There are few joys like the pleasure experienced by a child running in the rain, gleefully making mud pies, or happily rolling down a grassy hill. Natural play environments provide countless benefits to young people as they connect with their world, explore risk, and learn through unstructured play.
Outdoor learning environments are crucial for the overall physical, social, and emotional development of children. Exposing young people to a variety of environments with colours, textures, sensations, and interactions fosters creativity, imagination, and discovery, allowing them to explore surroundings, engage in healthy risk-taking, and create and develop strong bonds with their peers.
There are many ways to engage children in an outdoor space. The key is to find the best methods of providing a mix of excitement and challenge, inviting young people to use their creativity, promoting open-ended and inclusive play. One way to provide a variety of diverse options is by creating loose-parts play environments, which complement ‘fixed’ play equipment, and provide endless combinations for creative exploration.
In the 1970s, architect Simon Nicholson articulated the theory of loose parts: the idea that 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.
He believed that loose parts in our environment allow for more creativity and engagement compared to static materials and environments. His theory has inspired educators and childcare providers across the world, and loose parts are increasingly being incorporated into school and childcare settings.
Nicolson described loose parts as variables and provided examples such as: materials and shapes; smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism and gravity; media such as gases and fluids; sounds, music, motion; chemical interactions, cooking and fire; and other humans, and animals, plants, words, concepts and ideas. With all these things all children love to play, experiment, discover and invent and have fun.
Creating these opportunities for unstructured, child-led play is critical in the primary years as children develop. Additionally, key components of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) Outcomes embrace the freedom and joy in learning through this type of play. The limitless possibilities in creating open ended learning environments outside the classroom only strengthens the importance for educators.
A pattern can be found in children’s play regardless of climate, culture, class, gender, developmental level or age. There is a basic need for identity, attachment and being accepted and connected to both their environment and their peers. In constantly changing world, we need to ensure children have opportunities to develop this sense of belonging.
Creating different loose-part play zones that can be moulded, shaped and changed into a variety of things, heightens the importance of inclusivity. While some children will always gravitate to a physical area with balls, hoops or create obstacle courses, other children can find a quiet zone where natural resources offer the ability for painting, reading, or finding comfort in a calmer nature-based space.
Janene Rox, Director of Cronulla Preschool, has always carried a passion for inclusivity in her 30 years as a child educator.
“The fact that loose-parts play is non-descriptive and so inclusive means it can reach a much wider audience. Not all children want to play soccer during free play time. Having things like a zen space in a natural environment is inviting for those who want more quiet time but still want to be creative and connect with other children,” Rox said. “Having multiple loose-part play zones is important for children to explore who they are and who they want to be in a safe environment.”
When the creation of a space is child-led, young people learn through role play, investigating, risk assessment. With no specific set of directions, children are stimulated, they benefit physically, emotionally and socially. Because of the choice of the unstructured play environment, children can find common interests.
Instead of sitting and watching a hand ball competition, they connect with their peers by creating a ball ramp with wooden blocks and stones and sticks. Or build a rock tower and see how high they can get before it falls. It ultimately builds self-esteem, independence, and resilience.
Cas Holman, designer of Rigamajig, a larger-than-life loose parts kit that encourages child-led playful learning, says her passion lies in designing and manufacturing tools for imagination.
“If we always give kids a toy with the story built int it, we rob them of the opportunity to invest the story and make it up themselves. A big part of childhood is that you’re kind of running around trying to figure out who you are. And becoming that is a playful process,” Holamn said.
Finding materials that are inclusive, non-prescriptive, used indoor or outdoor to support cognitive and physical development has been the driving force behind Australian company, Mud Kitchen.
The Mud Kitchen team has been assembling the best loose-parts play equipment from all over the world for use in Australian classrooms, communities, and homes.
Liz Rossiter, Director of Mud Kitchen, believes in the benefits of children having control over their play and creating their own imaginative world through loose-parts play.
That’s why she’s partnered with companies such as Rigamajig, Big Blue Blocks, and Kodo Kids who are passionate about providing the best in loose-parts fun,” she said.
“The collection we have of loose parts can be used almost anywhere – and with a vast array of educational outcomes for all ages. There is such a wide range to accommodate all types of budgets as well. That’s the beauty of loose parts. It is truly the future of play.”