“I can build what I want! Nobody told me what to build.”


double story cubby

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. ‘

(S Nicholson 1972 pg. 6)

That quote is one of my favourite quotes of all time. It totally sums up why I work so hard to spread the loose parts theory. Learning environments should foster inventiveness, creativity and discovery. The ‘variables’ is a very interesting part of the statement. Some folks think loose parts theory is about gathering a collection of stuff and having it available for use. In one way this is right.  In this quote, number and kind of variables is remarked on. The variables should be many and diverse.  However, the way the loose parts get used should also be many and diverse.

If we limit the freedom that loose parts play offers, then the effectiveness of them becomes reduced. Restricting their movement, interconnectedness, and purpose are some of the ways loose parts can be undermined.  Here is an example. Once, but no matter when, I was at a school with a truck load of loose parts. The kids created a mud bomb factory. It was huge, and they produced hundreds of mud bombs ready to attack the other team when they have their massive mud fight at the end of the day (what they didn’t realise is by the end of the day the scorching sun would have dried the mud balls into cricket ball consistency and crack your skull if they hit you, but I’m sure the kids would have worked that out). They were consumed by the process of this mammoth task. Some kids gathered suitable soil ( not that crumbly sand the mud ball research and development team tested and dismissed), others constructed and maintained the factory itself, some guarded the factory from spies and saboteurs from the other team, and others set up obstacles to hide behind. The site was electric with energy. Some of the teachers there were unfamiliar with the creativity and discovery children can undertake while engaging in unstructured free-play and felt the play was meaningless. Just fort play. Good guys and bad guys. A few of the teachers had a secret agenda planned for the day anyway. They wanted both groups to work together and make connections. They didn’t think, preparing for an all-out mud war would bring the kids together. Anyway, it would end up just getting messy, so one of the teachers called all the children together and laid down the rules of loose parts play:

  • You are to form groups of five
  • These must be a mix of both groups (teachers will help)
  • The task is to build a cubby house and the winner gets real dojo points (dojo points are like kid’s ‘heroin’ apparently because this excited a large cohort)
  • You have 30 minutes.

The transformation of the learning environment was incredible. Where there was once an extremely high percentage of children excitedly engaged it rich social learning, driven by their own goals and strengths, there was now a sea of stressed students working towards an assessment of, what would normally be a very subjective idea of what constitutes an impressive cubby. The cubby house that stood for an hour at the end of the yard and was the musical hub of the cubby village was scavenged for resources. When the law making teacher saw a child carrying a junk drum to his cubby, he said you won’t win points having a drum in your cubby (a funny thing is my house is full of musical instruments, and that makes my house feel very special). The language pre-competition was excitable and was concerned with wonderings regarding the mud battle outcome. The joyous nature of the pre-competition language enabled children to talk about construction techniques, share views on perfect mud consistency, talk about life outside of school and wonder about the abilities of the other group who they were to battle. Now the language was darker. “how are we supposed to win if they have all the barrels”, “we don’t have a chance because those guys always win” and “I don’t even know what we are supposed to build”. The final straw was when the teacher decided the winner, or should I say when he decided the 75 losers, because only five kids won.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far from my house I was at another school who did loose parts differently. They spent a whole term looking at how other cultures use technology. They looked at the third world countries and saw how people who had very little had to get very creative with what they had in order to overcome problems, with housing, food production, hygiene and entertainment. I rocked up with my truck load of loose parts, and they let the children go to town with no instruction. What they witnessed were the children testing, discovering and creating technologies using the resources they had. They constructed houses, traps, hygiene solutions (they made an out house) and entertainment (shooting hoops using tires and 44 gallon drums)  . Their distant observations of the children’s unhampered play became assessments of children’s understanding of their last terms curriculum uptake.

If you see a book called ‘free to learn’ then grab it. A guy called Peter Gray wrote it and he suggests children are wired to learn through play. To roughly quote him “in play, a child is un-hampered by evaluation. Concerns of evaluation freeze the mind and body into rigid frames suitable for carrying out well-learned habitual activities, not new creative ideas”.  Do we want our students regurgitating well-learned habitual activities, or take risks in new and uncharted waters.

A final word from a 9 year when asked what she enjoyed the most about her loose parts play session. “I can build what I want! Nobody told me what to build”. It is a pity the Government’s directing us to cram a non-contextualised bloated curriculum into our kids heads leaving little time for kids to explore their own learning their own way.


Gray, P., 2013. Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Book

Nicholson, S., 1972. The Theory of Loose Parts, An important principle for design methodology. Studies in Design Education Craft & Technology, 4(2).



Why is it when children get to free play with loose parts, they challenge the sweet equilibrium we all seek (we don’t really seek it, otherwise we wouldn’t be fabulous motivated educators 😊 ) . They build things too high, they get too messy, and they form exclusive clusters. Disequilibrium ensues and now we have to act. (Damn you Piaget with your Disequilibrium motivates learning idea). One of these equilibrium shattering activities is the “do not enter sign’ Often when children are building cubbies, the ‘do not enter’ signs often appear. As an educator, we hope all children adopt an inclusive philosophy in life. I have seen a lot of educators say, “that’s not very nice, take it down”. Or “everybody should be allowed in if they want”. I know we must encourage inclusivity and address relational aggression but is introducing an authoritarian ban of ‘do not enter’ signs the answer.

Our Vygotsky says children use play to test out adult ideas in a safe play world. ‘Do not enter’ signs are on our roads, hospitals, restaurants and even most schools and kindies. If they are surrounded by ‘do not enter’ signs then it only makes sense they will end up in their play.

Every time I see a ‘do not enter’ sign in children’s play, I first think what a fantastic text user this child is. Many signs shine when it comes to creativity. A recent one read; Do not enter you will get big big consocwenses torkin to Alfie and Ethan or Matty. That communicated the gravity of the act of trespass.  Sometimes the sign isn’t for exclusion purposes. I was at a VAC care site and the older kids put a ‘do not enter’ sign on the construction. When asked why, they said it’s to keep everyone away from the venomous snake enclosure.

Most times the kids just want to limit the numbers of people that can get inside. A bit like a nightclub or Australia. They have a logical reason. If everyone was welcome, then their cubby would explode from the inside out and the blood and carnage would be on the hands of the educator who facilitated this policy.

Cathy Nutbrown & Peter Clough (2009) wrote a paper that addressed inclusivity and citizenship and felt silencing the child’s voice (banning signs), is counterproductive when addressing exclusion, relational aggression, racism etc. Listening to children and knowing how they feel opens discussion. They feel the children’s voice is central to any understanding of their perspectives and this understanding will inform pedagogy and curriculum choice.

With all this being said, most sites let these signs exist. Often it comes up for discussion, and the child’s voice is valued. Just as well, because I would hate for a kid to find out I’m a hypocrite with my lock on the front door and nobody else is allowed to ride my motorbike rule.


Again with the risky play! ( a parents story)

barrel skate park


The other day I was booked to run a junk and nature session by a council down south by the sea. The liaison said the council wanted something engaging while being able to wash their hands of any risks associated with risky play (by risky play, I mean ‘fun’ play).  The aversion to risk got us chatting. The Liaison (lets call her Ms T) said she let her own kids engage in risky play. When they were very little, they could play at the skate park testing their skills on the concrete ramps, and steel rails, however, the glares and whispered comments regarding the ‘neglectful’ mum sometimes got too much, and  Ms T would hand the duties over to her husband. Ms T observed, the husband never got that response from the community (maybe he didn’t notice it because he was a man 😊 )

Do community values regarding risky play influence the parents who want their children to have the best learning experiences? I know Ms T still lets her kids take risk, it’s just, sometimes she is a little more covert about it. While we were having this chat, a bunch of older kids (free of adult supervision) grabbed one of my blue barrels, and after a little bit of unmanned testing, finally took the plunge and rode the skate ramp Niagara falls style. It seems kids don’t care too much what the general community feels about risky play.


Risky play. Walking the walk


A while back I went to a site and turned a cut down tree into some play equipment. The highest part of the structure was a lofty 750 mm above the dirt. Normally if a structure is more than 600 mm high it needed soft fall,  however the vertical drop from the highest point meant they would land on the log underneath and that was only 450 mm away. Technically it didn’t need soft fall.  The ground underneath was a sandy loam with heaps of leaf litter. Not soft fall as current regulations dictate, but not asphalt either. We understood the potential risk and went with it. The champion of risky play, Lady Allen of Hurtwood said “better a broken arm than a broken spirit”. Well a child’s spirit didn’t get broken, their arm did. I am an advocate for risky play as it develops children’s self risk assessment ability, gives them agency, and build resilience, however I don’t really want to see all the children break their arms in order to have a strong spirit so I went back to the site to drag the structure over to the soft fall area. When I got there I asked how it happened. Turns out a child was sitting on the bottom log (300 mm high) and fell backwards and broke their arm in two places.

Typical, I thought. We create risky play environments, and they go and break their arms on the non risky play aspect. I was at a site months ago and saw some cool log stepping stones that went real high and was informed that a child broke their arm falling from one. I thought, fair enough. They do go pretty high, but was told it was from the first step that was 100 mm high. I don’t think we are going to go down the path of adding soft fall to any structure 100 mm off the ground. The point is, yes, risky play environments do lead to more chances of injury, however children seem to find a way to get injured even in a bubble wrapped environment. I was at an Adam Bienenstock  seminar and he said that’s why kids bone heal so well. Because they are designed to break. Kids are designed to fall over and get up again.

Well the logs from the site I worked at are now over proper soft fall, and the kids can legally do swan dives from the top if they want. Unlike most soft fall I see, this stuff is two feet deep, and like quicksand. Hey Kids. I dare to try and break any bones now. I DARE YOU!

Throwing nature

mud on tree

I was talking to my brother a while back, and we were reflecting on what we enjoyed about playing out in the scrub. He said “throwing stuff”. We threw rocks down cliffs, stones at bee hives, brothers into creeks, and mud, stones, paddy-melons and sheep sh*t (i mean poo) at each other. Throwing nature was a big part of our nature adventures.  Chris Athey (who ran the Froebel Early Education Project for 5 years) talks about physical schemas. Trajectory is one of them. I think our shared love of throwing nature identified a trajectory schema will both have today. This photo of a mud splattered tree attest to this. I splatted a hand print on the tree and asked if anyone could get higher than that. Suddenly. SPLAT! a huge glob of sticky mud appeared a foot above it. Hand prints were forgotten as the kids and I worked our mud balls higher and higher up the tree.

The good thing about physical schemas like trajectory is they lead to deeper cognitive understandings. Kids had to measure muscle output and aim to get the balls higher. If the mud was too dry it wouldn’t stick on the tree, however, if it was too wet it would stick to your hand and not land where you want it to. They discussed so many scientific variables. Some learnt the perfect consistency through experimentation (Piagetian idea), while others worked it out vicariously through others ( Bandura’s Social cognitive theory). All these learning goodies just from throwing nature. And to think. Some children are discouraged from throwing nature.

Larry the lumpy stick

larry the stick

Larry the lumpy stick

If anyone has invited me to their site they may have met Larry. Larry is a wattle branch that I sourced from a Forestry SA pine forest 5 years ago. Wattles grow along the edge of the pines forest and they normally get chopped down when they maintain the plantations. Larry’s path changed from, composting on the forest floor (a noble profession) to becoming an icon of nature education to thousands of children. As Larry gets older, he is getting a few cracks in him (like me), and one day he will go beyond his usefulness and retire to my bonfire. Actually, I love Larry. I will mount his battered remains on my office wall, with a fitting epitaph. Before Larry came to be, my collection of 250 sticks were just sticks.  Now and then the older children got a bit rambunctious with the sticks and a few got broken. I decided to personify my sticks. I started with Larry. He was a unique branch, with a deep red colour, smooth, and lumpy. Look after Larry, I would remind the kids. As the sessions unfolded, the children wanted to know where Larry was. They wanted to know the other sticks names. I would hear kids in the yard shouting “look after Larry!” I noticed stick breakage dropping after this idea was implemented. It is like the children had developed empathy for the plight of Larry and his brethren. A lot of research supports the personification of nature, and anthropomorphisation of the animals, as a way of helping young children connect, develop empathy and build relationships with nature. As a young child I felt the scrub behind my house was like a giant creature that was my friend. When it got hurt, it hurt me.  Maybe mother nature is a real Mother, and we are the children getting looked after. Sometimes kids have to look after their mothers. Oh no, I’m sounding like a hippy. Better sign off and drink some herbal tea.

Defending the fort!

storming the fort


Imagine this scene. War cries echoing throughout the grounds, battle drums thundering their intoxicating rhythms, driving warrior clans, decorated in muddied war paint, to boldly declare their conquering intention to clans whose mud spatted faces identify them as the enemy. Weapons held high, threatening, posturing, reeking of bravado.  Defend the fort! The generals observe from the hill, iPad’s in hand documenting all of the learning, linking to the Australian curriculum, school philosophy, and valued learning dispositions.  This was my experience at a city based primary school.

In the last month, I have visited many schools. Loose parts are on the rise. Sometimes teacher driven, but mainly student driven.  Students scour the school grounds for materials they can use to create forts, cubbies and other special places. With these meagre resources, they create places they can call their own. Ownership of environment is important, and at school many students feel they are at somebody else’s place. They feel, every time they carve a little niche the ‘man’ takes it away.  Often the cubbies and their resources are taken away.  The most common reason is, the students end up fighting over the finite resources, and people get hurt. This is true. I have seen it with my own eyes at many sites. The cubby building is motoring along, until they consume all the resources. First, they playfully ‘steal’ from other forts. This escalates, until conflicts break out. “Teacher! They are stealing our sticks!” is a popular catchphrase.

What happens next is interesting. At a recent conference, I heard South Australian teacher’s main pedagogies were building relationships (good) and rescuing (not so good). Some schools rescue the students from these problems (and the problem-solving skills needed to overcome them) by banning cubby building. I was at Keith area school and I noticed their students created a fort village, and had exhausted the resources. Somebody did steal some sticks (hey, they are kids after all), however the verbal exchange that followed was logical and respectful. It went something along the lines of “but I need the sticks!” “I know you do, but stealing is the wrong way of getting something”. They went on to negotiate a way forward that was win-win.

I asked their teacher why this was. She said they have had loose parts in their yard for quite a while, and they have already addressed this element in their school curriculum.   Their school has some huge banners out front saying Respect, Courage, Cooperate, and Achieve. It seems having loose parts in the yard affords teachable moments to help students gather positive experiences developing these dispositions. This was echoed by the iPad laden Generals who noted, without these learning experiences how are children going to master the executive function skills needed to move through our complex challenging world. DEFEND THE FORT!