The Theory of Loose Parts

Integrating Loose Parts Play in a Preschool Program

“How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play,” by architect Simon Nicholson, was published in the magazine Landscape Architecture in 1971. “All children love to interact with variables, such as materials and shapes; smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism, and gravity; media, such as gases and fluids; sounds, music, and motion; chemical interactions, cooking, and fire; and other people, animals, plants, words, concepts, and ideas,” according to Nicholson’s thinking. All children like playing, experimenting, discovering, inventing, and having fun with all of these things.”

The idea has grown in the nearly 50 years since this essay was published, and more and more early childhood educators are incorporating Nicholson’s thesis into their play-based programmes.

It’s amazing that the theory came from architecture: It harkens back to the work of Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilia, who proposed that children had three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment—the world of architecture. “Both the degree of originality and creativity, as well as the likelihood of discovery, are directly related to the number and sort of variables in any setting,” Nicholson said.

He wasn’t only talking about early childhood education; he was talking about educational environments in general. He listed playgrounds and schools, as well as museums and libraries for people of all ages. His main point was that humans are most original and creative when we are permitted to construct, alter, and otherwise play with our surroundings, and that leaving space design to specialists effectively excludes children (and adults) from the most crucial (and enjoyable) portion of the process. To use his words, we’re “taking” it from the kids.


Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, including those who work in highly organised contexts, understands the importance of imagination and creativity. For example, none of us would build a block structure for the kids and expect them to learn anything by simply looking at it while we speak. We know the kids will need to take those blocks and make and demolish them, as well as explore, test, and manipulate them. We also know that as we add more and varied items to their environment, their play, and thus their learning, expands.

The theory of loose pieces extends the premise of building blocks to the entire environment, pushing us to abandon our preconceived notions of what a learning environment should be in favour of variables—things that can be moved, controlled, and transported.

Even as components of Nicholson’s theory grow more mainstream, it’s crucial to recognise that the idea remains radical. More than toilet paper tubes and clothespins are at stake. More than old tyres, shipping pallets, and wood boards are involved. The idea of loose pieces is, at its heart, a theory about democracy, self-government, and the rights and duties of individuals and organisations to come together to build their world according to their own vision.

The world is always ours to mould, and when we aren’t, it is forming us. Our environment, according to Nicholson, is too frequently a dictator, limiting rather than increasing our options. When working with the “third teacher,” educators must keep this in mind and ask themselves, “Is this robbing the youngsters of their fun?” As loose parts play has become more common in early childhood education, we must remember to ask this fundamental issue.

I’m pleased that the concept of loose parts play has swept the early childhood realm in recent years. It seems like every day I come across a new website dedicated to loose parts play, a loose parts workshop for instructors, or a new book that will help us understand it better. Of fact, it’s an idea that precedes Nicholson, having been around since the dawn of time, and one that was originally only implicit in our common knowledge of play: when left to their own devices, children would pick up whatever is available and play with it. However, in the current era, we have primarily employed toys designed expressly for children as the centre of play.

We adults lost sight of the fact that children continued to play with loose bits, some of which were these toys, broken, adapted, or otherwise. As toys became more affordable, our homes and classrooms became overrun with them. Children continue to play with loose components even now, often ignoring the main objects. Who hasn’t joked that youngsters prefer the boxes in which their toys arrived to the goods themselves?


Yes, I’m glad there’s a renewed emphasis on the open-endedness of objects like rocks, sticks, and pine cones, toilet paper tubes, mint tins, and yoghurt containers, old tyres, boards of wood, and gutters. However, I’m concerned that in our embrace of loose parts play, we’re putting too much emphasis on the loose parts and not enough on the play. I am concerned when I hear teachers fretting about their loose parts collection, hanging over the kids in case they damage, misuse, or lose the priceless items.

My students have always engaged in loose parts play, but I rarely refer to it as such; instead, I refer to it as garbage or debris. Whatever it’s named, the important thing is that we don’t have to pay for it and don’t have to worry about it being destroyed, misused, or lost. The majority of the items on our playground originated from the dirt or the garages, attics, and recycle bins of the parents who enrolled their children. One of the functions of preschools, in my opinion, is not to use things, but to finish them. We still have toys, but the majority of them are broken in some way—cars are missing wheels, dolls are missing heads, and balls have lost their shape. As Nicholson pointed out, these products encourage “invention and originality.”

We don’t need to go out and buy these items, and we don’t need to “teach” kids how to play with them. There are already a lot of loose elements in our world. They’re stuffed into recycling bins and homes’ cellars. A broken toy is frequently preferable to a new one. We can simply make garbage available and then move on. This is how we make sure we’re not robbing the kids of their fun, and thus their potential to learn.