Critical Thinking Environments:

What materials do we use with learning?
How do we select the materials?
What is our thinking and intentionality with the materials we use?

The following is about materials in a learning environment as asserted by the author Nicholson. The Theory of Loose Parts – Simon Nicholson

The Theory of Loose Parts

An important principle for design methodology and how we look at materials in our classrooms.

It does not require much imagination to realize that most environments that do not work (i.e.  do not work in terms of human interaction and involvement in the sense described) such as schools, playgrounds,  hospitals, day-care centers, international  airports, art galleries and museums, do not  do so because they do not meet the ‘loose parts’ requirement;  instead, they are clean, static and impossible to play around with. What has happened is that adults in the form of professional artists,  architects, landscape architects and planners – have had all the fun playing with their own materials, concepts and planning-alternatives, and then builders have had all the fun building the environments  out of real materials;  and thus has all the fun and creativity been stolen: children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is ‘right’.

All these things have one thing in common, which is variables or ‘loose parts’.  The theory of loose parts says, quite simply, the following:  By allowing learning to take place outdoors, and fun and games to occur indoors, the distinction between education and recreation began to disappear.


The introduction of the discovery method has been accompanied by intense research into the documentation of human interaction and involvement; what did children do with the loose parts? What did they discover or re-discover; What concepts were involved? Did they carry their ideas back into the community and their family? Out of all possible materials that could be provided, which ones were the most fun to play with and the most capable of stimulating the cognitive, social and physical learning processes?

Children greatly enjoy playing a part in the design process: 

  • this includes the study of the nature of the problem; 
  • thinking about their requirements and needs; 
  • considering planning alternatives; measuring, drawing, model-making and mathematics; 
  • construction and building; experiment, evaluation, modification and destruction. 

The process of community involvement, once started, never stops: the environment and its parts is always changing and there is no telling what it will look like. Contrary to traditional parks and adventure playgrounds,  the appearance of which is a foregone conclusion, the possible kinds of environment determined by the discovery method and principle of loose parts is limitless. The children in the neighborhood will automatically involve all their brothers, sisters and families: this is design through community involvement, but in the total community the children are the most important. It is not enough to talk about a design methodology – the methodology must be converted into three-dimensional action.