The Theory of Loose Parts

For the fourth of July Independence Day celebration, I took my daughters downtown to the street fair. Every year they have a section of the fair just for the kids, and every year they have a booth set up with barrels and boxes full of loose parts. On the tables are rolls and rolls of masking tape. Children are encouraged to pick out whatever they want and put it together however they want, to make whatever they want. Every year, it is one of our favorite booths.

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She’s trying to make a guitar.

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Have you ever heard of the Theory of Loose Parts? I have only just heard of it, and I am surprised that I haven’t heard of it sooner. In 1972, an architect by the name of Simon Nicholson proposed the theory, which 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.

Basically Nicholson is saying that the more loose parts you have , and the different types of loose parts that you have, the more inventiveness and creativity you will see.

I can see where he is coming from. A few weeks ago, the kids and I got some small electric appliances for the purpose of taking them apart to see what was in them. I also told them that they could create whatever they wanted out of the rubble. I know that they had serious fun dismantling the items…

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… but I didn’t see a lot happening in the way of creativity afterwards. To be fair to them, they didn’t really have enough time or the right tools to make a great project out of it (a hot glue gun would have been helpful, but it was at dad’s house). And as we know from previous posts, time, tools, and tolerance are necessary for creativity to emerge.

Nicholson says that, for the majority of people, there is more to it than that. For most people, whether or not they are creative is a mindset:

The dominant cultural elite tell us that the planning, design, and building of any part of the environment is so difficult and so special that only the gifted few – those with degrees and certificates in planning, engineering, architecture, art, education, behavioral psychology, and so on – can properly solve environmental problems.

The result is that the vast majority of people are not allowed (and worse – feel that they are incompetent) to experiment with the components of building and construction, whether in environmental studies, the abstract arts, literature or science: the creativity – the playing around with the components and variables of the world in order to make experiments and discover new things and form new concepts – has been explicitly stated as the domain of the creative few, and the rest of the community has been deprived of a crucial part of their lives and life-style. This is particularly true of young children who find the world incredibly restricted – a world where they cannot play with building and making things, or play with fluids, water, fire or living objects, and all the things that satisfy one’s curiosity and give us the pleasure that results from discovery and invention.

Nicholson proposes providing more loose parts for children to experiment with in different environments so that they can have opportunities to realize their creative potential. Luckily, more schools and early childhood educators are understanding the effect that loose parts have on children’s play, and are providing more loose parts to inspire creativity in their classrooms.

For more information about the Theory of Loose Parts, visit here.

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