I never imagined that as a parent I would be thinking about how my children played. Play seems like a natural, organic, and intuitive experience for children. Yet so much of their opportunities are governed by parents, from their time to their environment to the direction they are given. Fortunately, most children carry their emotions transparently, and so as I observed my own children I was able to see what play tended to work best for them. I found that their level of happiness, engagement, creativity, and imagination correlated to:
- Whether they were playing inside or outside
- Whether they were playing with convergent or divergent toys
- Whether it was adult-led or child-led play
- Whether it was risky play or constrained
This part of the book looks at each of those aspects. Because risk is such an important matter—we want to protect our children, of course—I spent much time exploring how to ensure my children’s safety. Because of this, risky play, categories of risk, safety, and safety with Loose Parts will be explored. Lastly, I found that acknowledging child-led play as an idea wasn’t enough for me. I have adopted the ideas of Playwork and being a Playworker, which have offered my children vast and powerful benefits.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Play
In my experience, Loose Parts not only afford a magnificent opportunity for children to flex their imaginations and problem solve with a variety of solutions, but also support sensory and motor development, especially when they are enjoyed in outdoor play. This is important because physical play is one of the core ways to help combat the epidemics of childhood obesity, emotional and psychological disease, and sensory integration challenges facing children today.
Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the U.S. Today, the country has some of the highest obesity rates in the world—one out of six children is obese, and one out of three children is overweight or obese. In the 1970s, five percent of U.S. children age 2 to 19 were obese. By 2008, that number had increased to nearly 17 percent (Child Obesity, Harvard). Childhood obesity is called “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization.
Similarly, more children are diagnosed and treated for ADHD now than ever before (ADHD Throughout the Years, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Likewise, early child educators are noting a dramatic increase in the number of children who are behind in their sensory integration, and you can find a plethora of articles that correlate the loss of play with a rise in sensory development issues.
At the same time, children are spending more and more time in front of screens. “According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of two hours a day; kids under age six watch an average of about two hours of screen media a day, primarily TV and videos or DVDs; kids and teens eight to 18 years spend nearly four hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost two additional hours on the computer (outside of school work) and playing video games. This interferes with physical activity, time outdoors, and social interactions” (The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation).
When children are consumed by a passive activity and interacting with a screen, their sensory development is halted. This is problematic because birth to age six is a particularly important time for children’s sensory and motor development.
Studies indicate a simple remedy for these ailments is to get children outside and playing actively. The following types of play help children build their senses:
- Manipulating heavy objects—pulling, lifting, pushing, throwing
- Moving one’s body in space—jumping, running, stepping
- Feeling and playing with a variety of textures—grasping, sweeping, brushing
- Listening to a diversity of natural sounds
Convergent vs. Divergent play
As my plunge into research continued, I came across an interesting book penned by a trio of PhDs: Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. The book presents years of developmental research condensed into a simple message: Learning really happens through play. One of the ideas I found most compelling in the book was the concept of convergent versus divergent play. Convergent play, like convergent problems, has only one solution. The “ability to solve convergent problems has been linked to successful performance on standard classroom and intelligence tests where there is only one right answer.” In contrast, divergent play requires a greater amount of imagination, tinkering, and creativity because there is not a single solution. These types of open-ended toys—like Lego blocks, magnetic tiles, and Loose Parts—positively influence children’s ability to problem solve, as they require thinking outside of the box.
In my experience, toys that require divergent problem solving and play get far more attention and engagement than toys that have a single fixed solution (with the exception of video games, which seem to be laced with reward and other psychological triggers to generate a form of addiction).
Adult-Led vs. Child-Led Play
Somewhere along the line I stumbled upon the concept of adult-led versus child-led play. In short, there has been a decline in children’s opportunities for child-led play, which has been replaced by more structured activities (in part due to the pressure parents feel to play one-on-one with their children). For some time, I struggled with a model or framework for understanding how best to facilitate child-led play myself. Then I came upon the idea of Playwork and the Playworker, which is a nice framework for understanding the role of the adult in child-led play. This is discussed in more detail a bit later.
Adventure Playgrounds built in the 1970s in Europe originally inspired the concept of—and the name—Loose Parts. Adventure Playgrounds were a response to the shifts in childhood and provided a space and materials that children could interact with, without specific instructions or rules and in a child-led setting. Architect Simon Nicholson was inspired by the materials being used in these adventure parks and the results they were bringing. He coined the term “Loose Parts” and crafted a theory around it. In How NOT to Cheat Children – The Theory of Loose Parts, Simon states, “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.”
While there appear to be hundreds of Adventure Playgrounds in Europe, there are only a few in the U.S., and this difference is often attributed to liability issues. (National Public Radio covered this years ago in an article titled “‘Adventure Playgrounds’ a Dying Breed in the U.S.”) As I learned about these Adventure Playgrounds, I desperately wanted to visit one. But for those of us who don’t live close to them, it is possible to introduce Loose Parts to our own backyards and make our own Adventure Playgrounds!
Loose Parts can range from organic materials like tree parts, sand, and rocks to construction materials like buckets, ropes, and boards. They can also include fabric, tires, and just about anything.
Loose Parts are different than traditional toys because they:
- Can be acquired freely or for a fraction of the price of traditional toys
- Profoundly support the developmental needs of the child at a critical age
- Are safer than other toys and play equipment because of how they reduce risk
- Reduce sedentary play, giving children an easy way to be more active
- Are better at fostering imaginative play
- Make spending time outdoors and in nature appealing to children
- Are not marketed as character toys and so do not encourage brand loyalty
- Do not engulf children in a consumer net that drives repeat purchases
When you start to introduce them into your backyard, keep in mind the fundamental principles of Loose Parts.
Fundamentals of Loose Parts:
- They should be novel objects that children gravitate towards naturally. Thus, objects should be added and removed frequently.
- They should be open-ended, with no directions or fixed solutions, and interoperable within the environment and each other, thus presenting infinite play possibilities.
- They should be easily movable by children, so that they can manipulate their play experiences.
Following the guidelines above, you will find that children consistently surprise you with the range and diversity of their imaginations, inventiveness, and innovation in their play. I have found that Loose Parts get more play attention than other man-made toys. In addition, research on early child play has shown that children prefer Loose Parts to manufactured playground equipment and toys.
Finding Loose Parts
Unlike traditional toys, Loose Parts can be acquired freely or inexpensively, and are widely available. Unfortunately, and in part due to how easy it is to find Loose Parts for so little cost, there is not significant support for parents from the various “child-rearing” industries.
However, Loose Parts are actively employed by childhood educators and advocates. Loose Parts are used as part of a core curriculum and/or the play environment. They can be found in a variety of not-for-profit and educational settings, including:
- Reggie Emilia schools, Waldorf schools, and other forward-looking and outdoor-focused schools
- Various playgrounds and public gardens
- Hundreds of public playgrounds—Adventure Playgrounds—across Europe, and the few in the U.S.
- Parents and caretakers working to incorporate Loose Parts into their backyards
My journey into Loose Parts started with great hesitation. It was hard to believe that my children would prefer Loose Parts to more traditional toys. Traditional toys have beautiful packaging, a story that is emotionally appealing, a bulleted list of benefits my children will receive, and the presence of a price tag, all of which make me think I’m getting something of value.
Because of the lack of widely available information about Loose Parts, I remained cautious and mostly experimented with Loose Parts that I could find for free. When my father cut down a tree in his yard, I gladly brought home a few stumps for my children’s play. After trimming our apple tree, I went about cutting small coins from the branches for their play. I found that my garage was full of unused home building materials, wood, canvas, paintbrushes and poles, buckets, and the sorts of things that children could be given and enjoy. Of course, there are other options for how to obtain Loose Parts.
How you can find Loose Parts for free:
- Find unused things at home.
- Let friends know you are looking.
- Keep a lookout for free things left on the curb.
- Watch the free listings on Craigslist.com.
- Contact nearby services that collect organic materials and building materials for disposal.
- Contact local retail service businesses that may recycle materials and are happy to donate to your cause.
- Contact schools.
How you can find Loose Parts inexpensively:
- Visit garage sales frequently.
- Buy new materials from stores, including landscaping and home improvement stores.
- Shop online, especially at places like eBay, Etsy, and classified sites like Craigslist.
In the second section of this book I go through the successes that I’ve seen firsthand experimenting with Loose Parts, as well as examples of Loose Parts that I’ve seen others use with similar success.
As I grew convinced of the value of Loose Parts, I decided to stop dipping my toe into the water and instead cannonball straight in. Instead of allowing serendipity to guide the introduction of Loose Parts into my backyard, I actively began researching them.
My journey quickly led me to Adventure Playgrounds, and the mother of all Adventure Playgrounds, the Junk Playground.
Junk Playgrounds were invented through the observation of a Danish landscape architect, C. Th. Sørensen, who found that children did not play in the playgrounds he built. Instead, children played everywhere else, in spaces that gave them the opportunity to control and manipulate their environments, to dream and imagine and create. For those living in the mountains, country, or more rural settings, this is likely how your children already play. Sørensen wondered if children in the city could be given the same opportunity, and so instead of filling a playground with convergent, closed-ended, fixed structures and playthings, a playground was filled with junk. The first of these Junk Playgrounds opened in 1943, in Emdrup, Denmark, with much success.
Three years later, in 1946, Lady Allen of Hurtwood happened to visit the Junk Playground in Emdrup and was greatly inspired. She brought the idea to London and expanded their prevalence greatly, including naming them Adventure Playgrounds. David Ramsey’s Adventure Playgrounds, Playwork, and Loose Parts: A Historical Perspective is a thorough historical review that is worth a read.
I started collecting examples of these Adventure Playgrounds, and you can check out dozens and dozens of photos of Adventure Playgrounds and Junk Playgrounds on my Adventure Playgrounds Pinterest board.
The pictures and videos of children playing at Adventure Playgrounds are astonishing. The children have a level of freedom in their play that is unparalleled in other playgrounds. Check out the trailer for The Land, a documentary film about the nature of play, risk, and hazard set in The Land, a Welsh Adventure Playground, which illustrates this point beautifully.
Kids run, jump, and swing—not from a “safe” contraption, but from towering heights across rivers and onto unimaginable piles of junk. They build, they paint, they create. They play with fire and sharp tools. It was unlike anything I had come across, and totally changed my view on how children should be playing.
Yet my heart skipped a beat when I saw children running across narrow boards suspended high above the ground, or when I read of children bouncing on trampolines above concrete surfaces and lighting matches to cook in a snow-covered landscape.
Who was keeping the children safe, and how? This burning question led me to the theory and practice of Playwork and Playworkers, which had humble beginnings but is now a full-fledged professional discipline that you can get a degree and build a career in. Playwork, which I also go into in more detail later, provides an awesome and concise framework that gives parents, grandparents, and other caretakers a very specific and effective way to provide supervision and support of children’s play.
At the conclusion of this journey, what I really wanted was to take my children—or better, to let my children walk or ride on their own volition—to a neighborhood Adventure Playground. Even though the city I live in has just over 100,000 people, it is no longer rural, and my children are subjected to similar challenges that other children face in large cities. An Adventure Playground would give them such an amazing opportunity. They would enjoy child-led play with Loose Parts. Alas, I searched and found less than half a dozen Adventure Playgrounds in the U.S., and none anywhere near my house.
And so I decided to do it in my own backyard.
Backyard Playspace Opportunity
Across the literature for early childhood development, much attention has been given to the changes in how parents raise their children. Parents consistently share memories of how they had independence to range far from their homes when growing up, unsupervised by adults. Children were told to “go outside and play” in previous generations, and there they would find many other children doing the same. This gave them access and freedom to interact and play.
My favorite story that demonstrates how dramatically childhood independence has changed is about the Thomas family in Sheffield, England. This story, captured in an article from Daily Mail—How children lost the right to roam in four generations—is about how children’s independence in where they played dramatically shifted over time:
- Great-grandfather George (age 8 in 1919) was allowed to walk six miles on his own to go fishing.
- Grandfather Jack (age 8 in 1950) was allowed to walk one mile on his own to the woods.
- Mother Vicky (age 8 in 1979) was allowed to walk ½ mile on her own to go to the swimming pool.
- Son Ed (age 8 in in 2007) was allowed to walk 300 yards to the end of the block.
Similarly, in the USA, the area where children are allowed to roam independently without adult supervision has declined by 90% since the 1970s (Urban Children’s Access to Their Neighborhood: Changes Over Three Generations, Sanford Gaster).
There seems to be a multitude of reasons for the dramatic shift. Some of these include:
- Dual-parent working families and single-parent families that require children to be put into structured day care programs.
- Larger homes, more homes, HOAs, and generally denser populations creating less publicly available outdoor space to roam.
- Heightened media attention to the dangers of children playing outdoors without adult supervision—whether real or unsubstantiated—causing parents to fear allowing their children this independence.
- A greater emphasis on the need for children to begin academic preparation to ensure later success as adults, causing parents to put children into programs that promise to educate them.
- Products and programs geared to improving children’s physical and developmental capabilities, such as electronic toys, sports, and arts programs, causing parents to schedule structured activities.
A deep look at these issues can be found in The Atlantic’s The Overprotected Kid by Hanna Rosin.
While much of the research shows that many of the reasons for reducing children’s playtime outdoors are unsubstantiated, the fact remains that children do not range far from their homes. Thus, backyards present one of the most attainable areas for children to play outside. It is a privately owned space, allowing an opportunity that is unblocked for parents to immediately take action.
Junk Playgrounds raised many questions in my mind about safety. Where do I draw the line? Ropes may not be safe for children to play with unsupervised—as they experiment, they might end up tying themselves inappropriately, and that could lead to bad things. And what about other things like construction materials? But when I introduced one of my old truck tires into the backyard, I saw what happened when the children were left to their own devices.
Articles like the New York Times’ “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” and academic works with ridiculously long but apt names such as Coordinating the Elusive Playground Triad: Managing Children’s Risk-Taking Behavior, (While) Facilitating Optimal Challenge Opportunities, (within) a Safe Environment (Tom Jambor, 1995), quickly made it onto my evening reading list. I became overwhelmed with information about how the current play opportunities for my children in public spaces were riddled with poor design. I started to turn back to history to better understand how we got to where we are today.
In the book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (the book I recommend you read next!), Jay Griffiths shares stories of children’s behavior across cultures. Some of these include:
- Once out of infancy, Native American children were traditionally free to wander wherever they wanted, through woods and water.
- Ache boys of Paraguay are given bows and arrows when they are around two.
- Alacaluf children of Patagonia use shellfish spears and cook their own food at age four.
- In the Amazon, five-year-olds wield machetes.
- By about the age of seven, Inuit boys handle knives, become familiar with rifles and trap lines, and from then on “travel with the men, as hardy a traveller as any of them.”
- In Igloolik in the Arctic, eight-year-olds use Inuit knives to carve up frozen caribou without accidents.
These stories expanded my understanding of what children are capable of (although many of the experiences listed here were based on children living in indigenous cultures where there are models, support, and necessity driving behavior), and gave me motivation to keep searching for modern day guidelines.
Categories of Risky Play
In hopes of finding a baseline for children growing up in a modern European, American, or Canadian culture, I came across numerous studies completed over a number of years identifying and confirming types of risk-taking in children’s play.
The six categories of risk-taking or risky play include:
- Play with great heights and danger of injury from falling
- Play with high or uncontrolled speed and pace that can lead to collision with something or someone
- Play with dangerous tools that can lead to injuries
- Play near dangerous elements where children can fall into or from something
- Rough-and-tumble play where the children can harm each other
- Play where the children can disappear or get lost
Understanding these behaviors gave me a good sense of a baseline for how children inherently want to play as they work to develop their motor functions and other senses. But is it safe? Or is it safer to keep them on the couch sedated with electronics, rather than allowing them to take risks that make one’s heart jump?
Loose Parts Safety
The studies I’ve reviewed present compelling evidence of the value of risky play, and that play areas comprised of Loose Parts pose fewer hazards for children and result in fewer major injuries (those that require emergency room visits) than traditional playgrounds.
A nice summation of safety concerns and Loose Parts can be found in Why Children Play Under the Bushes, by Ruth Wilson, Ph.D. And a more in-depth look at risky play can be found in the2015 paper What is the Relationship between Risky Outdoor Play and Health in Children? A Systematic Review published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
While it seems counterintuitive that risky play with Loose Parts has a higher level of safety than other play types, consider that:
- Loose Parts provide high play affordability. As children are able to manipulate materials and their environment, their level of engagement is higher, and correspondingly their level of boredom is lower. This results in lower risk-taking behavior and fewer major injuries.
- Loose Parts tend to be close to the ground, whereas traditional playground equipment (swing sets, playhouses, monkey bars, etc.) tends to be higher off the ground. While children might be falling more, they fall from a lower heights and thus the damages are far less severe.
- Loose Parts play frequently emerges on a small scale, where children are examining and exploring novel materials that they manipulate with their bodies within small spaces (like “painting” the tire with water). On the other hand, traditional playgrounds present greater hazards and result in more emergency room visits. (See above Why Children Play Under the Bushes.)
- Loose Parts are, by their very nature, loose and unconnected, such that contact with the material results in less of an impact. In contrast, traditional playground equipment and outdoor toys are frequently fixed and secured in the ground, such that contact with wood, hard plastic, or metal is more like contacting a wall or hard surface.
Personal Safety Practices
In all of my experiences with Loose Parts in the backyard, the children have never been badly hurt. The materials we’re playing with do tend to be heavy and the children do tend to manipulate them—stacking, jumping, and hanging—but beyond scrapes and bruises, there have been very few negative results. That being said, the experiences have not been without much fear and anxiety on my part.
There are a variety of steps that I have taken that you can follow to ensure your Loose Parts are as safe as possible:
- Avoid introducing objects that have sharp edges.
- Avoid introducing objects that have nails or other protruding objects that children might not see when playing.
- For organic materials such as tree parts, remove knobs, protruding pieces, and sharp ends. I often will lightly sand organic materials to reduce splinters.
- Don’t “help” the children build contraptions or lift them. By avoiding helping children, you will help ensure that they are only able to manipulate objects into positions they can easily recover from. This is especially important with younger children who may be attracted to something that is adult-scale, which could present a larger object falling upon them.
- Don’t “help” the children climb, jump, or balance on objects. As mentioned above, if you can resist assisting the children, it will make their experience safer, as well as give them the opportunity to face challenges that are appropriate to their abilities.
Following these simple guidelines has helped us avoid severe injuries.
In my quest, I yearned for guidelines on how to parent—and that was how I discovered the idea of Playwork, which has illuminated my way and enhanced my approach to fostering play with my children.
Playwork and Being a Playworker
If children came with manuals, instructions on how to be an effective Playworker would have to be included. Playwork is a powerful idea that has served me well in supporting my children’s play and the toys they use.
The origin of Playwork can be traced back to the early Adventure Playgrounds that were staffed by “wardens.” But the wardens were not educators or therapists trying to engage children in a specific agenda. Rather, they began as traditional wardens whose responsibilities focused on holding the keys for sheds that held tools, building materials, and other items the children needed for play. Over time, the Playworker’s role evolved (as well as their name), and today Playwork is a recognized and respected profession built on a foundation of theory and practice.
The most immediate way to grasp how Playworkers view their role is through a definition of play:
“Play is a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated” (Penny Wilson, The Playwork Primer, Alliance for Childhood, 2009).
The Playworker’s role, then, is to support and facilitate play, rather than trying to educate, train, or treat children through any set of rules, games, activities, or other agendas.
“It is the job of a Playworker to ensure that the broadest possible range of play types can be engaged” (as quoted by Wikipedia from Bob Hughes 2006 book Play Types: speculations and possibilities).
When I first learned about Playwork, it resonated deeply with me, and echoed the sentiments I was feeling in observing and playing with my children. As a Playworker, the job of the parent isn’t to make sure the child is having a good time, or to direct them in anyway. The Playworker is more focused on making sure the children have what they need for their play—such as materials, tools, time, and space.
Playworker job duties:
- Create and maintain a safe play environment.
- Develop a space filled with prompts for exploratory, imaginative, and creative play.
- Allow children to follow their own agendas rather than adult urges.
- Observe from a distance, letting children move about physically on their own.
- Act (upon request) as a character in children’s role-playing.
- Introduce new ideas through questions or by briefly modeling play behavior.
One of the best videos I’ve found on Playwork is also from Penny Wilson: Playwork: An Introduction.
The video is a great place to start. It introduces the responsibility of adults in fostering play and encouraging risk in play, explains how to preserve play, and addresses the role of the Playworker, especially in Adventure Playgrounds. The film features a great collection of images of historical and modern Adventure Playgrounds across the world, and a review of the theory and practice of using Loose Parts. The fundamentals of a Playworker’s job are highlighted, such as using observation, reflections, and analysis to better understand children’s play, and enhancing the environment holistically for child-play needs.
At some point in my research I ran across the 16 play types (as defined by Hughes and found in The Playwork Primer). Below is a list of these play types, along with illustrative examples. This deepened my understanding of the range of play types that children can engage with, especially in regard to what toys to provide them with.
- Symbolic play—when a stick becomes a horse
- Rough and tumble play—play fighting
- Socio-dramatic play—social drama
- Social play—playing with rules and societal structures
- Creative play—construction and creation
- Communications play—words, jokes, acting, body and sign languages, facial expressions
- Dramatic play—performing or playing with situations that are not personal or domestic (e.g., playing “Harry Potter” or doing a “Harry Potter play”)
- Deep play—risky experiences that confront fear
- Exploratory play—manipulating, experimenting
- Fantasy play—rearranges the world in the child’s fantastical way
- Imaginative play—pretending
- Locomotor play—chasing, swinging, climbing, playing with the movements of your body
- Mastery play—lighting fires, digging holes, games of elemental control
- Object play—playing with objects and exploring their uses and potential
- Recapitulative play—carrying forward the evolutionary deeds of becoming a human being (e.g., dressing up with paints and masks, damming streams, growing food)
- Role play—exploring other ways of being (e.g., pretending to drive a bus, be a policeman, or use a telephone)
The Practice of Mastering
Every child develops at a different pace and has different needs at different times. Loose Parts are particularly good candidates for children’s play—they are developmentally inclusive because they are open-ended and can be used by children as they wish.
In children under the age of six, the primary play modality is mastering and innovation. Mastering means that a child will repeat an action or a play experience over and over, dozens of times, until they master it. For example, tying knots with ropes gave my children the ability to master the skill of manipulating heavy line, as well as developing the muscles in their hands and their hand-eye coordination. This was repeated dozens of times, and while the knots were not Boy Scout grade, they would make any Aspiring Good Dad proud that the knot could hold a bucketful of wood. Innovation means that, once a child masters an action, they will then push the boundaries of their new learning. With the example above, once the knots were mastered on low-hanging objects like tree branches, the children moved to the swing set, where they tried their hand at tying the buckets to the high monkey bars.
How to identify mastering and innovation objects:
- Watch what objects the children are drawn to.
- Watch what objects get extra attention from the children.
- Watch what objects the children return to on subsequent play experiences/days.
- Watch what actions the children repeat with the same objects.
Once you identify mastering and innovation objects, look for opportunities to introduce similar objects. For example, if you find the children using string to tie to branches, then introduce rope. If you find the children tying ropes to small buckets, look to introduce larger buckets.