“‘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 [loose parts] in it (Nicholson, 1971).’ Variables or loose parts can take many forms including stones and rubble; sand, dirt, wood and twigs; fabric, rope, and dilapidated household furniture (Russell, Lester and Smith, 2018).”

Nicholson, S. (1971) ‘How NOT to cheat children: The theory of loose parts’, Landscape Architecture, 62(1):30-4.
Russell, W., Lester, S. and Smith, H. (2018). Practice-based research in children’s play. Bristol: Policy Press, p.43.

After reading this quote, I found myself standing in the kitchen, waiting for my coffee to percolate. Something about the mint plant on my windowsill and the caffeine juice dripping slowly into a mason jar reminded me too much of the clichéd luxury minimalist æsthetic abounding in cafés worldwide. It made me aware of an apparent inconsistency in my life. While I have chased minimalism to some degree over the past 5 years, I have also been a strong advocate for messy, chaotic play for children.

Are these ideas incompatible? Can a family utilize the practices of minimalism while retaining enough ‘loose parts’ in their material environment for children to engage in exploratory, self-directed play? I now think so. I’ve made a little 2×2 matrix here to flesh out a few observations.

Minimalist Family Non-minimalist Family
Sterile Childhood
Situation many people imagine when they consider the children of minimalists. Simple, durable, discrete toys are encouraged. Messy, time-consuming, space-intensive pursuits may be cleaned up before they get far.
Material environment may be messy, but childhood is spent away from ‘loose parts.’ Time may be consumed in school or digital entertainment.
Messy Childhood Situation in question. Minimalism might omit some playthings, but the ones remaining are versatile and open to creative use by children. Also, the messes and projects happen outside more than inside. Adults don’t try to impose minimalism on their growing children.
Self explanatory. Ordinary houses are full of interesting things for children to play with, if they are allowed the liberty.

It seems that kids get messy because they are exploring and expanding their world, while adults frequently impose minimalist constraints on themselves to make their world more clean and manageable. At every stage of life, there is a threshold for personal chaos, and for children this is is very high. It’s a time of adventure. We only downsize and filter out parts of the world once we’ve experienced things and must focus our limited time. Both stages are healthy and necessary, but it takes a conscious effort on the part of adults to foster the wackyness of children and not prematurely impose the orderly practices of adult life. That southwestern quadrant might be the way to go.