Nuts and Bolts: Loose Parts Play

The Theory of Loose Parts was created by Simon Nicholson, an architect, who saw every child’s ability to be creative with any ‘variable’, or material they came into contact with. In his article, How NOT to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts (accessible at:, Nicholson condenses his theory to,
“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.”


His idea is that creativity is limited by the number and type of manipulatives children have to work with, and he believes in having a large array of manipulatives, specifically ‘real’ materials not just toys designed for children. He believes that materials and spaces that have been designed by architects, landscapers, designers etc have had all the creativity for the children has been sucked out of the material or the space because the adults have already had all the fun through making them. In this way, loose parts, or different materials that the children can experience and create with on their own are less limited in creativity.


This concept is also seen in the Montessori practical life methods and in Reggio Emilia atelier environments. At Jellybean Park, we recognize the value of using many different materials that can be manipulated by the children through their own creativity and driven by knowledge they have learned in circles and lessons.
In our ‘Community Helpers’ or ‘Our Town’ theme we created a loose parts tray that built upon the previous week of circles that discussed construction workers, tools, architects, and big machines. We call it the nuts and bolts tray.
Nuts and Bolts Loose Parts Tray:
-Magnets (large, small, rings, wands)
-Various sizes of bolts
-Various sizes of washers
-Various sizes of nuts


We put the various pieces onto a tray on top of our large light table as an open ended provocation. The real materials instantly drew the attention of many of the children. Using real metal construction loose parts gives the children an added sense of responsibility and creativity. The added magnets also built on ideas they learned in science activities and let them feel and experience magnetism on their own.

‘Children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.’ – Simon Nicholson
It is rewarding to see the children work with the materials in their own way, whether it was ‘sticking’ the different metal bits together with magnets, using the magnets as ‘mortar’ for metal towers, or sorting the different pieces into groups.

The pieces for this activity are easily found at your local hardware store and once they are put together can be brought out again and again as an activity. Try it and let us know what your child’s experience is.


For more activities and early learning materials visit us at: