A Pedagogy for Loose Parts

A paradise of Loose Parts

Photo Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool

Many credit Simon Nicholson with developing the theory of loose parts. While this is true historically, as a practical matter, children and teachers have been the real pioneers of loose part play. Over the past couple of decades, programs that support child development have created very systematic approaches to loose parts. I suspect that if I did a comprehensive search of the literature, all this knowledge is written down somewhere, but in my five decades of work in this area, I haven’t run across such a compilation. It is easier for me and, hopefully, more accessible for you for me to write up what I have observed. Before I launch into that exposition, it is appropriate for me to explain why this is an important exercise at this time.

As the Fairy Dust is settling around the Play First Summit and the 75,000 participants begin to process what we witnessed, it is impossible not to conclude that educators have begun to embrace child-directed play as an essential component of early childhood education. It follows that the primary means to that learning is an environment that is largely comprised of loose parts. The next step is to develop a pedagogy for this curriculum.

Generally, I start any analysis by looking for the intention. Be it a poem, a building, or a politician, examining what the intention is behind a made object or action is foundational. When it comes to loose parts, that intention is or should be, to maximize the child’s control. I say “should be”, because all too often the child’s control is compromised by other considerations. Be they cost, convenience, learning outcome, or other overriding consideration, it is important to identify the underlying intention in creating a sound and true pedagogy.

We should also recognize that as early childhood educators, we have been provisioning early childhood education environments for at least the past two centuries and, therefore, have amassed and tested a wellspring of solutions. This means that creating a loose part pedagogy is more like anthropology than creativity—lets’ start by categorizing what we have been doing all these years.

Natural Loose Parts

Without a doubt, natural materials are the earliest loose parts. Sand, water, leaves, sticks, flowers, and dirt are materials that children love and are foundational. While it is easy to say that these sorts of resources are important for early childhood development, we tend to think that their value is, well, natural. However, with our modern understanding of neuroscience, we have another and deeper takeaway. Natural materials provide what Bernie DeKoven, our dear late, Dr. Fun, called complexification. While this term has a specific meaning in mathematics, in Bernie’s use, the term when applied to something playable its meaning connotes increasingly complex layers and branches. His concept was almost like fractals, but rather than ever smaller repetitions of the same shape, play has ever-deepening layers of discovery and engagement. Complexification is one reason the “nature play” movement has so much appeal and sustainability, and why educators try to include as much of nature as we can. The challenge is that other than rocks, nature tends to be fragile, high maintenance, and space intensive. Since ECE tends to be chronically and perniciously under-resourced, we find including nature in our programs challenging. To combat this challenge, as professionals, we need to tie the inclusion of natural loose part play to the child development benefits natural materials provide. The key benefit is complexification and how it is essential to the development of a complex brain.

Combinatorial Loose Parts

anji storage
Photo – Suzanne Axelsson, Interaction Imagination

What neuroscience tells us is that children’s play is often counterfactual. We can see this in the classroom when children struggle with how some ideas fit together when others don’t. This is the sort of deep learning that is hard to explain to parents or policymakers but is extremely important in children’s cognitive development. The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning.

The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning. The emblematic combinatorial play is a dollhouse as it brings together all the avatars and furnishings of domestic life. Block play can also be considered combinatorial, but in many programs, blocks are restricted to specific areas, and no other props are available; and such block play is just construction play. The same can be said of jigsaw puzzles, which are simple pattern recognition exercises. Returning to the issue of intention, one can quickly see that in each of these examples, child control is limited. Only when loose parts are not constrained to functional silos, do we achieve a deep level of complexification.

Educational Loose PartsScreen Shot 2020-08-05 at 3.17.30 PM

The appeal of educational loose parts is schools can readily answer the question, “what are children learning”? Perhaps the greatest practitioner of educational loose parts was Maria Montessori. Everything in her environment has specific learning embedded in its design. She intentionally used the child’s curiosity as a motivation to discover a fundamental concept she considered important. While one can make a case that this method is beneficial, it is important to note that it is the antithesis of nature-based loose part play. There are no deeper layers to the Montessori apparatus. Once a child has learned what the apparatus has to offer, children find the devices do not lend themselves to combinatorial play. Fortunately, most Montessori programs are not exclusively devoted to this narrow approach if only because kids soon master the content and need more. The lesson here is that materials with specific learning outcomes are not in themselves bad; it is just that they are very limited in meeting the demands of whole-child education.

Junk Loose Parts

Adventure Playgrounds have been around since the 1940s. In their way, preschools have embraced this concept almost as long. The play yard in which I had my practicum 50 years ago was of this type, with cable spools, doors, and tarps. Over the years, ECE has developed an informal inventory of found objects that are useful, such as tires, barrels, boxes, etc. The play yards at Anji Play are one of the best examples of including these well-suited objects. Teacher Tom’s Woodland Park and the Takoma Park Cooperatives also make good use of these materials. Indeed, in Tom Hobson’s Second Book, he extols the value of junk because its very worthlessness allows children to imbue the objects with a new identity. This repurposing is another form or counterfactual thinking. In his book, Tom elevates found objects from junk collected that no one wants, to objects that offer an opportunity for deep learning experiences. Tom embodies the sort of work we need to do as ECE professionals. In our daily interaction with children, we observe learning in situ and thus, over time, come to value the environment as the “third teacher.” We know this teacher may look strange and perhaps a bit dangerous to outsiders. But for those of us who know her, she is beautiful, and we must continue to allow her to evolve without interference or shame.

Active Loose Parts

In my experience, the type of loose parts that, if too often an afterthought in our choice of materials, are loose parts that support active play. Sure, we all have trikes and may call it done, but the skill development of trike riding is so low as to be dismissible. Scooters are far more beneficial motorically. The paucity of active play loose parts is widespread. For example, many programs I visit have no balls, which may be due to the fear of thrown objects, but the ability to catch is a rite of passage for children. The coordination of eye-tracking and combined with gross motor movement is one of the essential physical skills and are pivotal for such things as reading and dodging cars. A few other examples include a hula hoop, which is s such an evocative object for movement.  A few 2x4s will be used for balance, wide board for a slide, ropes for swings. As a play systems designer, I cringe at the climbers attached to most commercial apparatus that offer only walking-gate type of movement, feet straight ahead hands to the side. For gosh sakes, we are primates! It is fairly easy to get downed trees from landscape maintenance companies or park departments that have many limbs that offer complex movement challenges.


The preceding is a start on a Pedagogy for Loose Parts or Child-Based learning since this is also true. This topic can and should become an online manual with all the associated links to Pinterest pages, references, and examples. Since America has come to realize the essential role of ECE in the economy, we will need a whole new generation of ECE teachers. While students may be trained in what to buy to equip their classrooms and yards, we expect that they will not also be given much background into the deep developmental value of junk. It is unlikely that, unless we create it, they will encounter a comprehensive manual that ties best practices to the emerging neuroscience in a systematic, constantly updated, and accessible format.

In this introduction, I’ve given the idea of a Loose Part Pedagogy a push. Let’s have some fun filling in the pages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s