The Theory of Loose Parts

The Theory of Loose Parts - An Everyday Story‘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.

Small world play scene using natural materials from An Everyday StoryMuch 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)

The Theory of Loose Parts - An Everyday StoryIt 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.

Reggio activities with mirrors and loose parts - An Everyday StoryNicholson encourages us to think; how much of this material/activity/toy have I invented (or been invented by another)? And how much can the child invent?

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…

22 thoughts on “The Theory of Loose Parts

  1. We adore loose parts here… so lovely to read some information and theories about why it is so great.

    Oh and I love those little felt balls… they are amazing!

  2. Thank you for sharing such interesting information about the theory of loose parts. I agree that we do need to leave room for children to invent, and I love seeing your photos of your spaces at home. Very inspiring! I’ve recently moved most of the art/craft supplies to be at a level where the kids can get to them (not all, but lots anyway) and I am already noticing different creating going on, based on all the loose parts available to them!

  3. We have lots of accessible lose parts that, as you say, encourage creativity, but I’d never known there was a theory behind it. Thanks for enlightening me. My favourite lose parts are flat marbles, they are so pretty. But goblins favourites are branch blocks our wooden blocks so he can build stuff. I’m sharing your post on my fb page (I thought I’d let you know because I’m doing it in my phone do I can’t tag your page). I love your stuff coming up on my feed, you are one of the few blogs I have in my personal as well as blog page feed

  4. Absolutely love The Theory of Loose Parts. A very well written piece! I read someone else’s blog post on it a good few months ago now, and we are hoping to incorporate an area into the outdoor space for our daughter to dig in mud and have some tree branches and rocks and stuff that she can move around and create with. Also I have come up against perplexed looks and questions as I do not buy her toys like other people think of toys lol, but she’d rather play with a teapot and fill it and empty it over and over than a plastic toy with all its flashy lights and noises. I’m not sure how much the education system has changed yet, but at least in the UK there is definitely an undercurrent of increasing change as more and more parents sit up and take stock and decide they can educate their children far better at home and at home their children are free to be as creative as they wish and not have it stifled because they must conform to a set curriculum 🙂

  5. I absolutely love this post. The theory of loose parts is what inspired me to create an outdoor playscape for my daughter that was non traditional and more focussed on the environment and a collection of loose parts. Thank you for providing more insight and such delightful images!

  6. Hear! Hear! I work at a small school that defines itself as play-based and while it is more play-based than others it still attempts to define the HOW of the play the children involve themselves in. I tend to lean towars more open ended items for play which tends to confuse my co-workers and parents. I will always do so. Watching the children create their own play is my biggest joy. Thank you for introducing me to Nicholson.

    • i completely understand what you are saying Jessica. Sometimes I have to remind myself when I see the kids playing with something that wasn’t how it was intended that as long as they are respectful with the material, how they choose to play with it is exactly the right way to play with it in that moment. It is hard to let go of those long standing ideas of how something should be approached. I was just thinking about this today as I was going through our play dough tools; very cookie cutter, literally. I am now thinking about how I can present it to them in a more creative way…

  7. Kate — this is a wonderful article! I’m a long-time fan of loose parts. They invite children to explore, invent, and imagine endless possibilities. Not only that, but you are clearly walking the talk, and it’s clear that you’ve seen the benefits of loose parts in action. Bravo on putting together such a thoughtful post.

    • Thanks Rachelle. They really do, don’t they? I was really inspired by how I saw some preschools present loose parts to the children and how they engaged with them; the careful thought they put into the different loose parts as well as other mediums like sand or clay or mud or water. Since then I have really seen the benefits to Jack and Sarah. The play is more their own, their creation. Sometimes it’s frustrating for them because they are working so hard to build or invent something but this just helps them more to problem solve and think more creatively. I really love loose parts

  8. Oh another beautiful and super interesting post about open-ended play. I think I’ve said it before but I REALLY need to think like this. I REALLY need to be more open-ended with my children. I really good read hon, with wonderful information to back up the positives!

    • Thanks Penny 🙂

      I’m sure you have loads of glorious open-ended natural materials around the place. Put them out with some blocks or some fabric scraps or maybe in the play kitchen and see what happens 🙂

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  10. This was such a powerful write up. The writing along with the photographs provide great insight on loose parts, something I believe more educators should understand.

  11. Love, love, love this idea…and I know I have plenty of loose parts around, but I was wondering if anyone had come up with a list of things. For a busy working-mom like myself, it’s easier if I can just look at a list so I know what to look for.

    • There are great photos with ideas, but here is a list of things that are easy to find at the dollar store.

      Sea shells
      Stones, rock, pebbles of all sorts
      Recycled plastic bits like lids and oddly shaped things
      Popsicle sticks
      Glass rocks
      Wood bits

      Hopes that helps 🙂

    • Crystal has some great suggestions and she is right, so many of these things can be picked up cheaply at the dollar store. When I’m thinking about loose parts there are 4 main types I try to include:
      1: things for imaginative play – small animal figurines, stones, small fabric scraps or knitted squares, little cups, spoons, wood chips, blocks that sort of thing
      2: things for making imprints in play dough or clay – buttons, shells, natural materials, spools, bolts, screws, cutters, anything which will make a nice imprint
      3: things for making designs – beads, shells, stones, gems, mosaic tiles, sea glass, wire, natural materials
      4: things for constructing – popsicle sticks, sticks, wire, little wooden cubes, blocks, lego,

      Hope this helps Sara 🙂

  12. Pingback: MakerSpaces, Doodling, and Fanfic: Empowering students to create artifacts in diverse environments – LIBE Diploma Blog 2020

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