Outdoor Play: When They Would Rather Play with Sticks and Stones (The Theory of Loose Parts)

child playing in the dirt

I hid my stick, can you find it?

I laughed to myself as I watched my 2-year-old playing in the borders, hiding a stick in the bushes and drawing in the dirt.  A few feet away was a very expensive sensory playground with musical instruments, water features and a little bear cave. It was very impressive, but the lure of a stick was just too great. Given the choice I’m sure regardless of the expensive equipment we provide, most children are happy with a stick, a pile of stones, or a tub of water.

My eldest was obsessed with tiny stones when she was small. Everywhere we went she would stop to pick them up or take them home in her pockets. If we were in the garden she would make collections of little stones and spend hours moving them from one place to another. She was very young at the time but I never stopped her for fear that she may swallow them. I simply made sure I was sat nearby so that I could see what she was doing.

playing with loose parts

filling eggs with stones and glass beads.

My 2-year -old loves sticks. We have 2 rules:

  • No sticks in the house
  • Do not point sticks at people’s eyes.

Sometimes they are magic wands, Sometimes fishing rods or sometimes simply something to carry around. Every stick is greeted with equal excitement.

playing in the dirtAll 3 children play for hours in the sand pit. When I first moved to the US I didn’t think the girls would like the grey, gravelly play sand they have here. I was wrong, they love it as much, if not more than the fine golden sand we had in the UK. Even at the park they chose to play in the dirty gravel rather than on the equipment.

The Theory of Loose Parts

In 1972 the architect Simon Nicholson devised the Theory of Loose Parts. It grew from the notion that all children love to interact with variables. Variables can be anything from materials and shapes to media such as gases and fluids and are used to discover, invent and have fun. The theory of loose parts is as follows

‘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.      (Nicholson 1972)

Put simply, the playground with static play equipment will not offer a child the opportunity to discover and create their own scenarios as freely as one that is less predictable or restrictive and offers moveable objects that can interact with the child’s play. A swing is a swing but the gravel can be a home for a bug, fairy dust, a cake, something to draw in, a track for a car and other endless possibilities.

We have the perfect garden for playing with loose parts, with an abundance of trees, pine cones, stones, dirt etc. I decided to organise these a little to see if it would change the way the children played with them.

Storage for Loose Parts

garden equipmentWe had an old clothes horse in the garden that was waiting for a purpose. I bought a few hanging baskets and hung them on the clothes horse along with a few other baskets I  had found. I also clipped a variety of containers to the clothes horse using  an underwear dryer (we also use this for drying paintings).

Using the clothes horse means that it is fully portable making  it easy to move out of the rain or to the sandpit, paddling pool or lawn .

The Slide show illustrates some of the things we collected .

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Other ideas for loose parts that can be stored outdoors

  • sticks, twigs
  • glass beads, marbles, buttons, bells, beads
  • feathers
  • lolly sticks
  • pegs
  • acorns, conkers and seeds,
  • string
  • large things like pallets, tyres, flowerpots, fabric, boxes, pots and pans, tubes, guttering, bamboo canes, bricks, planks, logs, driftwood.

I love to see the children using their environment to stimulate imaginative and creative play. Here are some of my favourites.

Learning for Life

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

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This entry was posted in active learning, children, early education & play, imagination, outdoor play, parenting, play, pre schoolers, Reggio Emilia, science, sensory play, toddlers, woods and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Outdoor Play: When They Would Rather Play with Sticks and Stones (The Theory of Loose Parts)

  1. I love hearing about your these approaches to play. you always make me think about it and inspire me! thank you. Keep them coming.. :-)

  2. Wow looks like they had so much fun – I love how toddlers have the best imagination, a stick is a sword and there is no limit on anything. Great post and ideas :)
    Just stopping over from country kids

    Laura x

  3. Great post. My 4yo is obsessed with sticks and stones I find stones all over the place, especially the washing machine! We have the same rules for sticks :) The theory of loose parts is fascinating – and demonstrated so clearly in the way kids play! I love the idea for the ‘loose parts station’. One to develop I think… #CountryKids

  4. Brilliant post & thanks for adding it to the Outdoor Play Party. I am a big fan of loose parts too :)

  5. Pingback: Mud Faces for International Mud Day | rightfromthestart

  6. Pingback: Home Preschooling – Doing it My Way | rightfromthestart

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