Simon Nicholson and The Theory of Loose Parts – 1 Million Thanks

8 December 2017 · 4 comments

in Early Years Outdoors, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Outdoor Play

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‘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.” Simon Nicholson

In 1971, Simon Nicholson wrote an article in a Landscape Architecture journal called How NOT to Cheat Children – The Theory of Loose Parts. Over the decades which have ensued, Nicholson’s paper has had a profound impact on many childcare professionals, particularly playworkers, early years practitioners and outdoor and environmental educators. To celebrate the milestone of having 1 million visitors to this blog since August 2013,  I decided to find out more about the person behind the statement and to acknowledge his contribution to the world. 

About Simon Nicholson

Not much can be gleaned from an internet search around Nicholson’s life. He was born in London, one of triplets in 1934. It is likely that his upbringing will have been unorthodox, given that his parents were Barbara Hepworth, an internationally renowned sculptor, and Ben Nicholson, also a well-known artist. It also suggests that Simon’s comments about everyone being born creative and inventive are particularly pertinent, in the context of the hard work, drive and passion of his mother and her outstanding works. One biography suggests that the relationship between Simon and Barbara was difficult. She cut him out of her will because he sold a sculpture she had given him.

When the Second World War broke out, the family moved to Cornwall. Simon received a scholarship to attend Dartington Hall. In 1953, he spent a year studying sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. Between 1954-57 he read archaeology and anthropology at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Thus, it would seem that his interests were broad and diverse. He remained working in the field of art and design throughout his life, having a short stint as a Visiting Professor of Sculpture at the Moore University in Philadelphia in 1964, followed by being a Professor of Sculpture at the University of California between 1965-71. This perhaps helps to explain why two versions of the Loose Parts article can be accessed, one being a US version. Both are the same content and both reference US articles and contexts.

Whilst working in California, Nicholson established a “Design 12” course which appears to have laid the foundations for his 1971 paper. According to Tim Stott, “it proposed that play could provide an education in open, interactive environments, in systems building and in ecological thinking. Of the almost fifty projects completed by students in that year, the most successful were shown to be ‘self-instructional’ and to include many ‘loose parts’ when tested by playing children on campus and in local schools, parks, playgrounds, and hospitals.”

In 1971, Nicholson returned to the UK and took up a lecturing position with the Open University where he remained until 1989. He was the Chair for a particularly innovative Art and the Environment: Interactive Art and Play course (TAD 292) which ran from 1976 to 1985. It was experimental and different. From this course sprang the student self-help group, the Tadpoles Society. Simon wrote the course text for this and also continued his interest in participative approaches to urban planning and design through the course, Urban Development: Community Participation in City Decision Making Unit 22 (DT201)

In 1990, aged 55, Simon Nicolson died from alcohol poisoning. Whilst this is a tragic ending to his life, hopefully his family and friends are proud of his positive impact and legacy which has enabled thousands of children to be active participants in modifying and designing their play landscapes and to enjoy countless hours of free play with loose parts.

If you haven’t seen the Scrapstore Playpod video, then this is an inspiring video of the use of junk loose parts:

About The Theory of Loose Parts

The original article is packed full of commentary and suggestions which are worthy of reflection. Almost 50 years later, many remain relevant now as was then. Below is a personal summary of the value of Nicolson’s 1971 paper, which may be of use.

  1. Everyone can be creative and inventive. You can see this when you observe children of all abilities play with loose parts.
  2. Loose parts are variables. Nicholson’s definition goes beyond open-ended materials to include phenomena such as music, gravity, and playing with words, concepts and ideas and much more. This is considerably broader than natural, junk and recycled materials. We need to be mindful of the breadth of possibilities.
  3. Children need environments that have lots of loose parts or variables. When an adult, such as an architect or planner designs a space that is “too clean and static and being impossible to play around with”, Nicholson suggests that they have had all the fun during the design process and have effectively stolen the creativity from the children. Thus, the concept of loose parts extends to the environment in which the variables occur.
  4. Children can and need to be part of the design process of a space and this can evolve from plenty of opportunities to use loose parts within their play. “In terms of loose parts we can discern a natural evolution from creative play and participation with wood, hammers, ropes, nails and fire, to creative play and participation with the total process of design and planning of regions in cities.” A lovely example here, is the Planning for Real, For Real approach developed by Julie Mountain, a landscape architect by training, several years ago.
  5. Children need to have “space-forming materials in order that they may invent construct, evaluate and modify their own” This in turn links to how children learn particularly well in a “laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find things out for themselves.” My favourite recent example of this is the work of Woodland Tribe.
  6. That human behaviours – what people require and need should be the basis for the design of artificial environments. (Sadly, this is not always manifested, even today, when news schools are built, particularly the outdoor spaces).
  7. That everything is place-specific. For example, what works in one woodland may not work in another. It may sound obvious but it’s amazing how often we see models being imposed from one place to another and then wonder why they don’t work.
  8. Nicholson suggested that when considering the impact of curriculum development, educators should ask:
  • What did children do with loose parts?
  • What did they discover or re-discover?
  • Did they carry their ideas back into the community and their family?
  • Out of all the possible materials that could be provided which ones were the most fun to play with and the most capable of stimulating the cognitive, social and physical learning processes?

The latter two questions are not always given sufficient consideration, yet are highly valuable as we need to be ensuring connections between children’s school and home and community lives. The materials which are most fun and stimulating start moving into the concept of affordance – the range of possibilities that children perceive in any given resource or environment. This is made even more interesting when we use Nicholson’s examples of variables.

  1. Nicholson believed that educational evaluation of how children use loose parts provided the missing element in the methodology used by designers.
  2. The increased emphasis on real-life problems, outside and off-site is part of a natural trend towards environmental education (I think this is beginning to manifest itself strongly in the early years, particularly with the growth of outdoor nurseries of various sorts)
  3. Nicholson valued environmental education in a holistic way, perceiving humans to be part of the bigger ecosystem and also acknowledging that they had created within this values, concepts, alternatives and choices. “To express this in the simplest possible terms, there is a growing awareness that the most interesting and vital loose parts are those that we have around us every day in the wilderness, the countryside, the city and the ghetto.” For me, this is indicative of the ecological thinking, that Jan White, David Sobel and others have since explored. Jan White edited a 2017 edition of the Early Education which has a specific focus on Loose Parts. However this is only available to members of Early Education. Furthermore, the union of ecological thinking and loose parts is referenced on pages 11-14 of the Loose Parts Play: A Toolkit, which is free to download – Welsh or Scottish.
  4. That the use of loose parts is interdisciplinary.
  5. In galleries and museums there are more ways to interact with art than to be solely contemplative and via visual perception. This is brilliantly exemplified within the Yorkshire Sculpture Park‘s education programme – have a look at the empathetic and creative approach taken in this video:

At precisely 44 seconds into the video, you get a glimpse of one of Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man figures. For me, there is something poignant about the influence of both generations of the Hepworths being represented simultaneously through the educational work of the YSP. Mother and son gave the world a perspective on form, art and creativity in very different and very important ways.

14. That a clearing house for information needs to be established. I’m curious to know how people feel about this, given the rich internet resource we have at our finger tips.


Is anything missing from the Theory of Loose Parts?

1. I’m not quite sure if it really is a theory. The commentary and sentiment of the article is interesting and much of it is standing the test of time. However, more thought, research and validation is needed for me to say “Oh yes it is…” Useful links to good research is much appreciated here…

2. I feel the human element is not emphasised sufficiently. How loose parts play is facilitated matters and can make a huge difference to how children experience and use loose parts. Here, the playwork principles come into their own.

3. In an educational context, Anna Ephgrave’s Planning in the Moment approach seems to complement the Theory of Loose Parts well, particularly around children’s freedom to choose from all the available resources to develop their learning in their own way. Have a look at this video to see an educational embedding of much of what Nicolson advocates:

One million thanks to all the practitioners, play workers and educators who use loose parts, who have visited this website and who continue to enthuse and inspire me alongside the many brilliant children I love being able to work with. Long live outdoor play, loose parts and the joy of learning through all this entails.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom December 10, 2017 at 02:46

Brilliant as usual Juliet. I was struck by two things in the Play Pod video. The pod reminded me of your storage pod in Aberdeen. Your pod did look a little more organized. The other thing I noticed was the size of the loose parts and how much the children moved when using all those big loose parts. No wonder they were happier. Congrats on the million and here is to the next million.


Juliet Robertson December 10, 2017 at 07:47

Hi Tom – Thanks for your thoughts. Generally with the scrapstore playpod, the size of the loose parts are notably bigger than perhaps one would see in an indoor and early years setting – that’s the joy of space afforded by most outdoor environments. Also from a practical perspective, bigger loose parts are easier to tidy away at the end of a lunch time.

There is research out there about physical activity and loose parts and children do move around more. But the social interactions, the play, the fun and lots of other reasons make this approach ideal for schools to adopt – worth the effort spent getting it up and running.

Yes… a million… that’s a lot of people… and shows that world-wide there is an interest in getting children outside. So there’s still a lot of work to be done 🙂


Kierna Corr December 10, 2017 at 11:03

Love, love, love this post – it deserves to go far & wide & should be given to all who interact with children. Thank you for being such an inspiration to me as a practitioner, trainer, blogger and now friend. You have a depth of knowledge I can only hope for and a wonderful way of remaining true to who you are in a sea of other influences.
Best wishes for 2018 & hope we get to share some lovely cake again soon, 🙂


Juliet Robertson December 10, 2017 at 11:43

Thanks Kierna – inspiration is largely a two-way process, in my experience 🙂 That cake shop in Edinburgh was fab. I also hope that I do eventually manage to visit Northern Ireland.

I think there’s so much to unpick in Nicholson’s brief paper. However, as per loose parts themselves, I suspect a lot is open to interpretation and this is just one person’s perspective.


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