From about the time children are around two-years-old, the urge to build new things from the objects around them begins to take hold. This typically begins with kids simply stacking one thing atop another or arranging them side by side. But obviously, as they grow older, as they develop and gain experience, their constructions become increasingly complex.
This type of behavior is hardly exclusive to the human animal, but our ability to first imagine, and to then construct, something new from materials at hand, be it tools or amusement parks, is in many ways what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Preschool classrooms traditionally accommodate this sort of exploration by providing various types of blocks and building sets. Among the most versatile are classic wooden unit blocks, Legos (or Duplos for younger children), and Magna-Tiles, and every classroom will benefit from a few sets, but they are not essential because children will build with pretty much anything they can pick up.
In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article for a magazine called Landscape Architecture entitled “How Not to Treat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play.” Perhaps it wasn’t the first time that the phrase “loose parts play” was used, but it was this manifesto that in many ways kicked things off. In the nearly 50 years since its publication, the idea has grown, first slowly, and then suddenly in recent years as more and more early childhood educators have made Nicholson’s theory a centerpiece of their play-based programs.
That the theory emerged from architecture is fascinating to think about. It echoes, in a way, the work of Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi who was at about the same time postulating that children had three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment, the environment being the primary purview of architecture. Nicholson’s theory, as he phrased it in that original article:
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 was not talking exclusively about early childhood, but about educational environments in general. He included playgrounds and classrooms in his discussion, but also places for all ages, like museums and libraries. His big idea was that we are most inventive and creative when allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments. He argued that when we leave the design of spaces to professionals, we are, in effect, excluding children (and adults) from the most important, and fun, part of the process. We are, in his words, “stealing” it from the children.
Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, even those working in otherwise highly structured environments, knows this to be true. None of us would, for instance, build a block structure for the children, then expect them to learn anything by merely looking at it and listening to us lecture. We know that the children must take those blocks in hand, must both construct and deconstruct, must experiment, test, and manipulate. We also know that their play, and therefore their learning is expanded as we add more and varied materials to their environment.
The theory of loose parts applies the principles of the “block area” to the entire environment, encouraging us to let go of our ideas of how a learning environment is supposed to be and to instead fill it with variables, things that can be moved, manipulated, and transported. This, as Nicholson points out, is where creativity and inventiveness live. It’s important to remember that his theory continues to be a radical one, even as aspects of it are becoming more mainstream. This is about more than tree cookies and toilet paper tubes and clothes pins. It’s about more than old tires, shipping pallets, and planks of wood. At its core, the theory of loose parts is a theory about democracy, about self-governance, and the rights and responsibilities of both individuals and groups to come together to shape their world according to their own vision.
The world is always ours to shape and when we are not shaping it, it is shaping us. Nicholson’s insight was that our environment is too often a kind of dictator, one that is restricting rather than expanding our possibilities. As we work with our “third teacher” it’s important that we keep this in mind and always ask ourselves, “Is this stealing the fun from the children?”