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Loose parts theory 

The term ‘loose parts’ was first introduced by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970’s in his paper ‘The Theory of Loose Parts’. Nicholson believes that everyone has the ability to be creative, and it is the restrictions put on play that reduce creativity for young children. Even now, we can see that overly planned and structured environments take away the child’s need to be creative and think critically, and as previously mentioned the rise in technology means that children don’t need to be creative as they are constantly stimulated by the vast amount of computers, tablets, mobile phones and games consoles provided.  

Nicholson (1971) described loose parts as variables and provided examples of these variables.

“There is evidence that all children love to interact with variables, such as materials and shapes; smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism and gravity; media such as gases and fluids; sounds, music, motion; chemical interactions, cooking and fire; and other humans, and animals, plants, words, concepts and ideas. With all these things all children love to play, experiment, discover and invent and have fun. All these things have one thing in common, which are variables or ‘loose parts’. The theory of loose parts says, quite simply, the following 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.”  


Put simply, the more open-ended resources that we can provide for young children, the more creativity we will see. This is further supported by the theory of affordance. 

The Theory Of Affordance 

James J. Gibson (1979) introduced us to the theory of affordance, he believed that environments and objects are viewed differently depending on the individual; the ‘affordances’ of an environment or object are based on the potential that it has. He defined affordances in terms of the environment and animals, 


‘The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.’ – Gibson (1979) 


When applied to children, Casey and Robertson (2017) share a great example of what the affordances of a wall have to offer, 


‘…a brick wall may be built to create a clear boundary between a pavement and a garden but for many children, it would offer a place to sit, walk along, balance, hide behind and jump off.’ 


This definition gives us a clear sense of how environments made up of loose parts and open-ended resources can be many different things to the many different children that encounter it, it offers endless opportunities only limited by the views and perceptions of the child. This is closely linked to the beliefs of the Reggio Emilia approach and schema theory. 

The Reggio Emilia Approach

Reggio Emilia is a place in Italy, renowned for its approach to the teaching and learning of children in the early years. The Reggio Emilia approach, named after its place of origin, was established by Loris Malaguzzi just after world war two. 

The fundamental principles of the approach are: 

  • Children are capable of constructing their own learning and should have control over the direction that it takes 

  • Children must be able to learn through all of their senses 

  • Children are natural communicators and should be given opportunities to form relationships with other children 

  • Adults are mentors and partners in learning 

  • The environment is the third teacher and offers opportunities for children to access materials and resources freely 

  • Documents children’s learning and thoughts is crucial for understanding what is important to the child 

  • Parents and families are partners in the learning process 


Loose parts and open-ended materials play a key role in putting children at the centre of their learning and allowing them freedom to follow their desired direction, to learn through their senses and to explore materials freely in their own unique way. The Reggio Emilia approach also believes that children show their understanding and express their thoughts and ideas in many different forms, Malaguzzi wrote 'The One Hundred Languages of Children' in recognition of this. 

The child is made of one hundred. 

The child has a hundred languages a hundred hands a hundred thoughts a hundred ways of thinking of playing, of speaking. 

A hundred always a hundred ways of listening of marvelling of loving a hundred joys for singing and understanding a hundred worlds to discover a hundred worlds to invent a hundred worlds to dream. 

The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred hundred more) but they steal ninety-nine. 

The schools and the culture separate the head from the body. 

They tell the child: to think without hands to do without head to listen and not to speak to understand without joy to love and to marvel only at Easter and Christmas. 

They tell the child: to discover the world already there and of the hundred they steal ninety-nine. 

They tell the child: that work and play reality and fantasy science and imagination sky and earth reason and dream are things that do not belong together. 

And thus they tell the child that the hundred is not there. 

The child says: No way. The hundred is there. 

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