Using Loose Parts to Extend the Mud Kitchen

Child-play experts and the people who design play spaces for children have been influenced greatly by the theory of “loose parts,” first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in 1972. Nicholson believed that it is the loose parts in our environment that empower creativity and enrich play. The theory of loose parts says, “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.”

You can read Nicholson’s paper here.

Loose parts have, by definition, no fixed use; these items tend to really work in a modular sense with other loose parts. They may or may not be used in the way you would expect, but are great for stimulating creative, imaginative play scenarios. The following are some examples of loose parts that can augment your play space. You may find the children naturally gravitate toward using them in conjunction with the mud kitchen. Unlike many closed-loop toys (for example, a Brio train set), these have great interoperability. We’ve introduced many of these into our backyard with great success.

The children posing for a picture while playing with tree slices, tree stumps, apple tree branches, and in the background a 4x4 board propped on another tree stump. These loose parts are moveable by the children, and often become the chairs, tables, and walls for fine dining served up from the mud kitchen.

The children posing for a picture while playing with tree slices, tree stumps, apple tree branches, and in the background a 4×4 board propped on another tree stump. These loose parts are moveable by the children, and often become the chairs, tables, and walls for fine dining served up from the mud kitchen.

Thinking about and starting to add loose parts to your backyard or play space can quickly transform the space to look a bit junky. When I first started researching loose parts, the rabbit hole seemed to lead to adventure playgrounds. These are numerous in Europe and in the United States. The defining characteristic uniting them is that they do embody a bit of an unappealing aesthetic, especially for adults. I found that my wife quickly became disenchanted with how our backyard began to look as more loose parts appeared.

Fortunately, one of the key principles of loose parts is that the items are transient. You can introduce them and, after a few weeks, clean them up and then later replace them with additional ones. This aligns well with how we’ve been creating the mud kitchen. The things we’ve added over periods of time, such as stumps, tree branches, straw bales, tires, etc., get quickly incorporated into the play. Once removed or replaced by other loose parts, they are not missed or detrimental to the child’s perception of the space.

In the Resources section you can find my current list of loose parts that I’m experimenting with in our backyard.

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