The Theory of Loose Parts

‘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.’

~ Simon Nicholson, Architect




In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote a groundbreaking paper in an architecture journal titled “How Not To Cheat Children- The Theory of Loose Parts“.  Nicholson proposed that it is loose parts in our environment that empower creativity.

Loose parts refer to objects that have no predetermined purpose or set of directions and can be used alone or with other objects. Loose parts can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, assembled, taken apart and put back together. The best example of loose parts is a set of wooden blocks. Think of all the possibilities beyond just building a tower- making a train, tossing blocks into a bucket, filling a toy truck, pretending to cook/eat the blocks, etc etc etc. There is no wrong answer!

Nicholson’s theory is based on the idea that all children are creative beings- not just a gifted few- and by giving children “open-ended” play materials, we are giving them endless opportunities to create. Over the years, this concept has completely changed the play landscape of preschools, childcare centers, and toy design. Experts love loose parts because they can be used in any way the child chooses, encourage mastery and generalization of multiple skills, and promote individuality. Parents love loose parts because you don’t have to invest in expensive, fancy toys!

I have been thinking a lot about this recently with many of my little friends who struggle with creativity in play. I have been trying to be more mindful of what materials I am offering, as well as what recommendations I am making for home. Children don’t always use materials the way us adults expect them to. Just the other day, I pulled out a bin of plastic balls, in all different sizes and colors. I was planning to show the 20-month old that I was working with how to roll these balls down a ramp. Before I knew it, the little guy had hidden 3 of the balls in his shoe and was covering his eyes saying “Ball….where are you?“. Why didn’t I think of that?!


For more ideas of materials to keep on hand, check out our previous post on non-toys.

-Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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