Boosting Creative Play Through Loose Parts

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a child will play more happily with the box than with the present that came in it. Perhaps this is why the Strong National Museum of Play inducted the cardboard box into its National Toy Hall of Fame – Penny Wilson, The Playwork Primer

Everywhere I look lately the impending holidays are making themselves known, or rather I should say retailers are using their magic to entice parents into buying a host of toys for their children. The challenge is that most of these so-called toys leave little room for the child to actually play. Instead of choosing how to interact with the materials at hand many of today’s play items are designed with the sole purpose of teaching children how they should engage in play. From video games, to dolls that tell you when they are hungry, not much is left to the imagination. I recently sat in a workshop led by Susan Linn, of Commercial Free Childhood (1), and Joan Almon, of the Alliance for Childhood (2) in which the audience was asked to identify what they saw when looking at a sock puppet. About half the group saw a girl when they looked at the puppet, the others saw a boy–and we all came up with different names for the character. In other words the puppet was fairly generic. Fast forward a few moments and we were prompted to identify a Cookie Monster puppet, and without hesitation the group knew who he was, the phrases he uses, etc. Now where is the creativity in that? My intent is not to offer a lecture. As a parent, I know how difficult it can be to escape the world of commercialism and toys that direct children’s play. However, having seen the rich experiences that develop as children engage in play with open-ended materials it is hard not to advocate for their increased use.

young girls at play with large building blocks
Photo credit: Imagination Playground, LLC

The use of open-ended play materials is as old as play itself, yet the introduction of Simon Nicholson’s “Theory of Loose Parts” provided additional insight into how the materials available for children during their play sessions impact the levels of creative play possible. Nicholson states, ”In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” (3) Nicholson offers the example of the seashore where loose parts abound. Seashells, sand, water, grasses, and more make up the landscape of materials available for children to interact with during play.

As one takes a closer look at today’s play objects and playgrounds there is a clear need for the further integration of loose parts. One such group who has taken the issue of creative play to heart is Imagination Playground. “Imagination Playground is a breakthrough playspace concept conceived and designed by architect David Rockwell to encourage child-directed, unstructured, free play. With a focus on loose parts, Imagination Playground offers a changing array of elements that allows children to constantly reconfigure their environment and to design their own course of play. Giant foam blocks, mats, wagons, fabric, and crates overflow with creative potential for children to play, dream, build, and explore endless possibilities.” (4) One of the most intriguing aspects of this innovative playspace is the use of Play Associates, or trained adults who enable a setting in which children can direct their own play. The main function of the Play Associate is to allow children’s play activity to evolve naturally by maintaining a safe and secure environment, and by renewing and varying the supply of loose parts.

Rockwell’s vision was to create a playspace that would be interesting and engaging to children; yet as more people are introduced to Imagination Playground, it is proving that creative play spans generations. At Giant Steps, an organization dedicated to meeting the educational needs of children and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders, the group reports that “the students often use the imagination playground during movement (indoor recess). They can create an obstacle course, incorporating the pieces with a tunnel and scooter board to meet their significant sensory needs. One of our students uses the pieces as “garbage.” He pretends to be a garbage man getting his work done by tossing the pieces onto the ground and then organizing them back onto the shelves. They have helped him stay regulated throughout movement as well as expand his imagination.  Imaginary play can be challenging for students with autism, so the opportunity to build a castle and “pretend” to be the king, or build a store where they check out the groceries offer tangible ways to explore imagination.” (5)

Other sites such as Cesar Chavez Community Center use Imagination Playground as both a means to increase creative play and to encourage family involvement. Imagination Playground is made available to children in childcare on a daily basis with parents encouraged to join in the sessions throughout the year. To further support their family involvement efforts the site uses Imagination Playground as an opportunity to outreach to their primarily Spanish-speaking families, by conducting training on play facilitation in Spanish and inviting families to play with the materials themselves. Efforts such as these allow children increased access to creative play during school hours but also at home as parents become invested in extending the opportunity for their children.

The Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, reports including “Imagination Playground Blocks in an interior environment with “loose parts” such as small wooden peg people, tennis balls, and fabric. Museum staff observed a “wide range of social behaviors and interactions among visitors, including and most notably, highly collaborative mixed-age play involving toddlers, children and teens together, and cooperative adult play.” (6)

Edith Ogbogu of PS 218 shares that the school has implemented a “Creative Play Month” to promote understanding of imaginative and creative play. Imagination Playground was introduced to the children with a special presentation. The “magic boxes,” were rolled out and the children were asked what “imagination” means, and then asked what “playground” meant to them. Teachers then revealed that the “magic boxes” contained a playground that you build with your imagination. The kids were floored to say the least! Teachers at the site additionally note that “Imagination Playground is a great way to involve all children in active, creative, constructive play.” Children who need adaptive physical education classes, for instance, aren’t able to engage in regular activities and are typically separated into different classes, but Imagination Playground allows them to participate alongside their peers. One girl has difficulties picking up items, but has had some improvement through use of Imagination Playground.

If we want to encourage our children to spend more time engaged in quality play, Imagination Playground provides an interesting model. Through a combination of interesting materials and caring adults on hand to support child-directed play, this is a winning combination which can be customized to meet the needs of a variety of communities and ability levels.


  1. Commercial Free Childhood,
  2. Alliance for Childhood,
  3. Nicholson, S. 1971. How not to cheat children: The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, 30-35.
  4. Imagination Playground,
  5. Giant Steps,
  6. San Jose Children’s Museum,


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Great article. Very informative.

Danielle’s article is exactly what is needed for our children. Thank you for your very timely work on this important subject. We need to keep our children’s health as a top priority for our nation and its future and loose parts are a wonderfully simple solution to enhancing the play of children while keeping them moving.

Mary Ruth thank you for your kind words. I couldn’t agree more. Now is the time to focus on healthy development for children and fostering habits that will extend into adulthood. Loose parts whether they be Imagination Playground focused or materials you have around the house offer a wonderful opportunity to engage children in play that keeps them coming back for more.

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