Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

The ugly side of loose parts

The ugly side of loose parts

a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece

Have you ever considered the interesting connection between the ideas of the naturalist Charles Darwin and the work of Simon Nicholson of ‘loose parts’ fame? No? Well, it’s this:

There are those that mistakenly believe that Darwin ‘invented’ the idea of evolution and the term - except he didn’t - the general concept of evolution had been in existence for many centuries before Darwin published his, ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. Similarly, we hear of people who believe that Nicholson came up with the idea of ‘loose parts’ - except he didn't - as Nicholson himself acknowledges, the term had already been in use for at least a decade before the publication of his seminal 1971 paper, How Not to Cheat Children: the theory of loose parts’. The term itself actually originates within the 1960s ‘Discovery Method’ educational movement.

The unique contribution that both made to their field was to add the words ‘theory of’ to the equation. In scientific terms the word theory relates to a framework of ideas that provides an explanation of how something works, and in the case of both individuals their contribution has been about explaining how their respected concepts work.

In the context of ‘loose parts’, play settings as diverse as nurseries and early learning centres, schools and adventure playgrounds have always had an element of improvisation and recycling with the materials used (we call it being sustainable now), so in that context we could claim that the idea seriously isn’t new. But Nicholson added that degree of explanation – the theory – behind the idea that up to 1971 was sorely lacking.

Despite that and the practical application being wide-spread, the theoretical aspects of ‘loose parts’ are not necessarily well understood. We can see this in the way that ‘loose parts’ are often perceived and discussed.

Within a learning context, and especially within early learning, we seem to see them as primarily (though not exclusively) associated with art and craft, small construction (making garages and zoos for toy cars and animals for example) and as more acceptable replacements for out-of-the-catalogue teaching materials.  

And yet, whereas pretty collections of beads and shells, plastic shapes and buttons, stored neatly in nice wicker baskets or storage tubs, etc. do indeed constitute loose parts, there is a slight problem here. Becoming fixated with seeing ‘loose parts’ as just these small aesthetically pleasing things at the expense of others that might be less attractive to the adult eye really misses the major idea behind Nicholson’s original theory. Let’s talk about the ugly side of loose parts.

The ugly side of loose parts

The most often quoted passage of Nicholson’s paper is the one about variables and the importance of having things in both number and kind for promoting inventiveness and creativity – that one (you can find it on page 30 of his paper). Yet there is another often over-looked yet possibly more important passage within the paper. And it’s about caves.

Using a cave as an analogy for exploring various philosophical questions about perception, truth and knowledge is as old as the hills, and social-anthropologists often use the idea of the cave when explaining concepts of community involvement.

Nicholson takes this idea on with a generalised analogy along the lines of ‘children like caves’. The implication being that to study a question like ‘why do children like caves’ (for caves read loose parts) we might be tempted to observe children in the cave and see what they do whilst there to draw our conclusions from. However, he goes on to say:

 … the study of children and cave-type environments only becomes meaningful when we consider children not only being in a given cave but also when children have the opportunity to play with space-forming materials in order that they may invent, construct, evaluate and modify their own caves. (:31) [italics in original]

In other words, these ‘space-forming materials’, by which we mean ‘big loose parts’ –  such as wooden planks, pallets, old sheets, rope and netting, etc. – are an essential element in a play setting if children are going to get the best out of using loose parts as these are the materials with which children make their own caves. The problem is, these things are often not very nice looking, they can be rather dull in colour, are big, take up more storage space and can look out of place. Once a few of them have become strewn around the play setting there is also a temptation to see them as making our spaces scruffy, unkempt (ugly even) and looking like a rubbish tip. That genuinely puts some people off.

The ‘small loose parts’ (such as beads and shells) are still important as they often act as the props that are taken ‘inside the cave’, contributing to a pretend play episode taking place there. But without the big ugly looking stuff the power in those more aesthetically pleasing, neat, tidy small loose parts is diminished. Playing needs a context and often that context is the cave. Without it, playing with loose parts will not reach the potential Nicholson’s theory sees in them, and for that we need to embrace the ugly side of loose parts.

Marc Armitage 


Photo: 'the cave' created with large 'loose parts' and small 'loose parts' taken inside as narrative props, at The Treehouse Primary School, Bruges, Belgium (photo taken by Marc)


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Bridget Handscomb says:
I have struggled with the variety of interpretations and applications used by playworkers in the name of 'loose parts'and am glad to start to unlock the complexities that the theory/concept brings. Last year we said 'Yes' when we were offered a couple of defunct hot tubs that were destined to landfill. I can't count the number of times we've been asked by adults what are you going to do with them, let alone the debates about h&s, aesthetics & using plastics.... the children have adapted them as a booth in a cafe, a cave or tent, a pedicure bar, a shark infested swamp, a time machine or just something to climb on, in, under, over,flip off, dismantle, experiment with, try to fix. Obviously the availability of wood, mud, branches, ropes, material, cardboard, junk, etc. are crucial but a lot can happen with very little (that's another conundrum around this theory...).
Thanks for the prompt to keep thinking!
marc says:
@bridget Handscomb

Thanks for your comment, Bridget. I think your point about the need for 'wood, mud, branches. ropes, material, cardboard, junk, etc' is classic Nicholson.

It is only really by combining lots of these 'variables' combined with the 'cave' will ever see he real power in loose parts.

Fran Morrison says:
So if I consider Hart's Ladder of Participation at the same time?.....
marc says:
@Fran Morrison

Yes, Fran! Do so ...