Children are natural mathematicians. Numbers matter. How old you are. How big you are. How many things you can hold in your hand. Who had a longer turn. Who got a bigger piece of cake. What shape the pasta is. How many more minutes there are until bedtime.
These common challenges with our children involve number sense, time, spacial awareness, geometry, fractions, operations, and more. Numbers matter.
Loose parts play is an incredible tool for teaching early math skills in a way that will promote the types of critical thinking and inquiry necessary for more advanced computation.
Math and Loose Parts Play
An environment rich in loose parts naturally encourages math skill development. In this article at from Teach Preschool, a teacher shares how students collected and brought in loose parts from home to carry out math lessons in the classroom. When we teach math skills using direct instruction, it is usually a solo experience. You may include the use of manipulatives, but there is a specific skill set being targeted and a specific route to achieve it. Combining math and loose parts play takes the isolation of formal instruction out of the math scene and introduces experimentation and collaboration. There are many ways you can encourage children to think mathematically as they explore with loose parts.
Counting with Loose Parts:
Loose parts can be used to encourage number recognition, counting and one-to-one correspondence. One of my favorite ways to introduce numbers with young children is to provide a visual of the numeral as it is written along with a variety of loose parts for exploring that value.
This can be as simple as providing nine toy cars with the number nine or as complex as providing a tray with a variety of small loose parts to see how many ways your child can make the number nine. You might send your mathematician on a scavenger hunt to collect 9 objects.
Very young children can begin to explore the concept of one-to-one correspondence as they fit one object into each section of a muffin tin.
Sorting with Loose Parts:
As children group and sort items, they learn mathematical concepts of size, ratio, and classification. Given a collection of plastic lids from food pouches, beads, mosaic tiles or even objects found outside, children will naturally explore sorting them by color or size or material.
Cerriation is the process of lining up items from tallest to shortest, darkest to lightest, and so forth. Children will often explore this skill using loose parts like logs, river rocks, or even velcro hair rollers!
We inherently desire the order and predictability that comes from sorting and categorizing objects in our environment. Providing a set of similar objects that differ in size or color can promote this. Asking provoking questions, like “is there another way you can group these?” invites children to explore a variety of ways to classify objects.
Patterning with Loose Parts:
Loose parts in a variety of colors, textures and shapes naturally lend themselves to the creation of patterns. Objects like sea glass or pom poms begin to inspire simple patterns and progressively more complex ones.
You can encourage a child who is beginning to explore patterns by starting off a pattern with loose parts and asking him/her to continue it. Perhaps you might create a pattern and leave one blank spot in the middle.
If you notice your child working a pattern in one way, can he/she create another type of pattern using the same materials?
Here we used mini apples to create patterns with play dough.
Beginning to Explore Simple Operations with Loose Parts:
As children develop stronger number sense, you can set up invitations with loose parts that encourage basic operations.
One wonderful thing about using loose parts for math is that the same materials can be used to cultivate multiple skills. Once a child has mastered counting out a set of loose parts to correspond to a number (as in the counting crowns shown above) he/she might be ready to use the same materials to find the sum of two numbers.
Recycled cardboard tubes and sticks collected from outdoors helped to create this addition game in which children grouped the appropriate number of sticks in each tube to find the sum.
Pom poms can be used to play a scoop and add game for exploring early addition.
Use small toys to model early addition problems like in this duck pond addition activity.
Using Loose Parts for Geometry and Shapes:
Another way to combine math and loose parts play is to explore concepts of symmetry, spatial awareness (how things fit in front, behind, next to or underneath something) and geometric shapes. River rocks, pom poms or craft sticks can be used to “trace a shape”.
Shapes can be explored in isolation and in combination. Invite kids to see what happens when they combine shapes by placing similar magnetic shapes on a vertical surface.
Building On Early Math Skills with Loose Parts:
Building upon early math skills can lead to actually building! Using objects to measure, explore weight, volume and engineering are all ways that children gain mathematical concepts through loose parts play. A collection of craft sticks and pom poms can be used atop a recycled cardboard tube to test how many apples a tree can hold.
Loose parts can be used as a measurement unit in seeing how tall or wide something is. Make it meaningful to help the learning stick! We recently used measured how many square magnatiles tall my older son’s baby brother! Measure and compare objects like shoes, pants, or everyone’s height in the family.
See if kids can build a tower taller than another object of choice.
A variety of early math skills are put to work in combination to build and test this fun Build and Break Math Game.
More Tips About Math and Loose Parts Play
At its heart, loose parts play is child-led and maintaining this in balance with adult involvement can be a balancing act. We want to support emerging skills while allowing a space and pace for self discovery. Some of the activities above show a more “structured” approach that includes the use of loose parts.
However, an environment with access to meaningful loose parts and no specific agenda will still naturally lend itself to the development of mathematical concepts. When you observe children in the act of counting, sorting, patterning and more, you can follow these three simple steps to support their natural learning process:
- Notice: Without qualifying it (with praise or judgment), state your observations. “I notice you have a pile of pink pom poms and a pile of green pom poms.” This allows an opportunity for children to tell us about their process and experience.
- Ask a Thoughtful Question: “What are you going to do next?” “What do you notice about this line of glass gems?” “What can you tell me about this?”
- Expand on Their Ideas: When I notice children interested in a particular activity with loose parts, I try to offer opportunities for expanding on those play themes. A child very interested in exploring with triangles and building might love a book about Egypt and the pyramids. A child fascinated by measuring with loose parts might love an opportunity to measure in a new way–perhaps a scale to observe weight.
Math for many children and adults alike can invoke feelings of dread. When we shift the focus from direct instruction toward embracing the natural tendency of children to think mathematically, we can shift the paradigm altogether.
An environment rich in loose parts invites children to develop math skills led by their own curiosity. When we catch them in the act of thinking like mathematicians, we can encourage them to take it deeper while simultaneously fostering a lifelong love for a subject often loathed. Join me next time as we explore the use of loose parts in literacy!
See All of the Posts in the Loose Parts Play Series