Sticks, Stones & Shovels: Loose Parts Create the Next Generation of Problem Solvers
It’s time for some fresh air at Miss Tanya’s Nursery School in Westborough. A jumble of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds spill out the side door onto the playground and scatter, like a bag of marbles hitting the kitchen floor.
The first child out makes a beeline for a plastic rain gutter, which extends from the top of the play yard fence to the ground like a giant slide. A garden hose supplies water at the top, the boy sits at the bottom with an old kettle, catching the water and sending it down a narrow “river.” Four classmates grab shovels and begin digging, enlarging the makeshift waterway in some places and rerouting it in others until it hits a dam currently under construction by two other tiny engineers.
Across the yard, five boys stack thick woodchips on a large log, while one enterprising soul transfers brick after brick from the ground into a toy wagon, then starts to pull. His face screws up with effort, especially when he hits a small ditch and can’t move an inch. The boy stops, assesses the situation, and begins unloading brick by brick until he can make the wagon budge.
Welcome to recess, with nary a swing, slide, toy, or climbing structure in sight. In fact, it looks like a preschool sprung up in the world’s tidiest junk yard: weathered milk crates house bricks, old pots and pans, shovels, pieces of slate, and wood scraps of varying shapes and sizes.
Owner Tanya Trainor scrapped the school’s traditional playground about a year ago after the state’s Department of Early Education and Care released new school guidelines for playground equipment. Structures and equipment previously deemed safe, which had been in use in her playground and many others for years, had to come down, which led Trainor to wonder what she would do with the space.
She thought back on her childhood and that of her children, which prompted a desire to go “back to basics,” leading Trainor and her staff to incorporate and embrace what is technically known as the Theory of Loose Parts. Proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the early ’70s, his belief holds that an environment filled with materials that can be moved, manipulated, and combined into various combinations is infinitely more beneficial for children than one filled with static, fixed-use toys or equipment. The name sound fancy, but the idea behind this educational philosophy is basic: Give young children access to everyday items and see where their imaginations take them.
“If I hand a child a wooden puzzle there’s one way to do it,” Trainor says. “Pots and pans, flowers, sand, dirt, sticks, bricks: they allow you to use the material any way you want.”
“Children engage with these materials in a very profound way,” notes Miriam Beloglovsky, a professor of early childhood education at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, Calif., and co-author ofLoose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. “It is beyond just going and buying a toy. A toy is a toy is a toy. You push the button and you’re done with it. With different loose parts they are really engaging more in-depth.”
While the equipment is simple, the results it produces in young children are anything but. “Loose parts promotes intellectual learning, which is critical thinking, curiosity, inquiry-based knowledge, and creativity,” she adds.
Suddenly, that piece of scrap wood is a bridge over a raging river (which is technically a slow flow of water from the aforementioned repurposed rain gutter). Stacked bricks and slate become walls and shelter, silk flowers a forest.
In the world of today’s technology-centered, highly scheduled, and organized child, Trainor says loose parts fill a critical gap.
“They’re very inwardly focused,” she notes of today’s children. “There’s the communication, the social-emotional skills that come from having to work with one another and use materials cooperatively — they’re not there. The nice thing about loose parts is it requires communication, you’ve got to talk to your friends. If you’re going to build something you’ve got to talk about how you’re going to build it, what it’s going to look like. If you have 50 bricks, you’ve got to figure out what the heck to do with 50 bricks. Or you have a bunch of sticks and everyone wants to use a stick; everybody’s going to divide them up and talk about how many sticks they can get. You have to negotiate, you have to take turns — all of those wait-your-turn social-emotional skills that are so important for moving forward in their education.”
In a structured, rules-based world, Trainor says loose parts offers amazing freedom, creativity, and collaborative time based on one thrilling notion: “anything goes.”
“Not that solitary play is not good,” she clarifies, “but social-emotional is what these children really need. I want children to explore, have experiences, and learn and grow, use their imagination, and not be funneled into one activity.”
Trainor and her staff report that this environment has resulted in better behavior on the playground, too; there are fewer disagreements, arguments, or tears thanks to the plethora of open-ended, found materials available. The days of impatiently waiting for a turn on the playground slide or the rope ladder climb are over.
A study conducted between 2006-2009 on playgrounds infused with loose parts determined that behavior issues decreased and enjoyment for the day — teachers and children — increased, notesLoose Parts co-author Lisa Daly, a professor of early childhood education at Folsom Lake College in Folsom, Calif.
“The teachers had a more positive day, they didn’t feel like they were always having to put out fires, they didn’t have to do as much behavior management,” she notes. “They were more relaxed and started to enjoy coming to work more. “
Benefits Beyond Kindergarten Readiness
The power of creative, open-ended, unstructured play is the center of loose parts and an asset that experts say will greatly aid these children in the future.
Beloglovsky and Daly cite Department of Labor statistics that report that 65% of the jobs of the future have not been created yet.
“We’re preparing children for something we don’t know what it’s going to look like.
If you look at interviews with CEOs, the skills, disposition, and knowledge they want children to have in order to be employable in the future are very different than just memorization and academics,” Beloglovsky says.
Adds Daly: “Children need to have critical thinking, problem-solving skills, collaborative thinking. All of that happens when you have loose parts.” She points to the experience of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noting that the organization experienced a slate of veteran engineer retirements and hired the best and the brightest from the U.S.’s top universities to replace them. Yet the new hires were not working out and JPL couldn’t figure out why.
“They did a research study and determined [the young engineers] had not tinkered as children,” Daly notes. Subsequently, JPL has updated its job descriptions, adding: “must have tinkered as a child.”
“We’re so bombarded with commercialism: ‘You have to have this toy to increase your child’s intelligence.’ Everything has to have an educational stamp on it,” she continues. “I think those things are so limiting and in many ways doing harm to children.”
Adds Beloglovsky: “We want children to be children. We want to preserve play. We want parents to trust their children and to know that they know. By using and manipulating the objects in loose parts, they are learning what they really need to know but they’re also going to know more.”
And to answer a popular parent question: Yes, your child will be “ready” for kindergarten, Beloglovsky says. “What we want parents and teachers to understand is the children will be ready, but more important they will be thinking without a box,” she says. Forget thinking outside of the box, she prefers a new term: “no-box thinking.”
In their experience teaching the theory to college students and in working with preschoolers, the authors note another benefit: because materials are already around the house, found outside, or upcycled, loose parts is very low-cost or free for parents to implement at home.
“It crosses all social, economic, racial and ethnic boundaries,” Daly says. “They’re just available for everybody. It’s fun and exciting to see what people are doing with them and how parents get so involved in it. Parents are beginning to realize loose parts are available everywhere.”
Mom Jane Ellis of Westborough can attest to that. When she recently bought two shoe racks from IKEA, her 5- and 7-year-old children weren’t interested in helping her assemble them.
“What they were interested in was the box, the small pieces of cardboard inside, and all of the little packing pieces,” she recalls. “Off they went and I didn’t see them for a good hour. They come back and said, ‘Mommy, we’ve made a whole doctor’s kit. From this piece of cardboard we made some tweezers and this is our little Band-Aid kit, then they were playing and tending to their stuffed animals.”
A self-described minimalist who’s also “a little frugal,” Ellis says she’s been incorporating a loose parts lifestyle into her home without even knowing it had a name.
“I never bought my kids blocks you could stack, I just let them use the Tupperware we already had,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, we already have something that can do the same thing, so let’s use those.”
Ellis notes her children do own toys, such as Legos, which the family uses to play a game in which they have to grab as many as they can hold in their hands, make something, and describe it.
“They like knowing they’re going to get to describe it and explain what they’ve done,” she adds. “Which then makes them more creative about what they’re doing. The more they create, I feel the more creative they become.”
How To Incorporate Loose Parts At Home
Want to introduce more creativity and less commercialism into your child’s life? Loose parts aren’t confined to educational settings, they’re easily found and incorporated into a home, experts say.
• “Loose parts are available everywhere,” Beloglovsky says. They can be upcycled, safe materials found around your home, indoors or out: pots and pants, wooden spoons, metal bowls, paper towel rolls, egg cartons, blankets, fabric, old laundry baskets, you name it. “Real people things that aren’t going to break in a week,” Trainor adds.
• If you’re itching to buy something, toys that align with the theory include Legos, wooden train sets that can be taken apart and reassembled in various ways and, Trainor says, “as many blocks as you can afford.”
• Easy places to find new loose parts: yard sales, thrift shops, or Craigslist. Or tell your friends and family you’re on the hunt for such goodies, they probably have old household or outdoor items they’re dying to get rid of.
• Popular outdoor loose parts are anything you can find in your backyard. Sticks, stones, wood scraps, gravel, pallets, shells, logs, rope, bricks from that patio you never finished, buckets, the list is endless. The ultimate loose part? Water.
• Organize your materials in an open, easily accessible way. Trainor uses old milk crates, “so the children can come and shop, take what they want, and move along.”
• “Give them lots of whatever you’re giving them,” Trainor advises. “Not one wooden spoon but 10 wooden spoons. Not one shovel but four shovels. If you have four shovels, four people can be working together.”
• Mom Jane Ellis says a great place to introduce your children to the concept is the beach: “Don’t bring a heap of toys. Bring maybe one shovel, a bucket, maybe five items. The whole rest of the beach is a play zone, a place to gather things, create things, and start using the elements as their playground.”
• Indoors, author Daly advises parents to start small: “Start in a corner. Don’t feel like you have to turn your entire house into loose parts,” she says. “In the kitchen, have a drawer a child could open up and get out the pots and pans or the Tupperware containers.”
• When watching you children play, “try to zip your lips and just observe,” Trainor encourages. “As long as it’s safe, let it go. You will be the magnet in the neighborhood if you allow that kind of play; all the children will be at your house.” Whether that’s good or bad is your call.