‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.’ ~ Simon Nicholson, Architect
In 1972, architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts; the idea that loose parts, materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and tinkered with; create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments. Basically, the more materials there are the more people can interact.
Think about a gallery or a museum, which exhibits are you more drawn to: the paintings on blank walls or the interactive pieces? While the paintings are undoubtedly beautiful or invoking in some way, it is always the interactive exhibitions, the ones which I can engage with physically which draw my attention, inviting me to come and experiment.
As an architect, Nicholson was talking mostly about playground and school design and rethinking the static play equipment and environments, proposing instead one incorporating loose materials to engage children’s natural creativity and inventiveness.
Much like Malaguzzi said, Nicholson also believed that creativity was not for the gifted few, that all children are born as creative beings, curious about the world and keen to experiment and discover new things.
‘Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few.’
‘This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.’ (The Theory of Loose Parts: An important principle for design methodology, 1972)
It reminds me of Montessori and Malaguzzi’s image of the child. If you believe the child to be inquisitive and creative, competent and capable, intelligent and whole, then you will create environments which reflect this.
‘Children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.’
I think what Nicholson is saying here is, an environment which is rich in open-ended materials and real materials, invokes children to experiment, engage, construct and invent; invites them to tinker, to manipulate and to play.
We need to tip the scales in favour of the child. Leave room for the child to invent, to re-invent, to deconstruct; to be creative.
This is the theory of loose parts.
You can read Nicholson’s paper here. I particularly like how it reflects the time in which it was written (early 70’s) and how he predicts the nature of schools in the future:
The whole education system, from preschool to university, is on the verge of changing: for who needs these institutions in their present form?
I wonder if things have changed as much 40 years later as he had hoped…