How to support children’s creativity with loose part materials

In 1972 Simon Nicholson, the son of artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, presented the idea that young children’s cultural participation comes from the presence of open-ended ‘loose part’ materials that can be transformed in different ways. This post explores the key principles of the theory, including key debates surrounding it.

Loose parts theory, children learn through experimentation with materials by Simon Nicholson

What is loose parts theory?

The term ‘loose parts’ was coined by Simon Nicholson, an English architect and artist. The loose parts theory was first presented in Nicholson’s article ‘the theory of loose parts: An important principle for design methodology.’ This theory rejects the idea that creativity is a characteristic of a select few. Nicholson claimed that people have been misled to think that creating artworks and buildings is so difficult that only highly gifted people can do it. In opposition to this, Nicholson argues that all people, including young children, are capable of participating in the construction of culture. Loose parts are open-ended materials such as clay, blocks, rocks, and paint that children can adapt, move, design and transform in many different ways. The more flexibility a material or space has, the more opportunities these variables have for children’s creative experimentation:

‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness, creativity and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it’ (Nicholson, 1972)

What are the key principles of loose part learning environments?

Nicholson proposed four key principles that can be applied to the design of children’s learning environments. Such an environment could be an artwork, a playground, the architectural design of a school or a computer game. The principles are as follows:

  1. Give top priority to where children are at. This means introducing loose part materials into schools, kindergartens and hospitals where children spend the majority of their time.
  2. Let children play a part in the process. Communities, especially young children in communities, must be involved in the design methodology used to produce children’s spaces from planning to construction to continuous evaluation of how space is being used.
  3. Adopt an interdisciplinary approach. There is very little difference between art, science, education, recreation, work and play in early childhood education. Educators need to approach children’s learning with loose parts from an interdisciplinary perspective and consider how this framework can be used to shape assessment and curriculum.
  4. Establish an archive on children’s learning environments. Information resources that aim to share educational theories and practices, especially around human interaction with open-ended materials, are critical in connecting people and idea networks. Information resources may include records of children’s learning strategies that are produced through play with loose part materials.

What are the key debates around loose parts?

The theory of loose parts raises significant questions about the design of children’s spaces, in particular, what aspects of an artwork can be constructed by an adult and what parts can be left for children? In art museums, loose parts theory also raises complex questions about the ethics and authorship of artworks. If children are co-constructing an artwork, do they then have joint authorship of the piece? Does this then undermine the role of the artist and curator? If an artist foregoes the presence of loose part materials, does this then come at the compromise of children’s creative learning?

Loose parts theory focuses on the physical and spatial components of children’s learning environments. It does not discuss the role of social interactions and how these can also be used to support children’s creative learning. Nicholson also does not discuss the limitations to the deconstruction of instructional-based learning. For example, is a loose parts environment just about putting a bunch of materials in a space and letting children go wild? Or alternatively, is it about carefully considering what materials are presented to children, letting them explore these and then responding to children’s discoveries through making a suggestion or asking a question?

Designing a loose part play activity

Roma Patel and I constructed a giant ‘Ball Run Factory’ for children and their families at the Lakeside International Children’s Theatre & Dance Festival. Children were able to design and construct ball (or marble) runs using quirky and recycled materials. We also developed a special play area for babies and toddlers. Check out the video below!

Disclaimer: This post is an updated version of ‘Simon Nicholson on the theory of loose parts’ posted on this website in April 2016. 

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6 Comments

  1. 16th March 2017 / 5:36 am

    Louisa, am really loving this website. I am working on a masters degree in psychotherapy, and am doing a capstone project on using loose parts as therapy for trauma. I cannot find sources that talk about Simon Nicholson being the son of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Any chance you can direct me to some? I have been doing research on Loris Malaguzzi and how he came to be involved in the preschools of Reggio Emilia, but would love to know more of what shaped Simon Nicholson. Thank you in advance!

    • 22nd October 2017 / 4:39 pm

      Hi Carrie, great article! My original post was written on May 23, 2016

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