Loose Parts Play & Cardboard Totem Boxes

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When I released the Totem Box pattern a few weeks ago,  I alluded to the fact that this was a design that I used to manage the “little” toys in our house, but the thought behind the design goes a little deeper.

Quite a few months ago, I made an online friend named Allie who writes the blog, Bakers and Astronauts (as well as Play Lab). Allie’s blog is hands down my favorite website about early childhood and inspired play, and it was Allie who first introduced me to the Theory of Loose Parts, which got me exploring with my own children.

“The Theory of Loose Parts Play” was proposed by Simon Nicholson back in the 1970’s. His theory is this: “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.”

When I started thinking about adapting Loose Parts Play inside my home, there were  a few things to rethink. First of all when Nicholson speaks about number and kind of variables, I think he ultimately takes his inspiration from one place, and one place only; the truly wild outdoors. Outside loose parts can fall from the sky, be dug from the ground, plucked from a branch, or drop from a bird’s wing. The sounds, textures, and  smells are all ever-changing and we could never, ever recreate such an amazing sensory experience  inside a house, even with dump trucks of glitter.

I had to watch my daughters play a lot to better understand how I could compete with mother nature and increase the number of “variables” (not necessarily the amount of stuff) within our home play environment. Over time, I noticed three categories of objects emerge that they “needed” to make their play more cohesive:

Loose Parts: hand-held objects that assume imagined identities through play.

Containers: objects used by my daughters for collecting, sorting and transporting loose parts as well as defining small spaces.

Expandable Parts: objects used by my daughters to construct and define large spaces

Now, whenever my daughters engage in loose-parts-style play, I try to make sure that all of these elements are available to them. When they are absent, tragic things have happened. Entire shelves of puzzles have been mined for loose parts, fabric and sewing notions have gone missing and Loose Parts Play has ravaged my home like a wildfire, consuming hours of my time in little loose parts cleanup. Although these ideas are only my own expansion on someone else’s theory, so far they have proven true for our sample size of two. I’m curious to hear about your observations. What drives the loose parts engine in your home or classroom?

Enjoy our family recipe for Loose Parts Play (indoors):

(Substitute as necessary)

Loose Parts
wooden blocks
plastic construction blocks
plastic bottle caps
acorns
shells
stones
cardboard tubes
clothespins
handkerchiefs
fabric scraps
stones
coins

Containers                                                                                                                    Sorting
Totem Boxes
egg cartons
cardboard fruit trays
graduated boxes

Transporting
small paper bags
child sized buckets
baskets
boxes

Collecting
nesting eggs (wooden or plastic)
Matryoshka dolls
jewelry boxes
matchboxes
small recycled plastic jars
small tins with lids

    Expandable Parts                                                                                                          Textiles
large scarves
large fabric pieces
tissue paper
newspaper
softened Kraft paper
child-sized carpets or rugs
blankets

“Fences”
cushions
interlocking cardboard pieces
over-sized, lightweight blocks,
Hula Hoops
jump ropes
long, lightweight cardboard tubes
fold-up cardboard screens

Cardboard Play Days 4&5

This week was filled with lots of play, lots of cardboard, and lots of discovery. I learned a lot by watching children and parents play and build together during the two events that took place.

The first was a play event for my daughter’s Yoji group, a play group that meets weekly at the local Jidokan (a kind of youth community center). The other was at a local park called Kajino Koen. The Kahjino event hosted lots of local groups that support the park, like Play Park: a local adventure play organization that facilitates weekly play events for children.

Play Park built an amazingly tall and steep wooden slide with wooden handholds, as well as over-sized hammocks, rope walkways, and braided swings. I’m in love with the work that they do and I’m hoping to deepen my relationship with their community in the coming year.

A few things I learned this week:

  • Crayons (bright, waxy pastel ones) play really nicely with cardboard. Markers wander, and paint is a pain to clean up.
  • Parents love to play like children. Children give them a great cover for indulging in the kind of play that they used to do…. and at the same time children fall in love with their parents all over again. There is an amazing playful connection that Is kindled, and when I see parents leave cardboard events smiling, I know an imaginative little fire has been lit and will grow into something more.
  • pre-teen boys like to kick cardboard boxes and stab them with screw drivers. At first I bristle, and then I watch for a while and see the totally therapeutic effect of this activity for them. They calm down, start talking to each other and then start to cooperate and build. Cardboard stabbing boys, I welcome you, and I love to see the amazing things you can build with cardboard.
  • Girls can bring a quiet measured intensity to building with cardboard. I love watching them deliberate while considering all the details like widows and shelving…their excitement is contagious.
  • I love connecting with people through cardboard, seeing parents build something for their children, seeing children build something else for themselves, watching three year olds rip their older brothers around in the back of wheelie cardboard boxes.
  • What can I say? I’m hooked.

Resources: How to put wheels on a box and instructions for Tanaka Satoshi’s Giant Cardboard Windballs