Monday, September 25, 2017

The Theory of Loose Parts





How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts
Simon Nicholson
Landscape Architecture--October 1971


It's good to revisit classic literature on the topic of loose parts from time to time. Nicholson largely wrote on loose parts from the perspective of creating playgrounds and outdoor spaces. Marc Armitage has repeatedly said in our Loose Parts Play group that Simon Nicholson never used the term "open-ended" in the Theory of Loose Parts. It seems that because we often see children having open-ended opportunities as they play with loose parts that we have put this phrase as one of the descriptors. Let's take a look at what Simon Nicholson, the one who coined the phrase, had to say about the topic.

Nicholson starts the article attacking the lie that creativity is rare and for the few who are "gifted" that is perpetuated by society. The "gifted few" are not the only ones who can "solve environmental problems".  Most people are not given the opportunity or made to feel as they are not able/competent to explore building and construction. In particular, children often have many restrictions on their experimentation. He shares some basic observations on creativity (note quote below on children interacting).

Nicholson also mentions that many places of human interaction (schools, hospitals, airports, museums, etc.) do not work as they do not have the needed loose parts and are "clean, static and impossible to play around with." The adults/planners had all the fun designing and the "fun and creativity (has) been stolen: children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated."


Contributing influences at his time included adventure playgrounds (Anarchy magazine 1961ish) and behavioral planning, such as the discovery method. Check the example of caves below and the need for interdisciplinary units and the blending of indoors/outdoors.  A connection to environmental education was made, looking at real-life problems, getting children outdoors and out of the school confines. He also looked at the art world and museums, sharing examples of people were most engaged with exhibits that had interactive elements. He concludes with 4 steps to bring this theory to more effectiveness.

Quotes/Info I Liked:



  • "Creativity--the playing around with the components and variables of the world in order to make experiments and discover new things and form new concepts."
  • "Young children (often) find the world incredibly restricted--a world where they cannot play with building and making things, or play with fluids, water, fire or living objects, and all the things that satisfy one's curiosity and give us the pleasure that results from discovery and invention." 
  • "There is evidence that all children love to interact with variables such as materials and shapes; smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism and gravity; media such as gases and fluids; sounds, music and motion; chemical interactions, cooking and fire; and other people, and animals, plants, words, concepts and ideas. With all these things all children love to play, experiment, discover and invent and have fun. All these things have one thing in common, which is variables or 'loose parts'."
  • The quintessential quote--" 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."
  • "In terms of loose parts we can discern a natural evolution from creative play and participation with wood, hammers, ropes, nails and fire, to creative play and participation with the total process of design and planning of regions in cities."
  • "The study of children and cave-type environments only becomes meaningful when we condor children not only being in a given cave but also when children have the opportunity to play with space-forming materials in order that hey may invent, construct, evaluate and modify their own caves. When this happens we have a perfect example of variables and loose parts in action." (This really leaves room for applications to elementary school and curricular options rather than just always being "open-ended")
  • Another often quoted snippet-- "Children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves."
  • Caption for a picture of kids by a puddle--"Loose parts at work--water, ripples, reflections, slush, floating and living objects. Many curriculum units are based on experiments with water; here is the quickest, cheapest way to introduce variables into an asphalt/chain-link environment." (wouldn't a meme with "just add water" be great--I can see a whole series of these!)
  • "Human interaction and involvement with water--its refraction, beading, noise. Liquids, gases (waterfall, wind tunnel) afford classic examples of how loose parts permit experimentation, creativity." (also shared a museum with controls for cascades, water flow, etc.--"number of variables or loose parts would be increased by public access")
  • "By allowing learning to take place outdoors, and fun and games to occur indoors, the distinction between education and recreation began to disappear." 
  • Educational evaluation is important! "What did children do with the loose parts? What did they discover or rediscover? What concepts were involved? Did they carry their ideas back into the community and their family? Out of all possible materials that could be provided, which ones were the most fun to play with and the most capable of stimulating the cognitive, social and physical learning processes?"
  • "The most interesting and vital loose parts are those that we have around us everyday in the wilderness, the countryside, the city and the ghetto."
  • "Although it is fine to allow scientists and artists to invent things, how about allowing everybody else to be creative and inventive also?"
  • "Is society content to let only very few of its members realize their creative potential?" (We need this! We need problem solvers willing to be creative and experiment to solve hard conditions in this world. I an era where robots will be taking over many of our tasks, creativity and problem solving are typically things that are uniquely human.) 
  • "The process of community involvement, once started, never stops. The environment and its parts is always changing and there is no telling what it will look like." (I love this about outdoor classrooms--they are never done, but responding to needs and interests of those who use the space." 
  • "In early childhood there is no important difference between play and work, art and science, recreation and education-the either/or classification normally applied by adults to a child's environment."                                                                          
  • Caption to empty waiting room at an airport (similar to waiting anywhere) "Waiting anywhere, any institution--no loose parts. Time spent here is life spent sitting in fixed rows in utter boredom." (This is why we have grab and go loose parts "kits" to have portable variables on the go.)

Important Related Theories/Principles Mentioned:
Adventure Playgrounds--community involvement, play-leaders, experiment/play, 'free society in miniature'
Variables and loose parts--Mathematics in Primary Schools, 1966
Nuffield Mathematics Program--imaginative curriculum units--interdisciplinary (visual art, music, mathematics, natural sciences, blend indoors/outdoors)
behavioral planning and design--study of human requirements and needs to design the environment, loose parts derives from these theories
Discovery method (curriculum innovation for elementary schools
The "ex-quotient"--My own phrase from observations I have made, well before I "got into" loose parts. I need to revisit this with my knowledge on loose parts! Read my thoughts here.

Terms: variables, loose parts, , playing around, self-instructional

VERBS: build, construct, play, experiment, invent, explore, discover, evaluate, modify, study, think, consider, measure, draw, model-making, calculate, destruct, slide, fold, hide, paint, bounce

Terms I did not see: child-led, unstructured, open-ended (most of the popular posts about loose parts usually include these terms; however, Nicholson did not, even sharing examples of learning in context with a specific object in mind, using loose parts to accomplish this goal. While I think it's great that Loose Parts Play is often child-led, unstructured, and open-ended, rereading the original work on this gives me additional permission for broader application and use of this concept. There are many ways to "do" Loose Parts Play--check out my compilation of 30+ approaches to LPP.)

Types of Loose Parts: nature, voice tubes, water, pendulums and bouncers, newsprint rolls,

Application: 
Look for ways to make spaces more interactive--how can the children and adults in the space also invent and build?

Nicholson proposed a four-part program to implement this theory of loose parts for immediate use:
1. Give top priority to where the children are. 
Children are in schools, day-care, hospitals, etc.--these need immediate transformation! "Even if a local community is sold on the idea of a pocket-park or adventure playground it is still better to use the asphalt area of an elementary school for it, for this is where the children are."
2. Let children play a part in the process.
They enjoy the process of design, looking at the problem, the requirements, planning alternatives, etc.
3. Use an interdisciplinary approach.
Play/work, art/science, recreation/education are the same for children with no apparent distinctions made in early childhood.
4. Establish a clearing-house for information. 
It takes 5-10 years for the publication process to print journals, but that time "should be reduced to near instantaneous" in "newsletters, microfilm, audio, and video-cassette systems" and shared across schools, day cares, and other institutions that need it. Allow children to explore this evaluation as well. (I am heartened to see that in our highly electronic world, we have quick access to information! Any of us can share a video, narrative or picture of how loose parts impacts our environment. We have Facebook groups, like Loose Parts Play and others, where we can discuss this information. I just found open electronic access to a fresh article on the topic just published. Here is a list of other research articles I have compiled (there are many more that are harder to access). What do we do with this information? Let's use it and discuss it!)

My Questions/Thoughts? 
Loose parts are not only restricted to play--there can be experimentation, invention, and more! While play worker principles are great for many settings and definitely have a connection to loose parts play, they may not be applicable in every situation. There are many places where loose parts are being implemented--these are all unique. Can we be patient of others'  applications of loose parts and maybe even understanding of different sets of circumstances that may not look like ours? Is there really a "right" way to do loose parts or are there MANY right ways that look very different? Here is my list of 30+ ways to approach loose parts--I'm sure there are many more.

Perhaps there can be more context and curricular ties to loose parts. Perhaps some applications may be more than just having loose parts available, but using them to solve problems.

The discovery method takes TIME! In many of today's classrooms, there is a lot of pressure for increased academic performance. How can we allow the exploration of loose parts (even connected to curricular needs as evidenced by the cave example) and still meet the learning standards and requirements?

Loose parts are not just for children, adults can have that spirit of inventiveness and creativity as well. I really have liked the show "The New Creatives" which can be found on BYUtv. How do we as adults engage in the theory of loose parts? For many of us, it is setting a backdrop for these experiences with children. We enjoy the hunt, the find, the setting up of spaces where children can design their play and experimentation.

"Variables" do not have to be "things"--it might be concepts, sound, light, etc.

This article was written before I was born. I know many of us who are over 35 or so had less restricted childhoods; however, Nicholson mentions this issue 46 years ago. Are his words making an impact? Why don't we see a bigger impact? I think there is a resurgence in understanding this concept more. As I mention many times in the Loose Parts Play group, I believe this to be a timeless principle. It is how many of the "older" generation grew up scavenging for things in the woods. We have moved to a largely indoor, over scheduled, and electronic childhood; however, many are bucking that trend and allowing children to explore, experiment, and invent. As I think on my own childhood, I had books available, such as the Junk Artist's Workshop and Inventor's Workshop, that showed examples (and maybe gave permission) to create and explore with castoffs/scavenged items. I was in high ability classes that perhaps allowed for experimentation and creativity more--how do we bring this to more classes? I had large amounts of unrestricted outdoor time when we gathered and collected, sold/bartered, constructed, experimented, and played.

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