For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term loose parts, check out my post on the theory of loose parts. In simple terms, loose parts are moveable objects that can be used to create, explore and discover.
Educators often collect loose parts for their environments. Collections include buttons, feathers, beads, coins, shells and seeds. Loose parts are added to clay and dough, left in baskets around the room, used for weighing and measuring, to create art, on light and mirror tables and added to block play. I think though, that sometimes educators over-complicate loose parts. We get so excited about the different things we can provide for the children and the beautiful ways we can present them, that it is easy to forget the true essence of the theory of loose parts.
I was reminded as I played with my daughter at the park, that loose parts are everywhere. If we as educators don’t provide loose parts, the children will find them. A brick will become a piece of food, a calculator is a telephone, a sheet will become a cloak or torn paper will be money. Playing with loose parts is the way I played as a child, playing shops with empty boxes or filling empty bottles with leaves, petals, dirt and water. For the child, loose parts are everywhere, they probably don’t call them loose parts but they will find them.
For me the theory of loose parts is an attitude to how children play. It is an acceptance that children may use what is in their environment and make their own choices about what to do with it. Materials do not have to be displayed or stored beautifully, they simply need to be there. The following video illustrates children’s natural ability to find and use loose parts creatively.
‘ Let’s just go camping for our Summer holiday this year’
Hold on a moment, did those words really come from my mouth? Until my mid twenties I recoiled in horror at the thought of camping. After I left girl guide camp half way through the week because I hated it so much, I convinced myself that camping wasn’t for me. In truth, I didn’t hate it at all. A rumour that newcomers would be pushed in the cesspit if they didn’t pass initiation had worried me so much that I begged to go home. My views changed after a few great camping trips as an adult but I’d never have considered a camping trip for my main holiday.
A yearning to explore the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, good weather and the children’s eagerness to go camping, convinced me it was a good idea. An eight hour car journey with a canoe on top of the car, three young children, a dog and a heatwave; perhaps I had lost my mind?
Amazingly, the car journey was fine. The first couple of hours were spent playing ‘would you rather….’ and guessing the names of characters from books or screen. The rest of the journey we listened to cd’s of musicals and admired the view.
Our destination Curlew Lake State Park, chosen for its beauty, a place for the children to swim and for my husband and the girls to go fishing. “Fishing!” I hear my 20- year-old self, with an irrational fear of fish exclaim, ” are you intent on sending me on the holiday from hell?” Strangely none of those sentiments cross my mind as we set up the tent in a quiet corner of the campsite on the shore of the Lake.
Without a shop or a playground in sight, would the children be happy? For now the excitement of sleeping in a sleeping bag, cooking outside and trying to catch their first fish fuelled their enthusiasm.
They were eager to go to the beach to swim. I was amazed that we were the only people on the beach. The ground wasn’t soft like the lake at home but filled with slippery algae. It didn’t put them off. They used the algae and stones to create patterns on the ground and then set up their own foot spa, spreading the algae over their feet and washing it off.
I sat and watched from a distance, joining in when they asked me to. At that moment I knew why this holiday was no longer my biggest nightmare. The children were immersed in the moment, playing, discovering and sharing. In the distance, my husband was on the lake in the canoe and I was here in a rare moment of quiet. This wasn’t one of those family holidays where we rushed to cram in every little experience. I’m sure that these unhurried moments are the ones they will remember most.
There was a child went forth everyday,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
They found magic in the simple things.
Look I think Eeyore has been here
Maybe it’s his barbecue?
Really! Do you think so?
My eldest had big girl time with dad, paddling the canoe at sunrise. Nights weren’t the most restful we had ever had, with five people and a dog in the same tent but there are few things more peaceful than the middle of a lake in the early morning.
It didn’t take us long to understand the rhythms of nature; the time of day that the deer would wander down the hill to visit, geese would fly across the lake, fish would start to bite or that darkness would fall.
Sometimes though, nature takes you by surprise. One night, as we were snuggled in the porch of the tent telling stories, the poles holding the porch open, fell down. As if from nowhere, the winds whipped up and tugged at the tent. Before we knew it dad and big sister had us zipped up inside while they battled against the wind and dust to secure the tent. I tried to drown out the rangers talk of trees blowing down, by telling the story of ‘My Favourite Things’ from the ‘Sound of Music’ and singing. Enraptured, the little ones soon forgot about the storm. They implored me to tell the story of ‘The Sound of Music’- the whole story, all 3 hours of it complete with every song. Thankfully the storm was short, the tent and trees survived and unlike my 11-year old self, I didn’t get the urge to run home.
One of the reasons for choosing Curlew Lake was the fishing, so in the early evenings we took the canoe out to explore the lake and try to catch fish. The girls had only ever caught small fish and were eager to catch one they could eat. Our family trips in the canoe lacked the quiet and patience needed to catch anything of note. However, on the last day their wish came true. Our neighbouring campers, who visit every year to fish, offered to take us out in their boat and help the girls to catch trout. The fish came one after the other.
Then the fish got bigger
They were so proud of their catch.
After the holiday, fishing has become a regular pastime. When dad goes out on his own, the girls greet him eagerly to see if he has caught anything we can eat. Other times, we all go to the lake together and mix up fishing with swimming and playing. On a recent trip, we explored the river bank , a place we probably would never have visited if it weren’t for fishing . Watching the girls excitement at their discoveries and creating with sticks and stones was magical. We returned home with a pile of sticks and ideas for making things with them. Moments like this are important for all of us. Resting our minds through daydreaming and play increases productivity and creativity says Daniel Levitin author of ‘The Organized Mind’. Without time for spontaneity, children lack the mental space to come up with new ideas and ways of doing things.
As I looked out across the river at the jumping fish, the blue skies and the green trees, I could picture an old couple; man fishing, wife painting the landscape or writing in a notebook. I suppose fishing isn’t so bad after all. I’m happy to spend many more years waiting for the fish.
I laughed to myself as I watched my 2-year-old playing in the borders, hiding a stick in the bushes and drawing in the dirt. A few feet away was a very expensive sensory playground with musical instruments, water features and a little bear cave. It was very impressive, but the lure of a stick was just too great. Given the choice I’m sure regardless of the expensive equipment we provide, most children are happy with a stick, a pile of stones, or a tub of water.
My eldest was obsessed with tiny stones when she was small. Everywhere we went she would stop to pick them up or take them home in her pockets. If we were in the garden she would make collections of little stones and spend hours moving them from one place to another. She was very young at the time but I never stopped her for fear that she may swallow them. I simply made sure I was sat nearby so that I could see what she was doing.
My 2-year -old loves sticks. We have 2 rules:
No sticks in the house
Do not point sticks at people’s eyes.
Sometimes they are magic wands, Sometimes fishing rods or sometimes simply something to carry around. Every stick is greeted with equal excitement.
All 3 children play for hours in the sand pit. When I first moved to the US I didn’t think the girls would like the grey, gravelly play sand they have here. I was wrong, they love it as much, if not more than the fine golden sand we had in the UK. Even at the park they chose to play in the dirty gravel rather than on the equipment.
The Theory of Loose Parts
In 1972 the architect Simon Nicholson devised the Theory of Loose Parts. It grew from the notion that all children love to interact with variables. Variables can be anything from materials and shapes to media such as gases and fluids and are used to discover, invent and have fun. The theory of loose parts is as follows
‘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. (Nicholson 1972)
Put simply, the playground with static play equipment will not offer a child the opportunity to discover and create their own scenarios as freely as one that is less predictable or restrictive and offers moveable objects that can interact with the child’s play. A swing is a swing but the gravel can be a home for a bug, fairy dust, a cake, something to draw in, a track for a car and other endless possibilities.
We have the perfect garden for playing with loose parts, with an abundance of trees, pine cones, stones, dirt etc. I decided to organise these a little to see if it would change the way the children played with them.
Storage for Loose Parts
We had an old clothes horse in the garden that was waiting for a purpose. I bought a few hanging baskets and hung them on the clothes horse along with a few other baskets I had found. I also clipped a variety of containers to the clothes horse using an underwear dryer (we also use this for drying paintings).
Using the clothes horse means that it is fully portable making it easy to move out of the rain or to the sandpit, paddling pool or lawn .
The Slide show illustrates some of the things we collected .
Other ideas for loose parts that can be stored outdoors
glass beads, marbles, buttons, bells, beads
acorns, conkers and seeds,
large things like pallets, tyres, flowerpots, fabric, boxes, pots and pans, tubes, guttering, bamboo canes, bricks, planks, logs, driftwood.
I love to see the children using their environment to stimulate imaginative and creative play. Here are some of my favourites.
We could build a boat
Carrying a rock to build a boat on the beach (the family were sailing). Moving heavy objects around was a key part of the play.
Come on row faster!
What happens when I bang the stick with a pebble?
The youngest became absorbed in pebbles and sticks, abandoning the project for a while.
Let’s ride on a horse together
Using loose parts with a large piece of clay
I’m putting them on the top
The finished product
1 year old transporting pistachio nut shells
moving from one container to another
Making a bed with magazines
Let’s put the stones in here and make a magic potion
My eldest daughter has been an avid potion maker all her life. We are always finding concoctions in her bathroom and when she was young she would leave them on the windowsill of her bedroom or on the side of the bath and if you knocked them off whilst having a relaxing bath the cold would give you the shock of your life. She is now a huge Harry Potter fan, having read all of the series 4 times and her potions are taking on new meaning. Her younger sister is following in her footsteps. Now that the weather is nicer I set up a little potion station for them in the garden – they love it.
It is a great sensory play activity and science experiment, they got their hands in, testing and smelling the potions and used all kinds of things from the garden. Best of all I love how the imaginary play scenarios evolved. I suggested to my 9-year-old that she might like to make a book of potion recipes.
‘Yes’ she exclaimed excitedly, ‘ But we’ll need about 70 pages, the McClary recipe book’