Loose Parts Theory: Less Toys More Materials

Kelly Goodsir on The Theory of Loose Parts

For instance, Thomas trains … tell children HOW these trains should behave and this is taken on through their role play – in a way it is already prescribed, the characters already developed.

Children are highly creative beings whose imaginations are in full swing during the early years. Providing an environment that is rich in loose parts, materials and everyday items sparks the imagination and creates many possibilities for children’s expression. The theory of loose parts is a  vehicle for children to express and test their developing ideas, theories and experiences in life. A simple tube can be a star catcher in a galaxy one day and a tunnel for ants to cross a raging river the next!

loose partsToys, on the other hand, can typically be one-dimensional and often have a shelf life in terms of their purposed function – once mastered children rarely go back to them for their intended purpose.

Don’t get me wrong, some types of toys are very versatile and can complement loose parts play well, for example Lego. However, the emphasis here is they can supplement loose part play.

The term loose parts was first coined by a British architect, Simon Nicholson who believed that every human being has the potential to be creative and that loose parts in an environment invite immense imaginative possibilities.

So what exactly are loose parts?

They are beautiful found objects and materials that children can move, manipulate, control and change while they play. Children can carry, combine, redesign, line up, take apart and put loose parts back together in almost endless ways
— Daly & Beloglovsky, 2016.

Many early childhood education guidelines, such as the NQS in Australia, emphasize that materials, resources and equipment can be used in multiple ways, are flexible and can be adjusted!

Loose parts certainly fit this element!

When turning the theory of loose parts into practice, here’s what to consider:

  • Collect materials from your community, families, local business and your own environment.
  • Find ways to sort and store for ease of access and use.
  • Set the learning space as an invitation for children. Create a sense of curiosity, wonder and intrigue. Positioning materials in particular ways to provoke play is an important role of the educator.
  • Viewing and treating loose parts as a precious resource for play will mean children will too.

Educators create the environment, children create the experience.

Bloom’s taxonomy positions ‘creating’ as the highest form of thinking. Open-ended materials provide the platform for critical thinking not to mention that loose parts are the most sustainable and accessible resource we can provide!


Two Play Scenarios

“The Humble Train” – Toys vs Loose Parts

Everything about the Thomas trains is already set, the train characters, the tracks.

Toy Train Set

While I am a keen fan of the everyday train set (find me a child who has not loved train sets at some point) I am beginning to see some of the limitations they create when compared to playing with loose parts.

Train tracks connect in only one way, and they ultimately join up to make a completed track.

This is typically how children approach playing with these toys.

Start there and finish here.

We are all familiar with ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, which is how the humble train track became big business.

Each of the trains featured in the Thomas set have particular characters and roles, which are reinforced through various other mediums such as books and TV programs.

They tell children HOW these trains should behave and this is taken on through their role play – in a way it is already prescribed, the characters already developed.

Put simply, it LIMITS creativity and places a cap on the possibilities in play.


Making a Train With Loose Parts

A child can express their experience and interest in many creative ways. In this case a child with a keen interest in trains constructs a train with loose parts.

Using rectangular wooden pieces as the carriages and many other materials to make the engine.

  • A horn to sound ‘when I’m coming’
  • Front pedals so I can put the engine brakes on
  • A button to open/close the carriage doors at the station.

I notice that the experience is a whole body one, hands telling the story, words expressing the functions, the movement to interact with each part of the train.

A train set with loose parts, where everything is left to a child’s imagination

Others are invited to board the train and the narrative starts to become imaginative when one says “we are off to the moon” – the train can fly!

WOW there are now so many possibilities!

In summary, you can provide the loose parts and let their imaginations run wild …

Bottle tops, buttons, tubes, fabric, reels, tires, recycled home items, pots, wood, leaves, stones, sticks, funnels, wool, tiles, kitchen utensils, mats, boxes, foam, jars, containers, fallen objects, lids, tape, pegs, bulldog clips.

The list of loose parts is endless, as are the uses.

Here is a free PDF of Kelly’s article about the theory of loose parts for you to download and share.

For parents, this may be an eye-opening post, possibly one of the most important posts they will ever read on early education.  It gets to the whole debate around structure versus unstructured in early childhood education.


Kelly Goodsir

Kelly is a teacher, author and learner.

She is passionate about leading educational change and has over 15 years’ teaching experience, in Pedagogical Leadership.

When she’s not spending time with her family ro working on her consultancy practice, you can find Kelly running laps around ‘The Tan’ in Melbourne, drinking coffee at her local café or just soaking up the sun somewhere peaceful!

Read more about Kelly here.