Poster child for loose parts

No, nothing has fallen off yet, although sagging is ongoing! The Buick is keeping it all together (for which I am very grateful). So what's up with "loose parts"?

Loose Parts is a big deal if you are an early childhood educator, unschooler, informal nature educator, child-play theorist, or possibly hoarder. This post is a big love letter to my parents for raising me as a loose parts kid before architect Simon Nicholson proposed the theory in 1972.

"Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. Loose parts can be used alone or combined with other materials. There is no set of specific directions for materials that are considered loose parts. The child is the direction."

Loose parts differ from manipulatives in being irregular, and often natural objects. Loose parts differ from the lessons in the Montessori school where I worked because they can be combined with other materials. Montessori materials, in my experience, are finite sets for children to take out, use according to the lesson to solve a choreographed problem, and then put away complete.

As a Sixties kid, I thought our family was just poor, and that was why we didn't have Chatty Cathy dolls with limited conversational skills, or Flintstones/Jetsons Colorforms. What we had was a whole lot of loose parts and open-ended playthings! Plus, our playthings connected us to the work of our extended family and community.

Barney Rubble undressed is kind of creepy.
We were very lucky children in a time of rising education and affluence, We were not contributing manual labor to help our family survive as soon as we were weaned. We were not yet so affluent as to be deprived of unstructured playtime by endless lessons and activities, or sucked into the vortex of advertising, retail therapy, and mindless materialism. We constructed things by hand from plans devised in our own imaginations using whatever we could scavenge. We found new purposes for left-overs, hand-me-downs, bits and pieces. Our play often practiced adult work skills. Sewing button eyes on sock puppets comes to mind. And we used whatever we found to create structures and make up stories to play, to improv.

What happened? Much as I love Legos, I blame the marketing shift to Lego sets with movie tie-ins and model instructions. Lego began telling kids and the old folks with the credit cards that the pieces could only be used to build the exact model pictured on the box. We went from telling kids they could use the blocks to build ANYTHING they could imagine, to telling kids they could be the first on their block to collect every set. Santa brought the sets we could build using only the ability to follow diagrams. (Parents usually did the actual constructing.)

I blame schools and day-cares and stressed-out parents who insisted that the pieces of Set A be picked up and put away before getting out Set B. No, you may not build a restaurant out of large blocks, stock the kitchen with play cookware, get paper and crayons to make menus and order pads, then park all the Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars out in the restaurant parking lot. Forget about getting your hair styled with the hammer, wrench, pliers, and screwdriver before you go to lunch at the restaurant!

Loose parts can be natural objects:
  • stones
  • shells
  • nuts
  • leaves
  • sticks
  • stalks
  • blossoms
  • berries
  • acorns (should not be taken into a warm house and left in a closet)
Loose parts can be bits from adult work:
  • tile samples
  • upholstery samples
  • paint chips
  • fabric remnants
  • blueprint paper
  • canning rings
  • buttons
  • spools
  • hardware bits
  • clothespins
Some favorite loose parts come from adult leisure activities:
  • golf tees
  • matchbooks
  • bridge tallies
  • cocktail swords and umbrellas
Other loose parts were empties:
  • Rx bottles
  • packing materials
  • cereal boxes
  • oatmeal cartons
  • coffee cans
  • Kleenex boxes
  • shoeboxes
  • tp tubes and giftwrap tubes
  • egg cartons
  • potpie pans
  • bottle caps
Loose parts let us create our own stages and dramas.

Loose parts let us count, combine, sort, divide, and distribute objects.

Loose parts let kids assign values or meanings to objects.

Loose parts allow compositions and variations on a theme.

Today I received an email request to provide ten cardboard boxes of different sizes and shapes to be used in the upcoming educator workshop. Sure, I can do that blindfolded and with one hand tied behind my back!

Thanks, Howie and Fritz, for the open-ended objects of my childhood, and the unstructured time to use them. Eventually I did use some of the tile samples in a bathroom rescue renovation project.

© 2013-2015 Nancy L. Ruder


seana graham said...

I love the loose parts concept. My childhood was kind of a combination of loose and fitted parts. I'd include roly polys, pipe cleaners and blocks my mom had played with as a girl as some of the loose parts variety. (No harm was done to the roly polys)

Collagemama said...

Oh! I loved pipe cleaners!

Kathleen said...

sigh...and LOVE! I still fiddle with loose parts! (And am probably made up of them!)