Friday, May 13, 2022

How Not to Cheat Children . . . Or Anyone

In1971, the now defunct magazine Landscape Architecture published an article by an architect named Simon Nicholson entitled "The Theory of Loose Parts: How Not to Cheat Children." Nicholson, of course, didn't invent loose parts, those have been around for as long as there have been children, but he is credited with proposing the radical theory, which he states as follows:

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.

This, in itself, may not seem terribly radical, and left to stand alone like this, it's not, but as Nicholson framed it in his article, it's an idea that challenges our educational system and culture writ large. He writes:

Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few's music, use the gifted few's inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.

Nicholson was not writing about pinecones, thread spools, and other doo dads presented in tidy little baskets, nor was he writing about spare tires, planks of wood, and shipping pallets. He was writing about autonomy, about hierarchy, and, at bottom, about democracy. His big idea was that we are at our most inventive and creative when we're allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments, yet modern society tends to leave the design of our world to professionals, or, in his words, "the gifted few."

This is, in fact, what happens in our traditional schools. Instead of allowing learning to be constructed by the learner, we instead march children through standardized curricula, measured by standardized tests, thereby cheating the children. We've stripped the process of inventiveness, creativity, and discovery, then wonder why the kids aren't motivated.

Nicholson was writing about schools and education, but he was also writing about our larger society in which we tend to do the same thing with museums, libraries, parks, and other public spaces, turning the most important (and fun) part over to the gifted few, compelling the rest of us to live in the world as they've created it.

When applied to our wider world, we see how the theory of loose parts ought to be intertwined, inextricably, with our notions of democracy and self-governance. When we recognize that this isn't a theory about stuff, but rather any "number and kind of variables," we see that Nicholson was also writing about the building blocks of community. When governance is left up to the gifted few -- policy makers, bureaucrats, and politicians -- we are cheated of the most important (and fun) part. Self-governance is all about creativity and inventiveness. It is about moving the loose parts around, configuring them to suit us for a time, then, because they are loose parts, re-configuring them when our needs and desires change. Democracy itself, if it is to work, must be included in the theory of loose parts.

It's our responsibility, I think, both as educators and citizens, to set out each day with the intent of dispelling the lie of the chosen few, of constructing our environments from the variables at hand, and to never allow our children or ourselves, or anyone for that matter, to be cheated of the fun part.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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