Simon Nicholson on the theory of loose parts

In 1972 architect Simon Nicholson, the son of artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, presented the proposition that young children’s creative empowerment comes from the presence of open-ended materials that can be constructed, manipulated and transformed through self-directed play. These ‘loose parts’ permit children to become co-producers of art, space and culture alongside adult artists and architects.

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Children play in an atelier at the Centro Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Image credit:

According to Nicholson, the cultural elite have created and maintained a social lie. They have convinced us that the construction of any part of an environment or artwork is so complex and difficult that it can only be undertaken by a gifted few people who have university degrees and highly specialised artistic expertise. This misconception has led people to believe that creativity is for a select few ‘geniuses’ and the rest of us are compelled to be mere consumers of the music, art, poems, buildings and ideas that these people create. This is particularly prevalent in the lives of young children.

This idea defies itself in two ways. Firstly, there is no evidence that says that some humans are born creative and some not. Secondly, there is a huge body of evidence that supports the idea that all children enjoy experimenting, discovering and playing with materials. Therefore all humans are creative and are able to be creatively empowered through their connection with open-ended  and flexible variables such as clay, blocks, rocks and flowers. These materials can be adapted, moved, designed, recombined, tinkered with and taken apart allowing for children to partake in the construction of the spaces and activities in which they live and play.  The more flexible the materials are, the more scope for deep creative exploration by children and the more likely they will remain absorbed in creative play. Similar to the Reggio Emilia and Steiner early childhood philosophies, Nicholson’s theory is founded on the belief that children are competent, creative and capable beings who are able to participate in the construction of the ideas, believes and spaces they inhabit.

Children are able to select what materials they use and how they are appropriated, allowing for the development of their own hypothesis around their play which can be tested through self-assessed means, for example when building a robot a child may assess its success against whether or not the robot moves. The crucial element within the environments is the user’s ability to adapt the materials in a large variety of ways, allowing for deep creative experimentation. The emphasis then moves to a more discovery-based learning experience in which inquiry and children’s self-led research are valued over more transmission forms of learning. It is through this that the environment takes on the form of a science laboratory.

‘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.” Simon Nicholson

The focus of the theory of loose parts is on the material and spatial qualities of space. A crucial aspect of children’s learning which Nicholson does not cover is the social milieu needed to support and deepen creative play. It is not merely a matter of putting a large volume of ‘loose parts’ in a room and letting children go wild, the social system put in place by adults is fundamental in creating successful children’s learning experiences. Educators must guide and challenge children’s thinking and be responsive to new discoveries, new ideas and new collaborative thinking strategies developed by children.

Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson’s The Cubic Structural Evolution Project (2010). Image credit: Queensland Art Gallery

Whilst Nicholson discusses loose parts predominantly in relation to the construction of playgrounds and school environments, this theory can also be applied to the construction of artworks and immersive environments in art galleries. When doing so, it raises fundamental questions about how culture and cultural values are constructed in art galleries. For example, what parts of an environment or an artwork can be done by an artist or curator and what parts can be done by children? Nicholson’s believed that this balance needs to be tipped towards the child however in doing so, is it then undermining the role and expertise of the artist and curator? Does this then also undermine the artist’s ‘authorship’ of the artwork? These key ethical considerations are deserving of critical reflection and debate when developing early years gallery practice. If we forego the presence of loose parts in order to stay true to an artists already developed artist’s process, will this then come at the compromise of meaningful experiences for children?

The beautiful Roma Patel and I have constructed a giant ‘Ball Run’ play space that we will present at the Lakeside International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival (June 4 & 5 2016). Drawing upon Nicholson’s theory, children will design and construct their own runs using quirky and recycled materials (prototype video below). The space will also feature a dedicated baby and toddler area. Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham. FREE, recommended for 0-15 year olds, 12.00pm – 5.00pm. Further details here.

Want to read more about loose parts and materials in learning? Check out my latest post on the role of materials in children’s learning through art!


Nicholson, S. (1971). How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, 30-34.

6 thoughts on “Simon Nicholson on the theory of loose parts

  1. Louisa, am really loving this website. I am working on a masters degree in psychotherapy, and am doing a capstone project on using loose parts as therapy for trauma. I cannot find sources that talk about Simon Nicholson being the son of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Any chance you can direct me to some? I have been doing research on Loris Malaguzzi and how he came to be involved in the preschools of Reggio Emilia, but would love to know more of what shaped Simon Nicholson. Thank you in advance!


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