What is the “Theory of Loose Parts”?

loosepartsIf you think that “loose parts” sounds like something you’d find scattered all over the garage floor after taking something apart and not putting it back together quite the same way that it fell apart, you’re actually not to far off.  Loose parts, in play, are items (materials) that can be lined up, moved, carried, rearranged, taken apart and put back together in a seemingly infinite number of combinations. Architect Simon Nicholson first proposed the “theory of loose parts” back in the 1970’s. These materials have no set of instructions that dictate usage (the “correct” way to use them; like in the way a Lego set, though a creative material, comes with a manual on “how to build the picture on the box”). Have you ever given your child an amazing toy and all they want to do is play with the box that it came in? Children are already wired for loose parts play, though most people don’t recognize it!

What qualifies as a loose part? Does it have to be super tiny and make a horrible clacking noise when my vacuum finds it? Nope! Though, fair warning to loose parts newbies, there is often a lot of cleaning up involved because loose materials end up used in ways and in places you would likely never expect them to be.  However, when children combine materials and even change building sites in imaginative and creative ways, it is the adults responsibility to encourage their work and ideas and to not impose limits that would stifle them. If you aren’t the type of person that can handle an array of items littering your play areas, loose parts are NOT for you and will likely be an extremely stressful experience.

Loose parts can be synthetic or natural. Some examples of loose parts one could use in a preschool environment are flowers, cardboard tubes, corks, sand, stones, gravel, fabric, sticks & twigs, stumps, boxes, pine cones, buckets, baskets, and cups. You can set out lumber, balls, branches, and string. The loose parts can be combined with other materials or used alone. The beauty of loose parts is that children can use the resources as they choose which can provide a wider range of opportunities than an environment that is purely adult led. Using loose parts allows a child to play with more creativity and imagination, while simultaneously developing more competence and skill than playing with most modern plastic toys. Children are able to play, experiment and express ideas according to their own developmental level. All children(infants included!!), according to this theory, are scientists. They are attempting to figure out how their environment works and are completely competent enough to do so, IF the adults are able to step back and watch.

If you’ve decided that utilizing loose parts sounds fabulous to you, here are a few suggestions to get you started…

  • Loose parts should be regularly replenished, added to and changed to maintain interest
  • Be accessible physically and stored where they can be reached by children without having to ask the adult.
  • The children should know that they can use them whenever and however they desire
  • The loose parts should have no defined use and the adult must support the children when they decide to change the shape or use of them

Otherwise, the sky’s the limit! Set out some loose parts and watch the magic take place. Try not to co-play with the children, but rather observe what they are working on. Ask questions, probe for what their ideas are…you’ll be AMAZED at what’s going on in their heads.

Do you have your own loose parts story? Did you try it for the first time after reading this article? Send me a message or leave a comment! I’d love to know what your ideas are!



Behavior Management: I’m Sorry


You need to tell her you’re sorry.

No, I won’t.

You have to, you hurt her feelings.


Has anyone ever had this battle? I’m almost willing to bet that nearly every parent and caregiver has come across this scenario more than once. As adults, we feel it’s our moral obligation to have a child apologize to a other when they hurt someone either physically or emotionally. For years, my first instinct was to have the other apologize. I have since changed my view in this after one little girl I was care taking for opened my eyes.

It was a beautiful afternoon last fall. The children were playing outside before lunch and as we got ready to come inside one of the littlest girls got bumped. I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose, it rarely happens with malice. It was likely, in the eyes of the bumper, done because he wanted her to enter the house faster and he was stuck behind her. A little bump would speed up the process. He didn’t bump her to cause injury. Does that make it okay? No, it doesn’t. Down she went. She banged her knee on the padded mats on the floor of our screened porch. No cut, no physical bruise, just a bruised ego. She cried. The other child walked on past to get in line to wash hands.

After checking on the bumped and passing out our beloved frozen “boo boo bear”, I sought out the bumper…who was waiting patiently in line to wash his hands. As I had always done in the past, I brought him back to the scene of the incident, pointed out that someone was hurt and asked him to apologize. He said “no”. I pushed a bit further until an “I’m sorry” was muttered.

Lunch had come and gone by the time the little girl who was bumped found her voice and told the bumper that she was upset with him and didn’t want to play with him. She was angry. He replied “I said I’m sorry!” And her only reply was “Sorry doesn’t make me feel better! My knee hurts!” The little boy looked on in wonder. Wasn’t sorry the magic cure-all phrase? After all, a trusted grownup practically forced him to apologize, it must mean something. He was genuinely confused. I felt awful. I had completely let down both children.

She was right, I’m sorry is NOT the magic spell to make all right in the world. If it was the world would be an entirely different place. We can still be angry or hurt (both emotionally or physically) long after someone says sorry. A forced apology is not sincere because it wasn’t initiated by the child (and surprisingly most children can pickup on an insincere apology) and it did not come from the child’s own problem solving abilities. My approach changed immediately since that incident despite all that I had seen and learned in child care settings and schools for the past 15 years.

Instead of automatically requesting an apology from the child that hurt the other, we specifically work together to problem solve what they could do to make the other child feel better. It is up to the child to decide what he/she feels is appropriate. Perhaps it’s giving their friend a hug, drawing them a picture or giving them a favorite toy. The child is the one that comes up with the ideas and makes the best choice for them. If the child feels remorse and suggests that they apologize (this actually does happen quite frequently with the older kids) they will apologize. This approach provides the tools for the child to figure out their own way to help a friend feel better or improve the situation independently in the future. Creating this tool kit allows the child to think back on other instances where they needed these skills and allows them to make a good choice on their own. Practice makes better (not perfect, nothing is perfect).