A few years ago I started seeing articles about the theory of “loose parts.” The concept is simple: give kids random materials with which to build and play.

Some people might find this to be akin to spreading trash all over your back yard, but it’s a research-backed way to teach kids how to use their imaginations, inspire creativity, and encourage problem-solving.

Honestly, I saw it as a way to spend less money on toys, and ditch the plastic crap. Count me in.


Think back to your childhood. How much time did you spend playing outside with minimal supervision? We were free to use our imaginations to vanquish evil or cook the perfect acorn soup; we could fight space villains or climb high into the trees to protect our domain from neighborhood monsters.

Some of my favorite and most vivid childhood memories involve no adults, just us kids creating entire worlds with our collective imagination and effort. Someday, the people who moved into my grandparents’ old house will be planting a garden and come across any number of very important time capsules from the mid-to-late 1980s. If we managed to waterproof them as effectively as we hoped these unsuspecting homeowners will be the proud owners of such memorabilia as a Debbie Gibson cassette, sparkly bracelets, a handful of spare change, and the ramblings of two preteen girls and their younger sisters.

Today, most kids have far less free play time than we did. Educational requirements have drastically cut the amount of recess in elementary schools, and a culture of parental judgement has stifled our children’s ability to engage in what they perceive to be “dangerous” play. Yet this sense of risk is vital for development. According to Psychology Today,

In such play, children dose themselves with just the level of fear that they can tolerate, a level just below the threshold of what might cause them to freeze up. They learn how to manage fear, how to prevent it from incapacitating them. They also learn that fear is normal and healthy, something they can learn to control, and eventually overcome, through their own efforts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics enthusiastically recommends free play time for children:

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. Ideally, much of play involves adults, but when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.

How do we, as parents, find the balance between letting our kids learn through exploration and uncertainty while also keeping our nosey neighbors from calling the police because little Johnny is way up in the magnolia tree again?

In Wales, a playground called “The Land” might look like a junkyard to adults, but has allowed kids the chance to safely create their own world, while successfully avoiding the Lord of the Flies scenarios worried adults envision. The kids are free to build, destroy, and create with adult supervision, but not intervention. They can build structures, create novel play equipment, and even start small fires. Problem-solving skills are integrated as they work together to see their projects to completion.

Most of us aren’t willing to let our kids have free reign with fire in our backyard, but there are ways we can incorporate the heart of this philosophy and let them learn to accurately predict risk and adjust accordingly.


Find a space. I have a small area between my house and fence that’s perfect, and a friend gave us an arbor to use as an entrance. Because it’s secluded at the side of our yard it feels secret, but I can still peek down there from time to time. There are no expectations that all the scraps must stay in this area, but it helps me to have a place to contain all of these “learning tools” at the end of the day.

Look around your house. You probably have items that would work wonderfully already. I grabbed buckets, a set of shelves, some vinyl lattice, old drum sticks, and old pots and pans. Some things might be single use (or until-it-rains use), but still worth considering – we all know the joy of a cardboard box.

Ask your friends and neighbors. In addition to the arbor I had a friend give me four old tires that I drilled holes in so water could drain. You’d be surprised at what people have lying around their garages that might be useful. Or if your garage is anything like mine, you might not be surprised at all.

Check out your local scrap / resale store. Look for things like fence posts, scrap wood, bricks, and rope. But look beyond that – be creative. Wooden pallets are fantastic, assuming you can resist the urge to turn them into decorative succulent planters or a magazine rack.

Hang a piece of scrap plywood as an outdoor canvas. Once you’ve painted it you just paint it again. You can attach PVC joints to it to create a marble run or waterfall.

Get the kids involved. If you’re brave you can take the kids with you to look for supplies — you’ll be amazed at how inventive they are. Give them ten dollars and turn them loose in the resale store, adding a layer of monetary responsibility to the mix.

Invite friends. This sort of open-ended learning is great even as a solo activity, but to really let it shine to its full potential invite friends over. The dynamics will change and their brains will be exercised in different ways as they handle disputes and combine forces to work out new solutions.

Be intentional. Avoid letting your yard become overrun with garbage. Once in a while go toss anything broken beyond recognition or that has succumbed to the elements. You’ll find yourself reaping the benefits. I’ve found that I love to up-cycle, and that Pinterest isn’t actually the devil’s playground.

My daughter has fully embraced the loose parts concept of play. She’s created fairy gardens, forts, and cars. We’ve walked the plank, played hopscotch, and set the stage for a concert. The other day she asked me, “But mom, what can we spray paint?”

I love watching my daughter work out solutions to achieve her ideas. There’s math, engineering, logic, and brute force within these loose parts, and that’s better than kindergarten homework any day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go return this PVC and pinecone sword-wand to my astronaut-pirate-princess-fairy.