Loose Parts for Literacy and Numeracy 

Loose parts are not a new concept; children have been playing with loose parts for centuries. Since the beginning of time, children have used their creative little minds to create something out of nothing. What exactly are loose parts, you may ask? Loose parts are one of the finest forms of imaginative play. Beginning as a remarkable term coined by Simon Nicholson, loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, built, taken apart, rearranged, or combined in multiple ways. The purpose of loose parts play is that the child oversees the direction, and learning is left open-ended. Have you ever given a child a toy, but they seem to have had more fun playing with the packaging it came with? That is a perfect example of loose parts play!  

“The purpose of loose parts play is that the child oversees the direction, and learning is left open-ended.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part of loose parts play is that it can be combined with so many things when it comes to learning. Loose parts are all about connections and forming relationships with different objects to learn all about exactly what they can do – and what they cannot do. Loose parts leave no stone unturned; from language to math to art, the opportunities are infinite. 

 Here are some ways you can incorporate loose parts in literacy and numeracy: 


Loose parts can help with reading and writing proficiency through various activities. One of the best functions of literacy with loose parts is storytelling. Children creatively play with loose parts to encourage symbolism and sequence, which boosts their ability to understand literacy in many ways. Children will create stories with the individual items and tie them together to create a world beyond imagination.  

Symbolic play can look different in so many ways; one example is acting out stories they are familiar with. For instance, using small loose parts such as craft sticks and pipe cleaners to act out classic fairy tales such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This helps with literacy, memory, and pattern recognition since they are remembering a story and acting it out themselves. If you want to be less specific, give them a theme such as nature, animals, or places and watch the incredible stories and scenery they create. A small stone can become a jewel stolen by an alien, and a tree block can become a magic wand; the potential is endless. 


Numeracy is the ability to understand and work with numbers. Especially to children, numbers matter; for instance, how many gifts are under the tree, who had a longer turn, how old they are, how many sleeps until their birthday, and many other numerals are particularly important to little ones. However, studying numeracy presents its fair share of challenges as well. Geometry, fractions, and operations are a few of the common difficulties in early mathematical learning. That is where loose parts come in; they are a great physical and tangible representation of concepts that children often struggle with.  

play stones with numbers on them

Number pebbles and word pebbles are great for use in sand, water, or the outdoors! They are durable and great to inspire children to explore and the numbers and letters engraved on them. They can be used to teach counting, sorting, the alphabet, and learning short words.

Craft supplies. Loose parts play does not get any better than crafting! It is a chance for children to create whatever they want through so many different mediums. The Makerspace STEAM Builder Set includes an assortment of materials to help students imagine, create, share, and generate lots of innovative ideas. This set is perfect for combining STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) learning with loose parts to bring in an unforgettable learning experience. 

child playing with balloon

Trays can be used to count and display various loose parts. From the Natural Tinker Tray to the Natural Flower Tray, trays are ideal for a wide range of collecting and early math sorting and stacking activities, both indoors and outside. They pair well with any type of sensory stone!  

wooden tray filled with small natural items

Loose parts are a terrific way for children to positively identify letters. The Feels-Write Letter Stones can help children touch and feel their way to recognizing letters. Children can also use small loose parts to trace the shapes with their fingers and then take paper and write them on their own. A fun game to implement with letter stones is to hide these stones around and create a scavenger hunt. This is a way to condition letters into the forefront of children’s learning minds, and they will become increasingly familiar with the alphabet. 

What are the benefits of loose parts? 

Longer attention span. Loose parts can help children attain a longer attention span. Once a child starts to seriously immerse themselves into their play, they tend to lose track of time and become so focused on their task that everything else slowly disappears. This is an exercise that can positively influence other areas of life such as paying attention during class. Their brains are more familiar with concentrating on specific tasks for extended periods of time, and loose parts play is an easier way for them to concentrate for way longer than they would on a guided and specified task. Plus, incorporating learning into loose parts play can help make the most of your time with engaged learners making for an easier teaching session.  

Assists fine motor skills. Manipulating objects, no matter how big or how small, help develop both fine and gross motor skills. Lifting, counting, and sorting are all great early skills that help to involve muscle groups form properly and appropriately such as holding a pencil. Additionally, it helps hand eye coordination which prepares children for other aspects of learning, prepping their bodies for things like throwing a baseball or football. 

three children sitting and learning

Problem-solving skills. Loose Parts can help develop problem-solving skills. Through loose parts play, children get to make decisions about which parts they want to use. Along with building and engineering, young students are gaining many skills like adapting and experimenting with new things. To create their loose parts masterpiece, students need to select what materials piece the best together for their environment. Their original ideas may need adjustment; that is okay! Through these challenges, children get to learn how to fix and tailor their projects to make things work.  

two children holding their snowmen made out of crafting material

“Through loose parts play, children get to make decisions about which parts they want to use. Along with building and engineering, young students are gaining many skills like adapting and experimenting with new things.”

How can I help teach Math and English by supporting loose parts play? 

Take notice in their play. Part of observing and supporting children in learning about numeracy through loose parts is exactly that – simply observing. Take notice in what children are creating and tell them (without stating any opinions) what you see. “I notice you have a pile of read bears and blue bears.” This provides a chance for children to vocalize their experiences and enforce the recognition process. 

Ask important questions. “What can you tell me about this?” or “What is your plan with this?” can help steer children in the right direction and invoke new thoughts in children. It helps keep them on track and it continues their thinking process, encouraging them to think even more about their creative process and what exactly they are creating, keeping them engaged.  

Elaborate on what they have already produced. Have you taken notice of a certain child’s interest in a specific topic? This is a wonderful way to broaden their interests by adding to these themes. For example, a child who may be interested in stones and rocks might love an introduction to crystals and minerals, or measurements and weights of certain objects. Help them fuel a passion for knowledge by offering suggestions for similar interests. 

Tips for loose parts: 

Loose parts do not have to be expensive! Loose parts are all about the experience, and not necessarily about the specific part itself. Small and simple loose parts such as coloured flat wooden shapes or transparent irregular shapes can go a long way. Children are the most imaginative people you can think of; you would be surprised to see what they produce even with the simplest of things. 

Take loose parts outside. With the beautiful weather heating up, this is a wonderful time to combine learning with play and take advantage of the outdoor classroom. Children can also use natural pieces such as pinecones and sticks as loose parts. 

Loose parts are customizable! It does not have to go big or go home. Loose parts can be whatever you want them to be, small handheld items or extravagant projects. Loose parts can also work for any age; there are no limits to creativity. Since it is such a flexible part of play, loose parts can work for any and every child. 

Now that loose parts have become more familiar, implementing them for literacy and numeracy in your classroom should be a breeze. Children will thoroughly enjoy learning through play, especially when they feel in control and are able to make easily identifiable connections from the classroom to their own lives. Loose parts are a wonderful way to connect children with hands-on learning and take a break from the books. Loose parts support the development of freedom and creativity while helping young learners become excited about learning; it helps to learn to feel more like fun and less like a chore.

three children sitting down and smiling

“Loose parts are a wonderful way to connect children with hands-on learning and take a break from the books.”

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