Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Loose Parts - Nature Indoors and Outdoors

"Children are the only brave philosophers. 
And brave philosophers are, inevitably, children".

When I am stressed, I choose to be in nature where I find peace! I believe that young children have a natural affinity to nature – they will find bugs in the most unlikely places such as in car parks, little hands reach out through fences surrounding artificial play spaces to touch the weeds on the other side. Just watch the delight in a child’s face when they spy a puddle and the disappointment as the adult guides them away from this magical play opportunity. 

Transient art sculpture created by a 20 month old child in Family Daycare WA
 Childhood is precious and as adults we have the responsibility to support the building of childhood memories by allowing children motivational and memorable opportunities. Asking the majority of adults about their childhood - they usually recall these special moments as being outdoors; usually with no adult in sight, lots of time to develop their ideas, very few resources and often doing something they were told not to do! I certainly remember climbing onto the shed roof and doing somersaults through the air and into the compost heap, fine until I landed on one of the pumpkins growing wild! I also remember hours of trying to create fairy boats that really float using leaves and pieces of bark and decorating sandcastles using shells, seaweed and sticks. Do we offer our children these opportunities that will build such childhood memories? 

Sand and water that can be mixed offers a very high play affordance!
What 'resources' do we need to offer children for effective and memorable play and learning both indoors and outdoors?

Most important is the skilled adult! Somebody who understands what children need, is able to empower children to take the lead and can analyse the learning taking place without needing to structure activities or opportunities.  

The loose parts theory was first developed by Simon Nicholson, architect, who suggested that if children have access to a range of materials which have no defined purpose then they will access a wider range of play types and be more creative in the ways they play. “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. S. 1971

Adults analyse the learning. Cornish College, Melbourne
 ‘Loose Parts’ are materials that children are able to collect, move,  transport, attach, use on their own or combined with other open ended materials and can be made into many different objects. There is no right or wrong way of using them so children can be as creative as they want to be without feeling that they are not using them correctly. This means children have full control and can direct the play activity.

Nature’s store cupboard offers us the widest range of loose parts; some of the advantages nature offers is that the natural resources are highly sensorial, come in so many different forms which offer selection and challenge, are freely available and inexpensive. They also come in ranges and tones of colour that reflect the gentle colours of Nature’s palette instead of the standard very bright primary colours I so often find in young children’s environments. Too many bright colours are visually distracting and I feel add to the visual clutter in an environment that many children and adults struggle to concentrate in.

The best is that they offer a very high play affordance!

Children take ownership of their objects which become their treasures as they have been allowed the choice to select from amongst a large and complex selection with each child choosing specifically what is special to them - favourite colours, shapes, sizes, textures. They will combine their ‘treasures’ with other open ended materials they have free access to -  both natural and man made, offering them many hours of effective learning both indoors and outdoors. 
Seashells for children to collect - treasures they choose, colourful, broken - each one a chosen treasure for the child

So what do we need??
The type of natural resources that motivate and stimulate young children are sticks, stones, shells, water, soil, sand, seedpods, pinecones, wild grasses, plants, leaves, flowers and more. Objects that can be lined up, collected, arranged, hidden, used for construction. These should be available both indoors and outdoors – the outdoors tends to offers opportunities for large scale play which generally allows children more freedom. Adults tend to be more relaxed allowing children to 'make a mess' and allowing them greater freedom !

Offer these objects on their own or combine with man made open ended materials such as:
  • ·         containers of various sizes and made of various materials; buckets, bottles, boxes
  • ·         tools; saws, drills, rakes, metal and wooden spoons, spades
  • ·         resources: guttering, boxes, long sticks, cellophane, large bits of fabric, assortment of balls
  • ·         materials to join objects: string, twine, Sellotape, masking tape, wire

A cubby for children and one for fairies made indoors with natural materials collected. Cornish College, Melbourne
By offering children these inexpensive and easily accessible resources we allow children free exploration and we can see their own creative way of thinking and doing. As the psychologist Eric Erickson stated, we can see their “natural genius of childhood and their spirit of place.” 

"The natural connections children make to formal learning through the use of open ended and naturalistic resources should be a motivation to all adults to ensure that these are freely available to young children both indoors and outdoors."

"There are children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago".


  1. Brilliant Niki, will share it far & wide and to think this time last year I wouldn't habe know what was meant by the term 'loose parts', now I actually have it written into my outdoor play planners. Kierna

  2. Hear hear Niki. And oh my goodness, just look at that cubby. Some centres just do amazing things. Is that quote about "the natural connections children make...." yours? Its a goodie.

    1. That is my quote, Jenny?......Glad you like it!. I really hope adults will 'see' the benefits of natural loose parts and then provide children these opportunities. I get so frustrated with the constant plugging of plastic resources we see in the media.

  3. Could you please give references for both
    Simon Nicholson, architect
    I would be really greatful to know where you got them from to look more into.

  4. 'How NOT to cheat Children – the Theory of Loose Parts' in 1971, Simon Nicholson

  5. You have a very nice blog,full of good stuff!

    1. Thanks Hanna, I enjoyed reading yours too! :-)

  6. Hi Hayley
    Tracey has supplied the reference for Simon Nicholson, Thanks Tracey. J Robert Oppenheimer was a physicist and he has many quotes linked to philosophy. If you google his name and quotes they come up.

  7. I particularly like the way children have been allowed to incorporate sticks and branches into that cubby. There's so much fear out there of children doing outrageously dangerous things with sticks, yet the largest part of the problem is that they haven't been allowed to experiment with them as a natural part of their learning curve (as I was in my childhood). How do we conquer the fears of parents (about accidents) and of carers (about being sued!), Niki? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  8. This seems to be a big issue in many parts of Australia and when I recently spoke at the EYEC in Sydney (on boys) many delegates came up to me afterwards and felt that children using real tools, sticks and making fire would not be allowed in Australia. In reality all this is allowed as there is nothing prohibiting these activities in the new Regs but we have become so fearful that we hide behind them. I feel as professionals we need to fight for children's rights to be TRUSTED and allowed to self risk assess with adult support. I deliver a lot of training on risk and if you are able to put this in perspective and nurture the parents to look at the role of common sense and the benefits of the activity or opportunity versus the risk, you should be able to get parents and staff on board. I was Head of the internationally known Nature Kindergartens in Scotland and there children from the age of 2years used real tools, sticks and made fires in the forests every day.....we had to fight for children to have this right, just as I want to fight for Australian children to have that right. You could try and introduce short sticks and once everybody is comfortable with that add longer sticks......such a valuable resource. Let me know how you get on.

    1. Yes, great idea about the short sticks.

      I recently did a major research assignment on risky play and found that the parents in my demographic were much more up-to-date than the staff. Even when the children reacted amazingly positively to the risky play I promoted, the staff were mindblowingly negative- to the point of not taking up any of the ideas I'd put out there. So discouraging!

      As I'm a casual worker I get the opportunity to observe lots of centres' attitudes in this (rural) area, and I do see a huge problem in staff attitudes- perhaps because they have fewer and lower quality opportunities for professional development. There is this gulf between city and country.

      And being 'only' a casual I have little opportunity to change things in the long term, except by sowing seeds here and there. Never mind, I'll share this post on my FB page and hope others pick up on it.

    2. It is those seeds that are so important .... so keep sowing them! Some people take tiny baby steps while others may make giant leaps but as long as we are moving them all in the right direction - that is great. Where are you based - maybe I should offer to come and do some training there? I would agree that children in rural areas could have more freedom to explore outside spaces while in urban areas parents who don't understand the value of nature and risk could be highly risk averse. We can work on this together!!

    3. Niki, the crazy thing is that the children in some of these centres have great freedom of exploration at home- many are indigenous, many live on farms- but they come into centres where staff are highly risk-averse and get crazy-frustrated. I think it would be great if you came to do some PD up here- but would the right people come? Might PM you for further discussion on this!

    4. Where are you based? I would be very interested in your research and also to try and convince adults that children have the RIGHT to take risks. I am speaking at a Kidsafe forum in Perth - and they want me to myth-bust and show that children are more than capable of self risk assessing. Am planning PD on this all over Australia

  9. Risk, ah risk. I live in an inner-urban area of Canberra, though we are blessed that it is richly interspersed with wild and woodland spaces. However, bureaucracy runs wild and just will NOT allow any risk. For example, we have a paddock near my house, often frequented by kangaroos and until quite recently BMX-riding kids. The kids would make the most amazing cycle tracks to practice their skills, and time and again, the bulldozers came into their little corner of the paddock and purposefully trashed their creations. It was heartbreaking. One day, the bulldozers chose to move in at 8:30am in the morning, right where a group of us - chidlren and parents - were gathering for our Walking School Bus communal walk to school - and we saw the whole destruction first hand. One of us approached a driver ('just doing me job') and so several of us then lobbied hard to have this halted, to no avail, despite even some community media coverage. Eventually the bulldozers broke the spirits of the kids, who stopped re-creating their tracks and cubbies in the paddock, and gave it over completely to the roos.

    We talk, on the one hand - in the public sphere - about the need to create resilient children (read any government department blurb), but on the other - if we never let them experiment with risk, how on earth do we then expect them to handle sex, drugs and rock n roll appropriately down the track? We need a more concerted lobby group to really go hard on governments at all levels on this. We are the nanny state gone haywire, and the timid carers that Aunt Annie writes about are only a part of the bigger systemic problem. Our kids are being denied a whole series of adventures and critical learning because of it.

    Niki, do keep on pushing this one, it's SO important....! You have the skills and background that will make those able to effect changes sit up and take notice.

  10. Thank you very much Leanne. How very sad and unfair to destroy the children's creations - it sounds as if there is a spiteful bully behind it! I wonder who felt it was so important to stop the children having fun in the wonderful outdoors? Did you ever find out...I bet they hid?

    I feel so strongly that by denying children the opportunity to take risks we are destroying play as it is meant to be - an opportunity to discover the world around you with sensitive but unobtrusive support. I have seen and experienced first hand how amazing children are, how they can be respected and trusted to be their own self risk assessors and it is an insult for an adult to think otherwise. I must say that a lot of adults out there are not so good at self risk assessing - taking additional risks when they are on drugs or under the influence of alcohol! :-)

    Thank you for your confidence in my ability to continue to push this - we all need to stand up for children's rights including the right to take a risk! I hope to be doing a lot more work on this subject all over Australia in the next few months - maybe we can meet in Canberra!