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…

A New Art Experience: Gooey Glitter Paint

This was a new experience for Jack. My friend Jess (she writes a lovely blog called Little Cricket) put me on to it. She brought it as an activity to our Reggio-inspired playgroup. It’s non-toxic wallpaper paste and food colouring.

Although Jess’ looked a little different to ours, I think I may have added a little too much powder to the water when I was making the paste. Instead of nice flowing paint we ended up with this gel-like substance. Not to worry though.

My kids like to blend all the paint together. So I like to help them choose two colours which go well together and then make up a few different shades in each colour. This way when they blend the colours the result is still aesthetically pleasing rather than a big brown blah. Today was two different shades of green and blue.

And I finally delved into the world of glitter (thank you Anna) to make up these wonderfully gooey glitter paints.

A little bit of painting but mostly exploring. This is what usually happens when Jack experiences a new paint or art medium. He squeezes it between his fingers, rubs it on his hands, all the while finding out what this paint does; how it moves.

This type of experience is what I like most about open-ended Reggio-inspired art. The time and space to explore without expectation to create.

I have to say, I almost didn’t post this activity. You should have seen the state of Jack’s clothes after he had finished! I thought for sure it wasn’t going to wash out. Not that it mattered,  he was wearing old clothes (we don’t have smocks) but I didn’t want you guys trying it and having stained clothes. But amazingly it washed straight out, no stains, nothing. So give it a go.

A happy accident of too much powder in the wallpaper paste mix, a little glitter and you get gooey glitter paint. Another one for us to add to our outdoor art activities.

Getting Started: Montessori & Reggio Updated

Hi all,

Just wanted to let you know that I have updated the Getting Started: Montessori and Getting Started: Reggio at Home pages. They now have drop-down menus and links to different posts throughout each page. Hopefully this makes the information more easily accessible. There’s still some work to be done, but for now, please let me know what you think.

Hope you’re all having a great week. I’m looking forward to seeing a friend whom I haven’t seen in way too long.

All good things folks,


Finding Art in Nature: Starry Night

We were playing in the bush out the back the other day and we stumbled across this fallen tree. Jack (3.5yrs) was climbing over it when he stopped. He was staring at the bark, ran his fingers over it and said, “Mummy, this tree is just like Starry Night in Vincent’s Colours.’ It was such a beautiful observation.

We have this amazing book called Vincent’s Colors. It is a picture book of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous works with a description in his own words.  We’ve been reading it a lot lately and so this is how Jack made the connection.

This is the tree, can you see it there in the picture?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a child again and be awed by something as simple as a fallen tree? To find one of the great masterpieces in its bark? After a little bit of tugging, we managed to pry some loose and took some of this gorgeous swirly bark home with us.
Today Jack and Sarah (18 mths) used the bark as inspiration for some watercolour painting. Jack and I talked about the colours in the painting, and after choosing his colours, we talked about what originally inspired Jack to see Starry Night in the bark; the swirls. I showed Jack how to use the brush gently, so as not to squash the bristles, and get good contact with the paper.

‘You have to push gently to draw the stars. See they go round and round.’

They painted beautifully, peacefully, creating their artwork. In van Gogh’s words,

‘and in my head a starry night’

Getting Started: Reggio at Home

I’ve added a new page, Getting Started: Reggio at Home. The Reggio Emilia Approach inspires a lot of the activities we do here. Jack (3.5yrs) really responds well to this kind of hands-on discovery based learning. At the moment he is enjoying learning about the Solar System. This interest started with a trip to the library, since then his interest has continued to grow and we have been doing a number of different activities to allow him to delve deeper and learn more. Tonight we are looking forward to visiting the Observatory for a public viewing night.

I’ve also started to offer Sarah (15mths) Reggio-inspired activities. With toddlers, the approach really is very emergent, you notice them showing an interest in something, then offer them an activity to explore this further. She is very interested in her own reflection at the moment and so we have been doing quite a few activities using mirrors.

At the moment the Getting Started: Reggio at Home page has some of the fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia Approach along with some of the similarities to Montessori. I hope to continue to add to the page with suggestions on how to start child-led projects with your children, some of the materials commonly (but not essentially) found in a Reggio-inspired home and developing Reggio-inspired open-ended activities which encourage discovery.

Hope you like it.

Reggio: Mixed Media Art – Exploring with Plastic Wrap

Art is a significant part of the Reggio Emilia Approach. However it’s not the creation of art which is the focus, it’s the use of art as a medium to represent children’s thinking, encourage investigation and experimentation; to make the child’s learning visible to others and themselves. It’s using art to show how the child is feeling, what they are experiencing, what thoughts are in the front of their mind, what connections they are making with previous experiences.

I am abysmally artistically-challenged and before I became interested in Reggio, hadn’t really given much thought to art and it’s capacity to portray and evoke thoughts, emotions, ideas…which now as I write this, seems silly because that it exactly what art is!

I am however really enjoying learning about different art mediums and techniques (very basic at this stage) and thinking about ways Jack can use these mediums and techniques to make his thinking visible. Along with representing thought in increasingly complex ways, it’s essential that Jack has lots of exposure to different mediums so he can learn how to manipulate them, experiment with different techniques, just see what happens. He is comfortable with chalk, felt pens, oil pastels (used as crayons), coloured and lead pencils, glue and clay. However, except for clay where he has started to incorporate other items like wire, he generally uses them in isolation and doesn’t tend to mix mediums.

I’ve been doing some reading on Mixed Media Art; working with more than one medium. So ink and collage or a canvas with paint and photographs. I was watching a really inspiring show on contemporary artists and some of the different mediums  they used to create their artworks. So much potential for expression. Now, people out there with an iota of artistic ability will know this already, but like I said, this is a new playing field for me.

So today we tried some mixed media art; paint and plastic wrap. I was originally inspired by an artist using mist stray bottles (like small toiletry bottles) filled with ink and some plastic wrap. However not having any ink I decided to go with paint. The artist sprayed different coloured inks over the paper, placed plastic wrap over the top and used her fingers to move the ink. Along with the wonderful sensory experience, I thought Jack would enjoy moving the paint around and I was interested to know what thoughts came to mind as he was working.

Initially he started out just painting, which I expected. I was painting too and when I put some plastic wrap on my painting he was immediately interested. His first attempt didn’t work as well as he hoped, more paint was needed he declared. The second attempt, with much much more paint, was a roaring success! ‘Mummy it’s like fire coming out and going into the water’. ‘Mummy it’s like a big Black Hole. See the paint is going into the hole’. 

From there the activity really became Jack’s; peeling the plastic wrap off he thought it would make a good stamp. ‘Mummy, see, we can take it off and push and see, it makes a nice pattern’. This led to dolloping large amounts of paint onto the paper and then dabbing the plastic wrap to create different patterns. Jack was really enjoying himself and I like that I was able to step away while he continued to create.

I have a few other ideas I got from watching the show including one which I think would be fascinating to use with the OHP. Stay tuned 😀