Loose Parts: What You Need To Know

“A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.” ~Lev Vygotsky

You probably know the old cliché about kids playing longer with the box a toy came in then the toy itself? It’s true. Child development experts in the UK asked 2,000 parents to compare their children’s interactions when they used devices, toys, and free play items like cardboard boxes. Almost twice as many parents said their children preferred playing with boxes than gadgets and 46 percent of children enjoyed playing with boxes instead of other toys and games.

Plain cardboard boxes are enticing because they’re free-form playthings. Beyond classic toys like wooden blocks, many best-selling toys don’t spark much open-ended fun. That’s because children play in less creative ways with toys based on popular movies or shows and play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. On the other hand, a wrapping paper tube can become nearly anything — a cane, magic wand, snake, lightsaber, boundary marker, whatever imagination chooses.

The natural world is full of playthings. Sand, sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks have inspired children’s imaginations for ages.

So can pretty much anything kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as curiosity leads them. That is, as long as they have two key elements in their favor:

  • children are given permission
  • children are afforded the time.

Playground designers Vicki Stoecklin and Randy White write,

“The world once offered thousands of delights of free play to children. Children used to have access to the world at large, whether it was the sidewalks, streets, alleys, vacant lots and parks of the inner city or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia and the rural countryside. Children could play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision.

Research on children’s preferences shows that if children had the design skills to do so, their creations would be completely different from the areas called playgrounds that most adults design for them. Outdoor spaces designed by children would not only be fully naturalized with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud, animals and insects, but also would be rich with a wide variety of play opportunities of every imaginable type. If children could design their outdoor play spaces, they would be rich developmentally appropriate learning environments where children would want to stay all day.”

Back in 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article in Landscape Architect titled “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” He contended that most of us grow up, are educated, and live the rest of our lives in environments that stymie the imagination. He describes them as “static and impossible to play around with.” Instead of taking part in real planning and using real materials, “…children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is ‘right.'”

For most of us the problem starts with tight restrictions in childhood.

  • As kids, we’re not allowed to build or make things except within certain tight parameters (following instructions for a craft project is permitted, upending chairs to make an obstacle course is not).
  • We can’t experiment with variables in unexpected ways (“Don’t make a mess!”).
  • And we have limited experiences with exploration and discovery (“Stay on the playground, no climbing the trees.”). This inhibits creativity and inventiveness early on.

Sand belongs in the sandbox?

Mr. Nicholson’s theory of loose parts is this,

“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 other words, kids have nearly infinite ways to play when they have access to materials that can be used beyond a specific purpose.

Young children often use playthings as if they’re loose parts. A child combines a toy dinosaur, plastic teacup, dress-up scarf, and a few blocks into vivid and fully realized play on his own. Rules like keeping the tea cups with the tea set and putting away all the blocks before getting out another toy may keep the room neater but it also cuts down on much wider possibilities for play.

Kids (all of us, really) are more inventive and playful when our environments offer lots of variables. Open-ended materials let us transform simple materials into complex ideas. We play at what we’re most drawn to understand, right at the tantalizing edge of challenge, in ways unique to each of us. Recognizing this, more and more day care centers, museums, and playgrounds are starting to soften restrictions and offer loose parts for play.

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a loose parts playground

At one day care center, children spend a large part of every day in a large fenced outdoor area, even when it’s raining. There’s no play structure with swings and slides, and few toys other than small wagons and plastic figures. There are, however, all sorts of loose parts for kids to use.

Two girl have made a bridge over a muddy area with a row of milk crates. They pound twigs with rocks until the wood crumbles into fibers, mix it with mud they scoop up with spoons, then arrange it on tree branch slices. A group of four-year-olds drag a few planks over some bicycle tires, running and jumping on the tippy boards in a game that seems to be about danger and rescue. Many kids are playing in little enclosures they’ve made from tarps hung over low tree branches or within a circle of logs. These child-made places are nearly empty some days, other days they’re brimming with activity. The most popular spot seems to be a large pile of dirt in a far corner, left there when a utility line had to be dug up and repaired. Some kids pour rivulets of water from the top of the pile, watching it snake down the uneven surface. Others put sticks in the dirt, arrange rocks on it, roll balls down it, and make ramps leading up to it. One little boy ran up and down the pile, but stopped when he saw he’d nearly stepped on another boy’s plastic figure. He crouched down next to him and they both buried, discovered, and reburied the toy a few times before flattening a path in the dirt with a measuring cup and letting the figure drive a measuring cup car on this de-facto road.

Here, children seem to require minimal involvement from their teachers. Instead they’re learning to play cooperatively — disputing and solving disputes, sorting and building, and mostly pretending. They’re also growing more physically adept while teaching themselves hands-on lessons about math and science. There’s no need for adults to keep loose parts organized, no need to step in and instruct, no need for a full day of pre-planned activities.

Similar to the center where Teacher Tom works. Visit his wise and instructive site for more.

Loose parts evoke more inventive play in older children as well. A two-year Australian study of primary school children found that adding objects like crates, buckets, pool noodles, and hay bales to their schoolyard caused sedentary behavior to drop by half while kids played with more enjoyment, imagination, and vigor.

Other studies have found that creativity and problem-solving soar when children use naturally occurring outdoor materials in their play, a contrast to adult-provided props so common in children’s lives. As researcher Dana Miller writes in an education journal article titled “The Seeds of Learning,

“Our research presents compelling evidence that providing children with open-ended natural materials fosters imagination, creativity, and symbolic (abstract) thinking. When they are working with open-ended materials children get to decide what those materials will become, explore interesting ways to manipulate the materials, and how their use of those materials may change during a dramatic play scenario. Children get to search for just the right material or object to represent something in their minds, and through that use and the functions they assign to those materials, children display their brilliance.”

It’s easy to incorporate loose parts into children’s days. There’s no need to buy specialized loose parts and carefully sort them into containers after play. Along with some classic open-ended toys like blocks, construction sets, dress-up, and art supplies we can say yes to all sorts of other free-form materials. Many are probably already at hand.

And pay attention to temporary circumstances that crop up, giving kids in your family and in the neighborhood the opportunity to play around a tree that fell in a storm, a pile of dirt left after construction, or the rainfall that turned your neighborhood park into a puddle-rich haven for imagination.

We Need Hidden Worlds

When I was very small I liked to climb what I called a tree. It was actually a sturdy shrub. I sat between branches less than a foot off the ground, sure I was hidden, feeling mysterious as creatures that speak without words. I also used to retreat to the coat closet with my younger brother. We sat companionably in the dark under heavy coat hems, talking or just enjoying the quiet together. And we made pillow forts, draped sheets over furniture, and played under the folded leaves of the dining room table.

My favorite hidden place was in the woods behind our house. There was a small rise no bigger around than two desk tops. Tall trees grew at either side and a creek bed, dry most of the year, ran along one side. The whole area was covered with leaves. I tried to walk there soundlessly, as I fancied Native Americans walked, not cracking a twig or rustling the underbrush. I tried to identify plants I could eat or use if I lived in the woods, as the boy did in My Side of the Mountain . I’d sit alone in completely silence, hoping if I did so long enough the woodland creatures might forgot about me, might even come near. I snuck food out of the house to make that place a haven, as I’d read about in Rabbit Hill but I always came back to find the iceberg lettuce and generic white bread I left were still untouched.

Once I became a preteen I found a hidden world right outside my bedroom window. I climbed on a chair and hoisted myself up on the gently sloping roof that faced the back yard. When I started college at a large urban university I’d just turned 17. My hermit soul craved time to be alone and still. The only place I found was in a bathroom on the upper floor of the oldest building on campus. I’d retreat behind a heavy wooden stall door, close the antique latch, and meditate on the wood grain of that door until I felt restored. A necessary refuge, although hardly ideal.

Most children seek out small places to make their own. They find secret realms in couch blanket forts, behind furniture, and in outdoor hideaways. There they do more than play. They command their own worlds of imagination away from adult view, often listening to silence by choice.

Perhaps retreating somewhere cozy harkens back to our earliest sense memories, first in the sheltering confines of the womb and then in the security of loving arms. Yet at the same time, hidden worlds are also a way of establishing our independence. Children have surely always slipped out of sight in the cool shadows of tall cornstalks, the flapping shapes of sheets hung on clotheslines, the small spaces under back steps, behind furniture, and inside closets.

There are all sorts of tiny retreats that can be purchased for kids. Plastic structures made to look like ships or cabins, tiny tents, pre-made playhouses. These things lose their allure. Children want to discover hidden places on their own or to create them out of materials they scavenge like fabric, cardboard, scrap wood, whatever is handy. (The benefits of this play is described in the “theory of loose parts.”) These places tend to be transitory, lasting for a short time or changing into something else. They’re special because they’re unique to the child. These places contain the real magic of secret places.

Hidden worlds are made with blankets, indoors

or outdoors.

They’re found in cardboard boxes

snow

driftwood

natural play place, loose parts play,

Image: natsukoryoto.deviantart.com

and under trees.

They’re made out of old logs

old plywood

or branches.

 

The hidden worlds I cherish these days have more to do with a quiet sense of peace found in moments of solitude. What’s paradoxical, these are also times when I most often feel the oneness that connects everything.

Maybe growing up with the freedom to retreat within hidden worlds, no matter what was going on, helped me to access this in myself. Hurray for blanket tents, for treehouses and spaces under tables, for all hidden worlds that let us gather up what is fragmented in ourselves and feel whole again.

How do you make time, and space, for hidden worlds in your child’s life and in your life?