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!



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