Keepin’ Things Loose

cheerios on sticks

A future maker exploring the limits of his materials.

Kids will play with anything.  Literally, ANYTHING. Early learning professionals frequently cite a long list of benefits that playing with loose parts bestows on developing humans: creativity, dexterity, problem-solving, socialization and teamwork, to name a few. Given the universal kid-love of building random stuff from random stuff, it is heartening to see designers exploring ways to bring this form of play out of the indoor environment and into the public arena.

loose parts party

A community sponsored “Play Day” in which loose parts were donated by local families and kids of all ages were invited to build.

Reggio-inspired schools have long been known for placing loose parts play at the center of their curriculum.  By artfully organizing pieces according to size, color, shape and texture, the creative potential of everyday objects is transformed from mundane to magical.  Loose parts give children an open-ended “invitation to play” by enticing rather than directing them to touch, imagine and construct.  In the K-12 design field, this not-so-new notion of hands-on learning is gaining widespread momentum within mainstream education in the form of the Maker Education (Maker-Ed) movement

loose parts 3

A lovely mix of natural and man-made loose parts.

Architect David Rockwell has responded to the loose parts/maker renaissance by creating a portable kit of lightweight, durable, life-sized loose parts he calls “Imagination Playground.”  By designing pieces with an eye toward true architectural components (“columns” that support, “joints” that connect), the construction possibilities surpass the limits of found objects. He describes:

Imagination Playground contains a wide variety of loose parts, including cubes, bricks, cogs, curves, and cylinders. But the parts are not simply loose. They have holes and shapes that fit together in ways that allow the continuation of a child’s idea. A pair becomes a wall. A wall becomes a room. A room becomes a house. The pieces fit connect together to make immersive play last a long time.

Hundreds of schools, parks and other public agencies have purchased these playgrounds. While the price tag is not cheap ($15,000 for a basic starter kit), they are still a fraction of the cost and effort of a permanent KFC (“Kit-Fence-Carpet”) playground.

imagination playground 2While the mother in me adores the budding creative potential represented by scattered piles of random stuff, the architect struggles to abide such a chaotic mess.  Thankfully, there is “Rigamajig,” a beautiful collection of loose parts by industrial designer Cas Holman.  The natural materials, clean geometries and playful hardware make even the most slipshod contraptions appear sculptural and sophisticated.

rigmajig 3Developed specifically for Friends of the High Line in NYC and in collaboration with Early Learning Educator, Rigamajig strikes a perfect balance of high play value AND high aesthetic value.  Writes Holman: “Rigamajig… reflects the High Line’s industrial history, simple, honest materiality”


The connection between loose parts play and the Maker-Ed movement is clear.  At the elementary level, schools are transforming libraries into “maker spaces” and that feature large worktables, movable casework and storage systems to accommodate tools and materials: hole punchers, duct tape, scissors, glue sticks, PVC pipe pieces, rubber bands, Legos, fabrics, cardboard.

Maker supplies in library

At the high school level, the tools and materials are more sophisticated: 3D printers, composite materials, arduino circuits, CNC machines.  But the play-based, open-ended Maker spirit remains the same. According to the Makerspace Handbook, “The origin of the Maker movement is found in something quite personal: what we might call experimental play. Makers are enthusiasts who play with technology to learn about it.”


Schools architects get excited when district officials suggest room names like “fab lab” and “tinker shop” within the context of standard learning environments. The design possibilities for such spaces are as open-ended as the projects they support. Hopefully, students (and parents) are even more excited by the creative, hands-on learning opportunities starting to take place across the academic spectrum that are rooted in our early love of loose parts play.


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