Category Archives: Play and Learning

In Praise of Loose Parts

In play, ‘loose parts’ are skirting the edges of nirvana. Ask any kid. Now they probably won’t call them ‘loose parts’. They’re more likely to use the generic and all encompassing ‘stuff’ prefaced by cool, awesome, or great. It might even go the way of ‘this stuff is epic’.

Simple play is best for kidsStudents at Emmaus Primary Catholic School – Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jay Town. Source: HeraldSun

Wood, rope, tarps, tires, milk crates, cardboard boxes, fabrics and apparently hay bales too can make up a loose parts inventory. It’s what the kids do with it that’s a real blast. They create, they build up and pull down, they improvise, they move, groove and PLAY!

Now, thanks to Australian researcher Brendon P. Hyndman we have empirical evidence that loose parts in primary schools go way beyond a good thing. From the perspective of increasing physical activity, engaging a broad cross-section of kids and being light on constantly squeezed budgets, this study shouts out ‘Eureka!’ embrace loose parts play.

Here are selected comments from A Guide for Educators to Move Beyond Conventional School Playgrounds…. published in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education.

the way they interact with each other…it’ s lovely to listen to…the co-operative play has really increased…they do negotiations…interactions between levels has been fantastic

kids in my room have mixed with kids they wouldn’t normally hang out with…there’s not a…set number that can or can’t be involved

students became a lot more complex in what they did…it was a real journey…there was…dragging, pulling and moving…then came the building phase…then came the dramatic phase…but all of those remain there

Quantitative data, as the charts below demonstrate, also offer a compelling storyline – given the opportunity, kids will choose to build and play with a variety of loose parts so much so that it becomes the dominant play activity.

Ausie Journal of Teacher Education

Given that many kids in Australia and elsewhere are getting the bulk of their physical activity and play within the school setting, in excess of 50% in some instances as cited in Hyndman’s study, these findings are significant.

The effects of the loose parts intervention were measured at various stages over a 2 1/2 year period and engagement remained steady.

“…teachers’ perceptions were that student exhibited increased amounts of excitement, engagement, creativity, problem solving and physical activity during their play with the introduced movable/recycled materials.”

Loose parts are an important part of the playwork canon and have strong roots in the UK within adventure playgrounds and with groups such as Pop-Up Adventure Play. David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground has also a taken a page from the loose parts experience in the creation of the big blue block play environments.

Loose Parts

All hail loose parts. They are the jazz of play bebopping the kids along in a wonderfall of spontaneity. There are downsides though that can’t be dismissed. As more and more schools, neighbourhood groups and play schemes embrace loose parts, it just might start proving difficult to source the ingredients – milk crates, cardboard boxes and of course hay bales!

Here are the kids, subjects of the research study, in action at Emmaus Catholic Primary School in Ballarat, Australia as reported by WIN News Victoria.

We hope to get something on the go in Halifax this summer and we’ll let you know how it turns out. I have just started to put together a menu of ingredients and am wondering where I will be able to acquire some of them at little or no cost. If any readers have put together a loose parts play event, I’d love to hear from you.

Many thanks to Brendon Hyndman for his grand research. You can follow him @Dr_BPH.

Sir Ken of TEDalot on Play and Learning

Earlier this spring, Sir Ken (Robinson) shared his views on education with an appreciative audience in Halifax, Nova Scotia – home of PlayGroundology. I was one of the 1,000 in attendance who enjoyed an accomplished and entertaining critic of conventional wisdom about education and creativity. No props, no notes, plenty of humourous asides and always an à propos anecdote.

Source: RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms

Now that I’ve seen and heard him in the flesh, I feel I can get away with just Sir Ken. I’m sure there are tens of millions who have seen his TEDTalks via YouTube who feel this at a remove intimacy the same way I do. The afternoon in question, I managed to get myself in the front row no more than 5 metres from Sir Ken. It was a piece of dumb luck happenstance that occurred because I arrived late and those who had the reserved front row arrived even later or not at all.

At the conclusion of the 90 minute story that held the crowd rapt, there was time for a couple of questions. I piped up and got first at bats for myself and the readers of PlayGroundology with this one I had been eager to ask:

How important is the role of play in learning?

For the next five minutes or so, Sir Ken spoke to a question that he had likely heard and certainly considered previously. What follows is the minimally edited response. Thanks Sir Ken, may millions more be inspired by your experience and informed by your passion.

Source: TEDTalks via YouTube.

It’s fundamental. I talk a lot as you know about creativity. I didn’t want to get into all that again today particularly because of the nature of this conference. There are three key terms when we come to think about play. The first is imagination, the second is creativity and the third is innovation.

Imagination, I believe, is what fundamentally sets us apart from the rest of life on earth – very little does truthfully. I think we overplay the differences between ourselves and everything else. Our life is short and organic like everything else. We come into groovy buildings like this and persuade ourselves we’re different but we’re not. But we are in this respect. Human beings have powerful imaginations. By imagination I mean the ability to bring into mind things that aren’t present to our senses.

So with imagination you can revisit the past, you can enter into other peoples’ consciousness empathetically – you can imagine what it would be like to be them – and you can anticipate the future. It’s what it is for everything that counts as distinctively human. It’s not a single power, it’s a mix of all different powers that come together and we call it such. But the thing is you can be imaginative all day long and never do anything.

To be creative you have to do something. Creativity is very practical. I think of it as applied imagination, putting your imagination to work.

There are lots of misconceptions about that and we can talk about that. My point is that the power to imagine and the impulse to create, to make things is the birthright of humanity. It’s why we are as we are. It’s why we don’t just live in buildings we’ve made, we inhabit conceptual structures that we’ve evolved.

We’ve evolved differently, we see the world from different perspectives and points of view because our experience of the world isn’t just direct it’s mediated through the ideas and values we frame and share with other people as a culture. To me it’s the most fundamental part of our way of being in the world.

Play for young people is actually essential. It’s a way in which they literally flex their muscles.


It amazes me how quickly and how often we forget that we are embodied, that we see the world the way do because we live in these bodies. If we were all 18′ tall with eyes at the sides of our head it would look very different to us. Dogs hear different frequencies and birds smell things we don’t smell. We see the world as it is because we’re built the way we are. We are embodied, we’re not just brains on a stick.

Our children go to school in their bodies. Play is one of the ways they flex them, explore them, understand them, connect to other people. We also live in virtual worlds that are the result of our imaginations. They need the ability to exercise that too. You see you can’t get to all the things we value – creativity in business, in work, in social systems, in the arts and the sciences if your imagination has atrophied.

It’s the same, the exact analogy for me with athletics. The Olympics are happening this year. If you want to take part in the Olympics then you better practice. There’s no point in saying I want to take part in the 100 metres and I won’t do anything in the meantime – I’ll just show up. I have high hopes. Well good luck with that. If you’re going to be an athlete, you have to exercise your body. If you want to be creative you have to exercise your mind, your consciousness, your spirit. It’s fundamental to me.

Play, there’s different ways of defining it but broadly speaking play is an end in itself. It’s not directed to a larger purpose.

I don’t want a system of playing schools where you get 15 minutes to do it then we test for a score. You just play because it’s interesting, enjoyable and pleasurable. You do it for that reason and no other reason. And it’s no coincidence that we go on to talk about playing sports, playing instruments because at the heart of it there’s this possibility of creative fulfillment that lies at the centre. I see it is a fundamental. It strikes me as a disaster that we’re excluding it from kindergartens, from elementary school and from high schools and colleges too.

For some reason we’ve forgotten our own humanity and we’ve come to assume that play is some kind of disposable, part time leisure activity that we can do without so we can be more serious.

I quote in the book a guy called Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize, a physicist. He’s a brilliant man and also a great jazz bongo player. He got the Nobel Prize for work he did in particle physics.

Photo credit – Tom Harvey.

He started he said when he was sitting in Cornell University in the dining hall and a student fell over with a plateful of food. The thing just went up in the air. And Richard Feynman his eye was attracted by the plate, it was spinning and wobbling. The Cornell logo was on it and he said he watched it going round. He said he got fascinated by it.

Interesting of course, he didn’t rush to help the student. He thought, no, this is an interesting piece of physics right here now. He started to think about the laws of motion that were affecting the wobble in the plate. He jotted down some equations on his napkin and then went on about his business.

A few days later he found this napkin and it reminded him and he started playing with it. He said it reminded him that it connected to things he was working on in particle physics. He said that over the next few weeks all these equations started to rush out of him like champagne out of a bottle. He said, ‘but all I was doing was playing with it for the fun of it’. But he said it led to the equation that went on to be the basis of him winning the Nobel Prize.

Very often our greatest achievements come from our most playful activities.

There is more here – Sir Ken’s page, TED search results, Animation – Changing Education Paradigms.