The allure of loose parts

Photo 16-06-2017, 10 22 31
Kolle37 in Berlin, Germany

After the Christmas break, we were talking to a colleague with a young child about their Christmas presents. “I don’t know why I bother buying expensive toys”, she said, “when all he wants to do is play with the box!” This is something that might sound familiar to you. But what is it about a large cardboard box that makes it so alluring to young children?

Back in 1971, an architect called Simon Nicholson wrote an article that attempted to explain why materials like cardboard boxes are so appealing to children. He called his idea “The Theory of Loose Parts”. He says that “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and to the kind of variables in it”. Essentially, he was saying there is a positive correlation between how many opportunities something offers to be imaginative and how many ways you can vary how you can interact with it. Think about this in relation to a cardboard box. Not only do they give opportunities for manipulating what they look like, but what their function is too. Today a castle, tomorrow an aeroplane. Whilst the same might not be true of the plastic toy the box contained, which is likely to be more rigid in both build and purpose.

Loose parts play has become a growing staple of early years settings both in England and overseas. Daly and Beloglovsky from the USA have written two lovely books for practitioners, one focussing on young children and another looking specifically at babies and toddlers. They describe lose parts as “open ended materials that have unlimited play possibilities” (2016, p.3) which in turn “provoke meaningful play experiences” (p.4). Materials for loose parts play are plentiful – stones, pine cones, straws, tyres, buckets, guttering, and planks of wood are just some examples of resources that are popular. Further afield, in Anji County in China an early learning philosophy called Anji Play has developed which shares similarities with a loose parts approach. It has been described as “true play” because of the way that children take responsibility for their own play in open-ended environments with open-ended materials. The Anji Play website is definitely worth a visit.

Loose parts play is not just for young children. In 2016, we visited Kolle37 in Berlin, an adult-free exploration space for children aged 6-16 which predominantly focuses on giving children the opportunity to create their own large structures and buildings out of wooden panels. A short US film has been shot there; you can see the vastness of what the children create and the opportunities the environment offers for exploration and imaginative play. Back in the UK, although the term “loose parts” may not have been used at the time, there are similarities with the junk adventure playgrounds that appeared after World War Two, championed by children’s rights campaigner Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who had first seen the practice in Denmark.

What do you think? Should we scrap plastic toys in favour for the packaging they come in? Should we find more opportunities for children to engage in this type of play? Or are there downsides to a loose parts approach? We would love to know your thoughts.

One thought on “The allure of loose parts

  1. Carina Pettet

    Toys are so expensive and we have certainly become dependent upon colourful plastic that doesn’t always teach our children the things that it claims to on the box. Perhaps the children are attracted to the box in the same way any consumer is… ‘my life will be so much better if I have this…because it says so on the box!’
    My dining room is only a dining room because it has a table in it. Otherwise it is a play room. There are so many toy boxes, each of them labeled and each of them accessible for my children. We also recently bought a new bed for my son with a tent underneath that is in fact hiding…more toy boxes. I have a few times cleared out the toys that they have grown out of and given them to charity shops… that are already full of unwanted colourful plastic. It is shameful, to just discard of things because they are so easy to replace. Where is the appreciation, imagination and true happiness for children? I don’t think it really comes from expensive toys, yet I still go over budget at Christmas because I want to find something that my children will love! Why is that?
    I do keep the cardboard boxes until I get fed up of them all battered and drawn over, taking up what is left of my house. My children have a lovely time with them. I also pulled the sofa away from the wall to hoover behind it and they made a pirate ship out of it and the hoover was a shark. There are plenty of ways for children to play if they are given the opportunity.
    My only real criticism of loose parts is how to put it into settings and keep it there. I don’t think getting rid of toys and replacing them with what a lot of people may just consider ‘rubbish’ is the answer. I think word of this approach needs to be out further than it is before it will really stick. Childcare is so expensive and for a parent looking for a new place for their child, choosing between a nursery with fantastic looking expensive toys or somewhere that resembles a recycling centre is not much of a competition. I hear the question “What am I actually paying for?” before anyone has even opened their mouth.
    I am all in favour of this type of approach, I just don’t know how people will ‘buy into it’ it’s going to need a lot of fancy packaging.


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