Loose-parts play theory is gaining widespread popularity in early years settings across the UK, but different settings seem to have very different ideas on exactly what it involves. What resources constitute ‘loose parts’ can sometimes lead to confusion.
Some practitioners define loose parts as exclusively natural resources, such as branches and twigs, while others incorporate recycled items such as pipes, tubes and scrap materials. Some settings provide bowls of beads and coloured stones for loose-parts play, while in some instances settings have been advised to get rid of their metal toy cars or plastic toys because they are not ‘loose parts’.
In fact, loose-parts theory is less about the individual resources and much more about what children do with them. The original theory, proposed by Simon Nicholson in 1971, simply states that in any environment, ‘the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it’. In short, any resource or environment that offers multiple possibilities (or variables) has intrinsically greater play value and contributes more to the development of creativity and imagination (see box, overleaf).
The theory does not specify that natural resources are better than constructed ones or that wood is better than plastic, merely that if children can use resources in a variety of ways, both intended and unintended, then the intrinsic play value is increased.
This is important because it is all connected to how children develop the ability to process information and ultimately solve problems. The ability to solve problems following a logical series of steps is clearly a useful skill. However, when faced with a problem that falls outside of our previous experience, or that cannot be solved by logical steps, we need a different type of thinking. This way of thinking relies on our ability to use intuition, creativity and imagination.
When we look at the world’s greatest thinkers, for example, scientists, mathematicians, artists, entrepreneurs and architects, we see that they tend to share a personality trait – namely the ability to see multiple solutions to problems or to think creatively. This is often called divergent thinking or ‘thinking outside the box’ and it is unlikely we develop this mindset sitting in classrooms listening to grown-ups.
However, every time a child makes a den, builds a model out of cardboard boxes and begins to see and interact with the multiple possibilities in their environment, they engage in this incredible developmental process.
Loose-parts play is vital to the development of a mindset of innovation and creativity because it encourages children to see beyond the physically tangible and into the realm of imagination and possibilities. This is a precious gift not just to individual children but to our species as a whole. People who think creatively can potentially change or even save our world, shaping humanity for generations. The journey to becoming that person begins in early years with loose-parts play.
A piece of string
Growing up in an impoverished family in post-war London, my father had very few toys to play with. Occasionally, the newspaper seller would give him the piece of string that the papers were tied in – or, if he was lucky, two pieces. With two pieces, he explained, ‘I could be a twin engine plane!’
My father saw not just string but the possibilities of the string, including aeroplane propellers. He went on to become an aeroengineer, working on engines for Concorde among his achievements.
In short, the brain structure, mindset and imagination my father needed to be a highly innovative aeroengineer were developed through play with the simplest of resources. My father’s experiences also illustrate that the resources are less important than how children use them, and what matters is how children are nurtured and supported to see those all-important ‘possibilities’.
STACK, TRANSPORT AND INTERACT
While anything can be a loose-parts resource, some resources do lend themselves to creating more possibilities than others, and I have my personal favourites. I always provide a huge bag of large scraps of brightly coloured material because I know how many uses for them a child can come up with.
One day they will dress up, the next make dens and then big pictures. I love large cardboard boxes, and when working with vulnerable children find these to have enormous therapeutic benefits, as well as encouraging innovation and helping to develop co-ordination and physical manipulation skills. Old computer keyboards also open up interesting possibilities. It is amazing how many spaceships we build that need a control panel of some sort.
What is key to choosing resources is to consider ones that provide challenge and maintain a high level of interactivity within an early years environment. There should be plenty of variables, things that children can physically change within their environment, such as things to stack, things to transport and things that interact well with other things at many different levels. Pipes, crates, branches cardboard boxes and sticks are all ideal for this, as are foam swimming noodles (for which you can now buy connectors).
Whatever the resources offer, children should be allowed, and encouraged, to move them around because they will come up with combinations that adults may not have even considered. If you provide plumbing pipes, jugs and access to water at some point, a child (usually without prompting) will try to see how they can move water from one area to another.
On the racetrack
I recently witnessed a group of children spend over an hour creating a fantastic racetrack using plumbing pipes, old sticks and Sellotape, then incorporating some metal toy cars into their play – the very cars deemed too prescriptive in some settings. In fact, anything can be used for loose-parts play if a child can see beyond what it literally ‘is’ and see what it could become.
The ability to imagine something as something else is an essential and uniquely human area of development, underpinning higher academic functions such as complex language and mathematical thinking, as well as art and literature, all of which rely on symbolic representations of concepts. When a child can begin to look at a range of seemingly unconnected objects and put them together to make something new, whole avenues of uniquely human development are opened up to them.
THE ADULT ROLE
The key component of any early years environment is not resources, but the human and emotional aspect provided by positive staff. The same is true of loose-parts play; it is as much about human interactions as physical resources. If practitioners are encouraging, supporting and modelling possibilities, the children will begin to do the same.
If a practitioner can show joy in their environment, expressing awe and wonder in the remarkable connections children make through loose-parts play, then children can begin to explore the myriad possibilities inherent in their environment. If the practitioner is uninterested, nervous or limits exploration and experimentation, then the child’s relationship with the environment can stagnate.
How does a child know a box is not just a box until they see a practitioner wearing one on their head? How does a child know there can be possibilities in their world if they are not encouraged at every stage to experiment and investigate their environment in their own way? How can they become divergent thinkers and see multiple possibilities if every ‘activity’ has only one goal or possibility? If activities are continuously outcome-driven, then we limit the possibilities open to a child. Loose-parts play should always be an experience, rather than an activity, and is as much a mindset and ethos as it is a selection of resources.
The bottom line is that children, not adults, decide which resources are ‘loose parts’ and adults need to model, support and nurture a child to see beyond the literal and into a world of possibilities.
When children see ‘possibilities’, they activate the curiosity syst
ems in their brain. When an adult says, ‘That’s not supposed to go there’ or ‘That is not supposed to be used that way’, those systems become less active. Neuroscience tells us that active curiosity produces a host of positive biochemical responses and is a biological and evolutionary imperative, with immense benefits to the neurological development of children. Research has also revealed the huge differences in the brain development of mammals from an enriched environment (one with many variables) when compared with mammals from an unstimulating one.
Neuroscience and creative thought
One fascinating aspect of this research suggests an increase in cells known as astrocytes in the brains of mammals experiencing an enriched environment. Astrocytes are brain cells that interact with our neurons and perform a whole range of functions. One interesting function is that when external stimuli are lacking, for instance when we are asleep, astrocytes interact with and activate neurons through tiny chemical bursts.
They also activate our neurons apparently randomly throughout the day, independently of our senses. There is, therefore, some suggestion that these seemingly innocent brain cells could be a key component in dreams and creative thought.
Humans have a significantly higher proportion of astrocytes to neurons than any other animal, and mammals that are raised in an enriched environment have significantly more than mammals from a restricted one.
In short, our ability to dream and spontaneously create is developed in early childhood through the enriched interactive environments we experience and the number and kind of variables in those environments.
As a final anecdote, I witnessed the most moving use of loose-parts play while working on an adoption activity day. Our aim was to help children find ‘forever families’ by facilitating positive play experiences between potential adopters and young children.
We always brief adopters before the sessions, telling them to smile, get down to children’s level and let children take the lead while playing. One very young girl was clearly nervous and was not engaging with the play opportunities on offer. Then she suddenly began staring at a man with a shiny bald head.
This shiny bald head inspired the child to see the most amazing possibilities. She went over to a box of arts and crafts materials and took from it a bag of multi-coloured feathers and some glue. She then went back to the man and started gluing the feathers to his head. As he had been instructed, he smiled, stayed on her level and let her lead the play, and soon the two were fully engaged in the most wonderful play experience.
I don’t know what was more moving, the look of joy on the face of the child, or the same look of joy on the man’s face.
Was this loose-parts play? Well, the play value of feathers, a bald head and some glue is certainly greater when the three items are combined. The child saw the possibilities inherent in her environment, and crucially the adult supported and facilitated her exploration of those resources. To me this is the essence of loose-parts play theory, and just like the ‘forever family’ that happened as a result of that play, the effects can be profound and life-changing.
The Play Theorist Frasier Brown takes loose-parts play theory a step further with his theory of ‘compound flexibility’. He suggests that children exposed to the kind of interactive (or flexible) environments described by Simon Nicholson become increasingly able to make a more flexible and creative use of even static environments (hence compound flexibility).
He describes an ever-increasing spiral of innovation, imagination and flexibility if children are repeatedly exposed to flexibility within their environment. He also describes the opposite situation where there is a ‘stagnation in the relationship between the child and the environment’ and describes how damaging that is to a child.
Interestingly, Mr Nicholson also specifies as variables forces such as electricity, magnetism and gravity and media such as gases and fluids; sounds, music, motion; cooking with fire; and other humans, and animals, plants, words, concepts and ideas.
Nicholson, S (1971) ‘How NOT to Cheat Children – The Theory of Loose Parts’, Landscape Architecture, Volume 62
Brown, F (2003) Playwork: Theory and practice. Open University Press
Ben Kingston-Hughes is managing director of Inspired Children