Loosen up! Improving Play Value Through Loose Play Elements
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
The vacant lot across the street had been occupied by enemy soldiers and our makeshift bunkers were deteriorating under the pressure of relentless heavy arsenal attacks. Other than raising the white flag, there was only one option left...a full scale offensive assault. A final look of determination was shared between my team before the bundled grass bunkers exploded and we charged forward toward enemy lines. Dirt clod projectiles flew through the air, exploding on impact like fragmenting grenades. Bunched dry grass (rootballs intact) were dropping from the sky like laser guided missiles impeding our forward progress. Dirty, sweaty, exhausted and defeated, we happily surrendered. During the thirty second walk back home, we agreed the back-yard battle had resulted in an incredibly fun afternoon. There were no playgrounds, manufactured equipment or fall zones involved. This entire play episode from my childhood was orchestrated with only an open field, a few loose parts (old pieces of wood / shovels / weed bombs) and youthful creativity, yet it is one of my most vivid playtime memories.
This story illustrates the importance of play which fosters dramatic and constructive play, the two most critical social and cognitive developmental forms of play. Unfortunately, however, play experiences like mine in vacant lots and nearby fields, have diminished for many children due to various factors related to urban development and shrinking free roam boundaries. Since the theory of loose play was presented in 1971 by Simon Nicholson4, society has slowly begun to understand the importance of loose play in children's development, more so in other countries than in the United States. In an effort to build upon other's advocacy efforts, a discussion is provided below about what loose play items are, why they are important and challenges faced when trying to infuse them into public play spaces.
What is a Loose Play Item?
A fundamental description of a loose play item is: an element in the play environment that is not static and that can be moved, manipulated and repurposed. It can be used to "construct, invent and modify."3 Simply adding a matchbox car to the play environment can transform a single purpose slide into an Indianapolis 500 race track, expanding its play value and social opportunities. Most modern manufactured play equipment would not fall into the loose play category. A loose play item will support dramatic and constructive play and promote social collaboration through its properties of malleability, variety, portability, functionality and flexibility. Examples of loose play items may include water, sand, building blocks, stones, wagons, wood boards, branches, leaves, play clothes, balls, hand tools and a few commercially available building block systems suitable for outdoor use (Snug Play / Imagination Playground).
Importance of Loose Items During Play - Four specific developmental benefits associated with constructive play and loose parts, as described by Professor Francis Wardle, Ph.D. are; the development of specific technical skills, creation of the sense of control, development of positive self-esteem or independence and the development of skills for flexible problem solving.6 Children are actually able to adapt their play environment to their level of understanding and complexity. Amazingly, using the same materials they can then graduate to higher levels of complexity and mastery by configuring and arranging them differently. An example would be stacking of objects to higher and higher levels, or increasing complexity when building hiding spaces to include more rooms, roofs or windows. In essence, children are innately able to play at higher order play behaviors when armed with loose play items. Studies have also shown that children with disabilities benefit and are also able to "play at higher levels when given loose parts."5
In addition to all these benefits, researchers report developmental improvement in cognitive functioning, abstract thinking, social interaction, interest and engagement, creativity, feelings of pride, and understanding of natural laws like physics and gravity.2,3
Challenges with Loose Play in Public Spaces -
Loose play has traditionally been difficult to implement due to several adult related thought processes. These being, the misconception that loose play is messy, lack of understanding for the importance of free play, assumptions that play structures are adequate, that maintenance is too difficult and that organization of the play environment is too difficult.3,6
These very real challenges can be overcome. With proper planning of design and funding, loose play playgrounds can be implemented as evidenced by the imagination playground in New York City which has proven to be successful.1
Areas that may appear messy or unorganized can be hidden from view corridors or high traffic areas with appropriate use of landforms, vegetation and structures
PR campaigns and advocacy programs can be implemented to educate the public on the benefits of constructive and dramatic play.
Endowments, joint use agreements, funding districts, stable volunteer programs, and agreements with local philanthropical groups are all potential methods of providing long-term maintenance for these spaces and replacement of materials. Planning ahead for and employing an on-site play guide can also minimize issues with theft, vandalism and overuse of the playspace. A play guide can also regulate and monitor the site. With the help of a guide loose part rotations can be implemented creating sustained interest, material life, and variability.
Design of a durable storage space adjacent to the play area will help keep the area organized and minimize messy appearances.1
Though the infrastructure where modern play occurs may be different than when I was a child, children's innate methods for play, creativity and exploring the world remain the same. If we allow loose play to flourish, dirt bombs may still explode in the streets and walkways, flooding of massive proportions resulting from broken dams may occur in the playground and exotic safaris may still be taken through grasses and underbrush regardless of the fact that parents and caretakers may be only inches away.
1.Jost, Daniel. New York Loosens Up. Landscape Architecture. Washington D.C. November 2012. P.80-952.K. Ryan, C.J. Woytovech, L. Bruya, A. Woytovech, B. Shumate, A. Malkusak*, and J.A. Sievers. Loose Parts: The Collaboration Process for a School Playground. Journal of Kinesiology & Wellness. 2012.
3.Maxwell. Lorraine, E, Mari R. Mitchell and Gary W. Evans. Effects of Play Equipment and Loose Parts on Preschool Children's Outdoor Play Behavior: An Observational Study and Design Intervention. 2008. 18(2) Children, Youth and Environments. P.36-63.
4.Nicholson, Simon. The Theory of Loose Parts: An Important Principle for Design Methodology. Landscape Architecture Quarterly. October 1971.
5.Sroka, Nicole, Erika. A Meta-Analysis of Published Literature on the Role of Loose Parts in the Play Behavior of Non-typically Developing Children. Thesis presented at Cornell University. 2006.
6.Wardle, Francis. Supporting Constructive Play in the Wild. Child Care Information Exchange. May 2000. P.26-29.