are Loose Parts?

In a preschool, loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways.

They are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials.

Loose parts can be natural or synthetic. In a preschool outdoor environment we can provide an array of loose parts for use in play:
  • stones,
  • stumps,
  • sand,
  • gravel,
  • fabric,
  • twigs,
  • wood,
  • pallets,
  • balls,
  • buckets,
  • baskets,
  • crates,
  • boxes,
  • logs, 
  •  rope,
  • tyres, 
  • shells and
  • seedpods.

Why Loose Parts?

There are many reasons why play spaces should include a multitude of loose parts, including:
  • Loose parts can be used anyway children choose. 
  • Loose parts can be adapted and manipulated in many ways.   
  • Loose parts encourage creativity and imagination.
  • Loose parts develop more skill and competence than most modern plastic toys
  • Loose parts can be used in many different ways
  • Loose parts can be used in combination with other materials to support imagination
  • Loose parts encourage open ended learning.
  • Children choose loose parts over fancy toys.

Loose Parts in Action

In this image from Places for Play:The Exhibition "small stones have been gathered and are used for play. Little bits of dry wood, branches and twigs are there for making things. The solid frame for the sand pit consists of tree trunks in all shapes and sizes, that are inviting for balancing and mini-climbing."

Teacher Tom is in the process of encouraging the creation of little worlds at his preschool by strewing the space with a vast array of inviting materials such as moss and lichen, logs, wood and broken pottery:

At preschool, Charlie dragged a chair into the sandpit and upended it to provide a handy base for a drum kit:

This box moved all over the playground for days in different reincarnations (boat; bus; girls' base; boys' base; place to eat morning tea) before becoming a nifty slide:

Children don't always use equipment the way the adult world expects them to.  The plastic slide becomes a component of an elaborate ball run in the sandpit:

and my personal favorite, a water slide:

What loose parts do you have in your playspace?

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  1. i so want to move to australia so that my kids can come to your school! my son's preschool had log stepping stones, but someone fell and got a small cut or something and they removed them. sad.

    1. Homeschool instead if it is a fit for your family. Our backyard and even inside is just like this. My kids love creating the oddest but coolest things.

  2. I've never heard of the theory of "loose parts," but it makes so much sense.

    Little World is just a small part of a larger playground effort that our entire parent community is involved in. I had proposed that as a starting point, we should "inventory" what is available in our community as a way to minimize expense. Parents aren't waiting. Instead they bringing in all kinds of things from their backyards, from logs and sticks, to plants and scrap construction materials. As the things are arriving -- often without warning -- I'm finding our outdoor play area transformed just by the presence of these objects that have no purpose yet, at least from the adult perspective. Amazing.

  3. Hi Tom - I'd never heard of it either but it kept popping up in all the reading I've been doing about outdoor play so thought I'd best investigate what all the fuss was about! Turns out we have been living the theory already because you are so right - it just makes sense. Thats so great about parents bringing stuff in for the little worlds. You do realise I'm watching watching watching to see how it all unfolds :) Looking forward to doing at our place as soon as the dust settles.

    And Danita - we would love to have you if you lived here! My son broke his arm on Tuesday at school playing "bull rush" (don't know if you have it - a chasing game) when he literally hit the wall. But I would hate it if the game was to be banned because of this. Active kids have accidents - always have, always will. (And he is proud as punch about his plaster cast!)

  4. Dear Jenny,
    Your blog is very terrific, interesting and beatiful. I just found your blog site while I was searching for a book chapter study of mine. I study in a Book Chapter titled “Outdoor Playgrounds and External Features of Early Childhood Education Buildings” in a Turkish book edited by Prof. Dr. Fatma Alisinanoglu (Gazi University, Ankara) for early childhood educators and researchers. Your blog is very useful resource for me.

    I would be grateful if you could give me permission to use the pictures of the “Theory of Loose Parts”. If you give me permission to refer, I would be happy to share the book chapter with you after publication.
    Thank you in advance,

    Best Regards

    Nilgun Cevher-Kalburan
    Res. Assist. Dr.
    Pamukkale University
    Education Faculty
    Early Childhood Education Department

  5. Nilgun, what an honour. Would I be able to have your email address so that I can send you a reply?

  6. Jenny, thank you very much for your concern and consent to me. My e-mail address is following:

    I look forward your mail.



  7. Dear Jenny,

    At the end of the book chapter I told you about, I will present my special thanks to the related persons who contributed to my study. You are one of them. However, I do not know how to address your name. I mean, I couldn't find your last name. How should I write your name down? Like Ms/Mrs. Jenny Last Name?


  8. Wondering how to start? Think I pull this off with those 18 months and older or wait to a certain age?

  9. This would make a great training for childcare providers, center directors and staff.
    Thank you!

  10. Loose Parts = the new buzzword for something that has been around for a century now - Waldorf Education.

  11. Loose parts have been around as long as children have played with sticks, stones, mud, and and water but sometimes it does help to give something a name.
    OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning

  12. Loose parts have been the favorite play things for children ever since they first used mud, sticks, rocks, sand and water, however I think it can help to give things a name and a theory. It helped me to develop the idea for PlayPods in England.

  13. Thank you for this post on the theory of loose parts! I linked it to a recent post of mine at

  14. I just LOVE this and wish it was more well known and used! You have been a great inspiration to me! I recently wrote a post and mentioned your site in it. Feel free to take a look if you like! We haven't done anything outside yet due to the weather, but I can't wait to!
    Here it is:
    Have a good weekend!