Let them loose

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It is a wonderful thing to see children engaging in imaginative creative play. Let them loose with an assortment of bits and pieces and it’s amazing to see what they can construct, both physically with the equipment and in the ways they interact with their constructions, creating imaginative worlds and stories.

A fabric offcut might be a cape, a veil, an apron, a dress, the sail of ship, a red carpet, or the curtain for a puppet theatre.

A cardboard box might be a car, a home for a pet, a high-rise building, an explorer’s ship or a magician’s table.

A cardboard tube might be a ship’s funnel, a car’s garage, a railway tunnel, a fairy wand, or a telescope for gazing at the far-off stars and planets.

Anything can create magic in a child’s imagination. Sometimes the cheapest things can offer the most value. You only have to watch a young child discard the expensive toy and spend hours playing with the wrapping and packaging materials to see this.

Of course there is value in construction sets and other toys that allow children to imagine and create. However, a cardboard box decorated by the child can be as effective an oven as a fancy store bought one. And while most construction sets come with suggestions of what to build, it is best to put the instructions away and let the children discover for themselves what they can create, and how to incorporate the materials into their play.

While learning to read and follow instructions is an important skill, making only what someone else has already created stifles the imagination and can even suppress the willingness to try, especially if the instructions and constructions are too difficult for the child, and sometimes even the adult, to follow.

I expect young children to have ready access to a variety of materials, as well as opportunities to use them to support their play, both at home and in educational settings they attend. It is something I take for granted as being fundamental to early childhood development. It’s always been, and hopefully will always be.

I was surprised, therefore, when I recently came across an unfamiliar term and theory for describing this type of play.

Loose Parts Theory, according to articles like this one, was first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson. He believed that it is the loose parts in our environment, such as those that can be “moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways”, that stimulate creativity.  The term was unfamiliar, but not the thinking.

It took me a little while to find the source of this theory but I finally found a paper written by Nicholson through this post by Kate on An Everyday Story.

I find use of the term Loose Parts interesting. It is appropriate. However, the creative, imaginative play it describes was occurring long before anyone thought to apply such a term to it. If I suggested that it could be a “trendy” term to describe what has always been, I’d be showing just how much of a slow learner I am. Nicholson proposed the term in 1972!

What do you think of Loose Parts Theory? Have you heard the term before? Did you engage in loose parts play when you were a child, or have you observed children playing imaginatively and creatively with loose parts?

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

20 thoughts on “Let them loose

  1. roweeee

    Well, Norah, the only “loose parts” I ‘d heard of before your post, were in my head. Don’t know about you, but when I shake my head, quite often I hear a rattle with the loose parts rattling around.
    To be honest, this sounds like a term somebody would come up with to put everyday activities inside some sort of scientific box or classification. We couldn’t simply ad lib!
    My kids excel at this. So much so, that I’m trying to keep them out of the recycling and get rubbish into the bin. I used to take my son to the op shop and he wanted to buy all this “rubbish” and bring it home. They’d also raid local council clean up piles and bring all sorts of bits home. We need to book another one to put the stuff back out there again. I wonder how much stuff hops it’s way up and down the street.
    By the way, my daughter loves watching that entrepreneur’s show: “The Shark Tank”. She seems to love making her own inventions.
    xx Rowena

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    1. Norah Post author

      It’s great when the children can create with “loose parts” as you describe. I understand the frustration though as all those precious inventions multiply and space for storage and display decreases.
      I’m not aware of “The Shark Tank”. It sounds interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks.

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  2. Sacha Black

    Interesting. I haven’t heard this term either. But it’s very true. I certainly played with outdoorsy stuff and things as a child too. I think (although its not quite of the same ilk) Lego could possibly be put into this category too

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    1. Norah Post author

      All those responding to this post are unanimous – none of us were aware of the term, though we certainly engaged in the play. I think Lego and other building toys fit the bill, as long as what is constructed isn’t to an existing design but created from imagination and used in imaginative ways. Thanks for joining in the conversation.

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  3. Sarah Brentyn

    I have never heard this term. I absolutely love this idea, though. My kids have too many structured toys. They have blocks and Legos but, when I was young, I loved finding things around the house and turning them into something else. “Sometimes the cheapest things can offer the most value.” Exactly. The thrill of a cardboard box! 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      It seems that I don’t need to be embarrassed by my ignorance since there were a few of us in the same boat. I’m pleased I was able to bring us all up to date with the term.
      I’m sure your boys find lots of other loose parts to add to their constructions from blocks and Lego. I agree with you about cardboard boxes. They can become almost anything a small child can imagine.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  4. Steven

    Like others here, I haven’t heard the term but am familiar with the idea. To me, Lego and Meccano come to mind. There is still a box of Lego at my parents place, mostly in bits and pieces from play, but with some original (as per instructions) partially constructed segments. When the box was brought out for my kids to play with, I found myself struggling to think what those segments were originally meant to be (so that I could come home to try and download the construction instructions). Unfortunately we are talking circa 1980’s and from this era, it is mostly the fans who have found and scanned old instructions to upload online. Now whenever my kids get Lego for birthdays and such, I make a note to download the instructions so that when it is in pieces decades later, they will have a reference to fall back to if they want to see what it originally use to be.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I do remember my brothers’ Mecanno sets having instructions. (We’re talking circa 50s and 60s here!) but when Lego first became available I remember only the basic sets that could be used to construct anything. There may have been a few people and trees to go with it, but not elaborate designs and instructions like those available now. So much of Lego now seems to be merchandising. I must admit though that I loved the Lego store in London where individual pieces or pieces by the cupful could be bought, as well as the packaged designs.
      I’m not surprised to hear that you would download and save the instructions. I’ve heard you’re pretty good at archiving a variety of artefacts for posterity. It a great service you do. 🙂
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Steven. You always have something interesting to add to the conversation.

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  5. stuckinscared

    Another interesting read, Norah. I’d not heard the term ‘loose parts’ before today (other than those of my muddled mind 😉 ) I am however familiar with the joys of the type of play the term refers to.. As a child I’d have preferred wrapping to content, and my own kids are (were) the same.

    I’m reminded of the stone pictures Littlie creates in the garden during the Summer, using stones she has spent many wobbly hours collecting at the beach (I have photo’s of her creations but I’m not sure how to share one here).

    I’m also reminded of the (expensive) discarded tent that’s hanging in our shed… Littlie loves to play camping, in the garden, and indoors. But, after playing in the ‘real’ tent once or twice decided for herself that building a tent using sheets/cushions/airers, and chairs was much more fun than popping and pinning 🙂

    My youngest son was a down and dirty player… mud, flour and water, finger-feet painting (poo, if I didn’t watch him well enough o_O), and while washing any (or all) of the above off of my walls wasn’t much fun for me, he had a fabulous time…

    All these memories you have triggered Norah… I could ramble on all day. I’ll leave you with one last one, because others may want to try it… Snow-Castles… Littlie struggles to maintain body temperature, and so cannot play outside in the snow for more than 5 minutes… so, (on the rare occasions that it snows here) we bring buckets of snow, along with her bucket and spade into the kitchen and she makes snow-castles on the tiled floor 🙂

    I’ll shut up now, though i may continue this walk down play-lane in one of my many note pads 😉

    All the best, Norah. Kimmie x

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Kimmie. I really appreciate your reading and the richness you have added to the post with your comment.
      I very much enjoyed reading about your children’s “loose parts” play. What a wonderful patient Mum to allow the activities you describe. The snow-castles on the tiles in the kitchen impress me most. Having never lived with snow, the thought of such things just amazes me.
      I am so pleased my post has triggered some wonderful memories for you and I look forward to your sharing more of them in the future if you choose to do so.
      Play well.
      Hugs to you and Littlie. xx

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  6. Annecdotist

    I agree it’s funny when these common-sense ideas are given a fancy name. But perhaps necessary in this materialistic world (although it wasn’t to such an extent when the term was coined in the early 70s) when parents might think they are doing the best for the kids the more they spend on specialist toys, and then get upset when their kids don’t use them. Over here we have a chain of stores called The Early Learning Centre – I’m not competent to judge, and their toys do seem good quality, but I always wondered if the name was just clever marketing.

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    1. Norah Post author

      That’s a good point, Anne. I think you’d have to have a screw loose to not let your children engage in “loose parts” play, but perhaps in the current climate of consumerism we do need to give it a label to make it attractive to parents who wish to purchase “the best” items for their children. Now there’s an idea. I could put together a marketable package of “loose parts”. I’m sure it would be a winner! I can just imagine the discussion in parenting circles.
      I’m probably too late though. Some savvy entrepreneur has probably already made a fortune. I’m just so far behind the times I’m not aware of it (the loose parts package).
      The Early Learning Centres made their way over here too. It’s a great name for a store, but I was expecting to find more than merchandise in a centre. The toys do appear to be quite good quality, but there’s a lot that’s not really “educational”. In saying that I have just corrected myself as anything can have an educational value, but some things more than others.
      Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated.

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  7. thecontentedcrafter

    Another great article Norah! ‘Loose Parts’ as a name is new to me too, in my educational system it is just called ‘play’. Part of me is a bit bemused by all this research that goes on to prove a point that once was commonly known – but then I ask myself does it really matter how many ways it is reinvented with cute names, as long as it is being allowed and encouraged it’s a good thing. Sometimes I feel like saying just let your children play with natural objects and get dirty. Chuck ’em in a bath at the end of the day and watch how well they sleep. Feed them proper food an watch how rosy their cheeks get. Enjoy them, childhood doesn’t last forever!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Sounds like we’re of the same mind about play as well, Pauline. Funny how the term “loose parts” was proposed when we were in the thick of it, so to speak, but neither of us had heard of it. I was also surprised this morning when listening to Richard Louv’s “Nature Principle” to hear him refer to the theory as well! Hear it once, hear it a hundred times! I expect to see it popping up everywhere now! I love what you feel like saying. It doesn’t get said nearly often enough. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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