We stopped in at Mottisfont Abbey over the weekend for a land art project. There were bits and pieces collected from the grounds – conkers, pine cones, fallen leaves, twigs, tree stumps, old apples etc and everyone walking by were encouraged to come and make something and feel free to collect your own extra bits from the grounds.

It was an incredible moment to watch children of all ages, parents and grandparents lugging around huge stumps, carefully selecting and picking up autumn leaves and shining up muddy conkers on their jumpers to fit it all into a large array of temporary sculptures.

Build anywhere, the person in charge said. Use whatever you like. Make whatever you want.

Some people made flat sculptures, others built tall statues precariously balanced. Old apples became prized building blocks and it looked like everyone was having a wonderful time.

I thought Simon Nicholson would be so proud.

Ergohacks - Mottisfont Abbey land art day

Simon Nicholson, an architect, credited as the founder of “The theory of loose parts”, wrote a now famous article in 1971 called “The theory of loose parts: How not to cheat children”. It’s opening paragraph states:

“Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use the gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.”

It continues:

“What has happened is that adults in the form of professional artists, architects, landscape architects and planners have had all the fun playing with their own materials, concepts and planning-alternatives, and then builders have had all the fun building the environments out of real materials; and thus has all the fun and creativity been stolen: children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is right.

Although it is fine to allow scientists and artists to invent things, how about allowing everybody else to be creative and inventive also?”

In this article, the theory of loose parts was born and it has picked up momentum since 1971. Most museums now have interactive exhibits, many parks have loose parts areas, like The Imagination Playground in New York, the National Trust in the U.K. has many play spaces and events based on it and it has been implemented to some extent in educational settings.

It isn’t a complicated thing to do and it’s a great idea to create some loose parts play at home if you have kids.

Here’s how:

1. Collect loose parts – this can be natural or synthetic, size is irrelevant (if you don’t have much space, use smaller parts). Find it, buy it, make it. Scrapstores and car boot sales are brilliant places for sourcing cheap and interesting supplies.

2. Store loose parts where it is accessible to children without having to ask an adult for assistance.

3. Make sure they know that they are allowed to use it, change it, break it, move it or do whatever they like.

4. Don’t interfere with play – let them experiment and discover for themselves

5. Regularly add new things.

Safety is always a big thing when it comes to loose parts. Teach children how to do their own risk assessments, point out potential risk that they have missed and if they are doing something dangerous, by all means, intervene. There is a difference between keeping children safe and keeping them quiet and contained.

Loose parts is not a theory just for children, I think it’s even better for families. I was very disappointed when I took my daughter to the park for the first time to realise that my role was a passive one. The swings were not for me, neither was the slides or the see-saw or the climbing frames. My role was to observe, to watch and police and be the responsible bystander. Some parks have improved. Adventure trails and play grounds have grown and evolved where both adults and children get to have a go, but intellectually, we still reserve play and having adventures for children.

The joy of playing doesn’t end when childhood ends. Neither does curiosity or the desire to learn, but learning becomes segmented and separated from play and that shouldn’t be the case.

“In early childhood there is no important difference between play and work, art and science, recreation and education – the either/or classifications normally applied by adults to children’s environments. Education is recreation, and vice versa.”

Play comes naturally. So does learning. We never grow out of either and we shouldn’t have to. We can create spaces in our homes, gardens, parks and museums where the architects, builders, scientists and artists didn’t have all the fun already.

References: S. Nicholson. (1971). The Theory of Loose Parts: How not to cheat children. Landscape Architecture. 62, p30-34.