‘Education is recreation, and vice versa’ – Simon Nicholson
It’s guaranteed you can remember your grandparents saying something along the lines of: ‘When I was a kid all we had was a stick, and we could have hours of fun’.
In recent years, loose parts play has become increasingly popular. But what is it? And why is it popular?
The idea that a child’s imagination is an invaluable tool that can make even the most mundane objects, such as a stick, into hours of play is a powerful and intriguing idea.
Moreover, if you already have children, it’s certain that you might have bought them a really expensive toy, for them to completely ignore it and play with the box instead.
It’s isn;t hard to encourage kids to play with ‘loose parts’ and it could perhaps increase certain cognitive functions when using your imagination to make the most out of an object, rather than having directed play that limits imagination.
Obviously, the idea of giving your child a box of loose buttons, rather than spoiling them by getting them the newest toy, can seem cruel on the surface.
However, in this guide we will cover how to present loose parts play in a way that doesn’t seem like a punishment, look into why kids love it, and ultimately the value and advantages, and disadvantages, of loose parts play. Read on to explore this intriguing topic with us.
What Is Loose Parts Play?
‘Loose parts’ play, is the idea that children can potentially get more out of the experience of relying on their own imagination to create ‘play’, rather than relying on toys. In other words, children have more to gain from playing with mundane everyday objects, and potentially enjoy it more, than pushing them to use toys.
The concept was originally raised by Simon Nicholson, his full paper can be read here. His main suggestion is that all children have the ability to become creative and inventive, he suggests most children are actually restricted from exploring this part of their brain by the ‘pre-packaged’ creativity of toys, or their ‘invariability’.
Moreover, he states that the main thing needed for children to explore their creativity and inventive mind is variables, or ‘loose parts’.
Nicholson states: “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”
So, as stated by Nicholson, ‘loose parts’ play isn’t necessarily about your child being happy with a stick. ‘Loose parts’ play is more about bringing variables into the situation so they have more choice and ability to be creative than simply the ones their toys offer.
Just think, our children impress us most when they are playing ‘outside of the box’.
When they have invented a new way to use something broken, this shows inventiveness, or when they don’t have a certain part they can often find suitable alternatives, showing creativity.
Teaching kids that they HAVE to use the blocks and plans given to them can immediately halt any inventive or creative thoughts.
Without getting too much into pedagogical psychology theory, it’s worth noting that this is a widely researched topic that has its roots in science, it’s not just an old wives tale or some form of new world thinking.
What Are The Advantages Of ‘Loose Parts’ Play?
Without toys, we aren’t conditioning any societal ideas into your child’s head, we are allowing them to form these concepts naturally without input.
For example, the conditioned idea that your male child must always have blue toys, and female children should have pink.
By introducing more variables instead of conditioning behavior, your child will feel more comfortable ‘being themselves’ and be open to more experiences.
The Concept Of Value
With ‘loose parts’ play your child’s concept of value can become sharpened. For example, they aren’t so worried about the idea of money and things like.
They don’t think ‘that kid has better toys than I do’, they remain comfortable with their own unique imaginative tools rather than worried about what toys other kids are playing with.
While this can sound cruel on its surface, there is more behind this than you think.
If a child is happy to play on their own in loose parts play, they become more comfortable being on their own in general and this can transfer into later life. They will rely less on their friends and siblings for happiness once they unlock the power of their imagination.
Not to discredit the previous advantage, but ‘loose parts’ play does naturally make your child want to include more people, as there are more variables in this situation.
Another’s imagination can increase variability greatly for your child and can mean they can collaborate and achieve levels of play they couldn’t before.
Toys can make your child claim ownership over toys and not want to share them, whereas your child will quickly understand that they don’t own the world so they can share it more easily.
Your child won’t claim ownership over objects so often. When they can simply pick up anything or start playing anywhere they begin to value their identity and imagination more than they do actual objects.
The whole point of this sort of pedagogical approach is to not restrict your child. Nicholson’s suggestion stands, that when you increase variability you increase room for creativity and invention.
So a serious advantage is that your child is not restricted at all, they can explore anything and everything and in that search they will find themselves.
If you force your child to play with construction toys, they may be neglecting their natural interest in gardening, for example. With ‘loose parts’ play they can express themselves how they feel is right.
Best Loose Parts Play Ideas
As mentioned, the idea that we shouldn’t give our children toys can seem quite cruel. Obviously, your child can have toys, it’s about understanding the variability of those toys.
Just think back to your grandparents and their stick: their point is that the one stick can be a sword, a measuring implement, a wand, a baseball bat, a torch, a stave to warn away zombies, etc.
It’s about increasing variability, it’s not about taking anything away, so pick the toys that have the most variability. Here are some examples.
Whatever brand you buy, magnetic tiles are a great way to increase variability.
Your child can construct basically any 3D structure with these magnetic tiles, allowing your child to be inventive and creative with their constructions, rather than being limited to a plan like a LEGO creation. They can also use other toys when playing with magnetic tiles, such as action figures etc.
Sand is never too far away from any child. Sand has many many uses for children. Whether they build sand castles or use it to form shapes, they can express many sides of their logical mind with the variability of sand.
Gardening is one of the most obvious applications of loose parts. The variability of nature is one of the largest your child has access to, and they only have to walk outside. Your child can have endless fun poking holes for you to put seeds in, and watching the plants grow.
As the plants start to grow you can encourage them to think outside of the box and solve the natural problems that occur as something actually grows.
Not only do they gain an appreciation for their environment and nature, but they also gain so many important learning skills associated with STEM subjects.
The Final Word
As you can see there is so much to explore with ‘loose parts’ play and so many great loose party play ideas to get you started. Not only is it super interesting for adults to think about, but you can enrich your child’s playtime so much with this concept.
Without even mentioning how much money it saves you, it encourages your child to be themselves, and figure out who they are through their unrestricted expression rather than how they react in forced situations.