Playing with Loose Parts: That’s How Learning Happens!

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Simon Nicholson, used the term loose parts in an article written in 1971. Loose parts are materials that are variable and unstructured. Nicholson maintained that children love to interact with variables in order to play, discover, invent, and experiment.

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, 1971, p. 30)

The article that Nicholson wrote is entitled How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts. The wonderful Juliet Robertson of Creative Star Learning writes about Nicholson in an article where she gives thanks to the landscape architect who developed the theory of loose parts almost fifty years ago.

How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts

I first encountered the theory about twenty years ago as an early childhood education professor with a desire to offer my students hands on experiences that would help them understand what Jean Piaget referred to as three types of knowledge – physical, social and logical mathematical. The course that I taught for many years focused on physical knowledge which is what children learn when they act on objects and materials to discover their characteristics, attributes or affordances (Kamii, 2014). Many years later I would co-author a textbook on Outdoor and Nature Play in Early Childhood Education with Beverlie Dietze and in our chapter on loose parts we shared Gibson’s (2014) affordance theory who suggested that environments and objects within them have values and meanings that are unique to the child using them. Affordances and variables increase with open-ended materials. The affordances and variables inherent in loose parts invite children to discover on their own leading to decision-making and problem solving. The child is actively involved when playing with loose parts. The way the materials will be used is up to the child, not a toy manufacturer, parent or teacher. The child is active, and the materials are passive until they are acted upon. When children engage with  loose parts they are playing in many different ways.

Loose Parts Play

Physical play happens with loose parts as children pick up and move both small and big materials. Constructive play occurs with various materials such as cloth, blocks, boards, boxes, etc. and a variety of tools. Dramatic play occurs when children build playhouses. Children use loose parts to create games with rules. Loose parts can support collaborative group play or be used by one child engaged in solitary play, or two children playing side by side in parallel play. The use of open-ended material can also lead to risky play. From play comes learning. This is how learning happens. From the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada the statement on play-based learning this is clear.

  • Learning through play is supported by science.
  • Learning through play is supported by experts.
  • When children are playing, children are learning.

Statement on Play-Based Learning

I am writing this blog post from Nova Scotia where I had the privilege to present a workshop on loose parts to a group of educators in Cape Breton. I am grateful to Wintergreen who sent a loose parts kit from their warehouse in Toronto to support a day of hands on playing and learning where the educators could discover for themselves, the variables, properties and affordances of loose parts. Added to our collection were locally sourced materials from the land – sticks, stones, pinecones and shells along with collections of recycled materials collected over time.

Loose Parts from WintergreenLocally Sourced Loose PartsPlaying and Learning with Loose PartsCapable and Confident Children use Loose Parts

Here in Nova Scotia the early learning community is working through a new early learning framework which supports learning environments that are flexible and open-ended. I saw parallels with my own province’s pedagogy for the early years, How Does Learning Happen?  which suggests that “children thrive in indoor and outdoor spaces that invite them to investigate, imagine, think, create, solve problems, and make meaning from their experiences – especially when the spaces contain interesting and complex open-ended materials that children can use in many ways” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 20).

Nova Scotia's Early Learning Framework Implementation Draft

I am confident that after our day together that these educators recognized that capable, confident and curious children play and learn with loose parts!

Have you ever noticed that if you leave old junk lying around, kids will almost inevitably play with it? Whether it be old cardboard boxes, wooden pallets, pieces of wood, old tires, bits of rope or string, kids will use their imagination and ingenuity to make something. This may make your garden look like a junkyard sometimes, but the experience for the kids is invaluable and it will keep them occupied for hours. Don’t try and direct the kids in their play, just let them get on with it.” Nicholson (1971)

5 thoughts on “Playing with Loose Parts: That’s How Learning Happens!

  1. Thanks for sharing the importance of play as well as the theory of loose parts. When moving between the space of theory and practice, it is interesting how interpretation of theory plays out in ones own practice through representations of the theory in the materials we select and the environment afforded children and educators. I believe it is still important for educators to see themselves in the learning and when selecting materials educators may need to take the time to question the purpose of the materials within the context of learning. Selecting the materials is respectful of the child s knowledge building opportunities and the educators understanding of the learning that is happening.


  2. Pingback: Science in Early Learning: The Root of STEM Education | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  3. Pingback: Loose Parts & Open-Ended Materials – Mrs. Brown's Blog

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