“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).

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