Last year we celebrated Christmas Eve by baking cookies, watching Christmas movies, and donating bags of used toys to a thrift store. It reflected our good fortune to have new toys waiting under the Christmas tree, but also the short lifespan of most toys. We optimistically donated our things hoping they would soon be rescued by other children, but so many toys didn’t even get the chance of reuse. On Christmas day, more toys went straight to the garbage, breaking shortly after use in play.
Toys, too often, are an investment in waste. In 2011, a plastics industry publication stated that 90 percent of the toy market was made from plastic (PlasticsEurope, 2011). Most people assume that plastic means recyclable, particularly if an item has a chasing-arrow triangle with a number inside. However, in the United States only plastics #1 and 2 are easily recyclable; due to insufficient market demand and limited reprocessing capability, plastics #3-7 are hard to recycle and in the United States are sent to landfills or incinerated (Hocevar, 2020). In 2017, scientists assessed that 79 percent of all plastics ever made was in landfills or the natural environment (Geyer et al., 2017). This same study noted that as of 2015, half of all the plastic ever made had been produced in the preceding thirteen years.
Even if toys are not made out of plastic, the problem with many toys is that they are toys. A toy car is a toy car. It cannot ever be anything else, which is fine while your child loves cars, and not fine once your child has other interests. What will you do with that car then? What will happen to the costume jewelry and tiny play people? These items have no other use when play is over, and they are often not made well enough to be kept to pass on.
A sustainable alternative to typical toys is play with loose parts. Children have been playing with loose parts as long as there have been children. However, the term “loose parts” is credited to British architect Simon Nicholson. Nicholson (1971) posited that creativity and inventiveness were directly linked to variables in an environment. The more components for experimentation available, the more creative the children. Environments with everything already decided, like static playgrounds and art museums, denied children the fun of creation. Moreover, such environments sent children the message that they were incompetent at creating.
Play with loose parts reverses this dynamic. Instead of being handed toys that are already something, children decide what the loose parts will be. They become the leaders of their play, thereby gaining confidence in themselves.
What is play with loose parts?
A loose part is anything that a child can freely manipulate. Nature is full of them: rocks, seashells, pine cones, branches. Let a child loose in the forest and watch him build forts, produce a mud kitchen, and create art in the dirt. In the home, play with loose parts looks like straws being poked through a colander, coins being transferred from jar to jar, or pillows stacked to build a den. No one told the child how to play or what to play—the child herself looks at these objects and sees their potential.
Since the objects have no pre-determined, fixed role for play, they can take on new meanings as the child decides. Today’s pillow den becomes tomorrow’s path through the fairy woods. Today’s laser shooter made out of bag clips and toothpicks forms tomorrow’s pet dinosaur enclosure. Loose parts maintain the child’s interest because of their endless possibility, extending their life as toys and vehicles for learning. Play with loose parts is not mere entertainment. Play is learning. The loose parts facilitate the child’s natural exploration of the world.
How play with loose parts is sustainable
Since loose parts can be anything, they can be items that can transition out of play usage without going straight to the trash. My kids love playing with my hair rollers, which I only use occasionally anyway. My youngest loves taking them out and attempting to put them back in the right holes, an activity that teaches shapes and sizes. When this play is over for the day, the rollers return to being hair rollers. Anyone who has had her toddler build with canned food knows exactly what I mean; the child gets to build a city and then the food goes back in the cabinet. My kids also play with items that would otherwise be trash, like bottle caps, yogurt containers, and cardboard packaging in interesting shapes. Natural loose parts are the most sustainable toys because they eventually decompose or naturally return to the environment. Toys don’t need to last forever, particularly not in landfills or our oceans. They just need to last long enough.
In addition to loose parts themselves being often environmentally friendlier than toys, play with loose parts encourages a sustainable mindset. Instead of merely being consumers of items they are given, children are encouraged to look at everything in their world and search for value. They get to practice reuse and repurposing. They are rewarded for figuring out how a thing can transform into something else with a little imagination. These skills will be increasingly valuable in a world confronting global environmental challenges and limited resources.
Geyer, R., Jambeck, J., Law, K. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1700782
Hocevar, J. (2020). Circular claims fall flat: Comprehensive U.S. survey of plastics recyclability. Greenpeace Inc. Retrieved 21 Apr 2021 from: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Greenpeace-Report-Circular-Claims-Fall-Flat.pdf
Nicholson, S. (1971). How not to cheat children: The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, 30-34. Retrieved 21 Apr 2021 from: https://media.kaboom.org/docs/documents/pdf/ip/Imagination-Playground-Theory-of-Loose-Parts-Simon-Nicholson.pdf
PlasticsEurope. (2011, November 23). Christmas: plastic toys in vogue. PlasticsleMag. https://plastics-themag.com/Plastic-shakes-up-the-toy-industry
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