Especially for Parents: Loose Parts Nature Play

by Angie Williams


Dr. Carla Gull, an expert on outdoor classrooms and nature play, hosts a podcast called Loose Parts Nature Play ( in which she discusses how loose parts play fosters creativity, curiosity, and fun! With spring upon us and April being the month of Earth Day, it is a great time to dig into how we can enhance nature play and help children more fully engage with the natural world around them.

Loose Parts Theory

The theory of loose parts was developed by Simon Nicholson, who wrote:

“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.”

In this context, variables are open-ended materials but also include, for example: phenomena such as electricity, magnetism, and gravity; sounds, music, and motion; chemical interactions and cooking. In addition, embedded in Nicholson’s theory is the notion that children should be involved in designing their own environments—contributing to the planning and building, choosing materials, and playing with concepts. If adults have complete control of planning the environment, they have taken all the fun—and inventiveness—out of that process for children.

Loose Parts and Outdoor Play

Children can create their own environments outside when we provide them with materials such as crates, large fabrics, blocks, planks, and stumps, and then allow them the freedom to experiment with and rearrange them. They can then add objects from nature and spend time exploring their properties and testing out different ways to use them.

Last week I had the chance to break open a coconut with my daughters and nephew. We first had to figure out the best tools—at various points in the process we discovered the need for a chisel, a hammer, and our bare hands. We weren’t sure what we would find on the inside—would it be fresh, or had it withered? The hammer made different sounds on different parts of the fruit; the hollow noise gave us a clue that we were not likely to be drinking juice from this particular coconut. Indeed, when we reached the center, we found brown instead of green. While we would not be able to quench our thirst, it was a successful engagement in loose parts play that included investigation, sensory experience, and fun.

As the weather warms, we hope your child has many opportunities for loose parts nature play. Read more about this theory in the articles below: