Using ‘Loose Parts’ in EYFS Maths

Posted in Inspiration & Ideas

In recent years, ‘loose parts’ have become incredibly popular amongst practitioners in the Early Years, but can this type of resource help us teach early maths? 

‘Loose parts’ usually refers to large quantities of natural or recycled objects used in a wide range of ways by children. Examples include pine cones, stones, bottle tops, bamboo off-cuts, glass pebbles and much more. As long as the items are safe for the age or stage of development a child is working at, the only limit on what can be used is our imagination!

In this blog I’d like to focus specifically upon how loose parts can play a central role in maths in the early years. To do this, I’ll look at two key areas we need to make provision for in order to support the minds of our youngest mathematicians.

Exploring and Developing an Understanding of ‘Pattern’:

Given the opportunity to work both collaboratively and alone, using different types and sizes of materials, and in a range of environments, the evidence is that, for most children, there is an intrinsic motivation to be a ‘pattern maker’. Humans have been creators of patterns and sequences way before counting and calculating existed and it these patterns that  our number system is built upon.  

‘Seeking and exploring patterns is at the heart of mathematics’ (Schoenfeld, 1992)

The proposed new Early Learning Goals (ELGs) for England list three ‘Numerical Patterns’ statements but make no reference to non-numerical patterning (using objects, marks, sounds etc. to produce a repeating sequence). As described earlier, non-numerical patterns emerge naturally in children’s play from a very young age and are identified by Clements (also known for his work on subitising see below) and Sarama (2007) as contributing to the building the foundations of algebraic thinking, since they provide the opportunity for young children to observe and verbalise generalisations.

So, how can we maximise these wonderful resources in our maths teaching?‘ you ask, well…

How about starting here:

Activities with Loose Parts to Develop ‘Patterns and Sequences’

Activity 1: Loose Parts Patterns in Transient Art

Resources Needed:

  • Websites such as
  • Access to large quantities (get collecting!) of natural and recycled ‘loose parts’ e.g. stones, leaves, pine cones, plastic bottle lids 
  • Adults that are good at listening (and have preferably read Julie Fisher’s wonderful book ‘Interacting or Interfering’ so they know when to engage and when to back off – so hard!)


Look at examples of ‘transient art’ (art that is temporary) creations by artists such as James Brunt (that’s an ‘r’ not an ‘l’ so not the singer! You know him: ’You’re Beautiful’ etc).  

Project large images of artwork set in different environments (James uses woodland and beaches amongst others) and ask the children to tell you about what they see. Try not to ask too many questions but instead encourage them to notice and talk together with you and each other.

Now either provide large quantities of similar objects (stones, sticks etc.) or use ‘Forest School’ type opportunities to go and collect your own. Encourage the children to create their own ‘transient art’ both in natural settings and inside. If the background makes it difficult to see the artwork, or if you wish to be able to move it inside, black cloth or dish (see images) used to prevent weeds in the garden is a very cheap and durable background. (The fabric comes on a roll and is brilliant for lots of other creative projects too!)

Showing the children patterns that involve circles, or any repeating shapes, is likely to focus their attention on repetition, balance, size and space. Human beings seem to find great satisfaction in order (even if you’re usually inclined to be very messy!) as well as in creating repeating shapes.

‘Schema’ plays a part here too. ‘Rotating’, ‘positioning’, ‘transporting’, ‘orienteering’ and ‘enclosing’ schema are all supported through rich experiences such as this.

Schemas are those repeated patterns seen in  children’s behaviour, and they link directly to the development and strengthening of cognitive structures in the brain.’ 

Stella Louis ‘Early Education’ 2020) 

Worthwhile ‘Cup of Coffee’ Reads

(‘Cup of coffee’ read = Make yourself a drink and just read for as long as it takes you to finish it…preferably locked in a cupboard somewhere so you’re not disturbed!)

Pattern in the EYFS:

Schema ‘The Past, The Future and The Spirit of Schemas’ by Fran Paffard


Activity 2: Loose Parts and Subitising Patterns 

This activity links loose parts and the absolute game-changer (in my life as an educator anyway) that is ‘subitising’ (‘Super Subitising’ in my world!)

Resources Needed:

  • As above really, large quantities of perhaps three or four natural or recycled objects e.g. stones, buttons, glass beads and sticks
  • Dice or spinner with concept images of number (dots in patterns) rather than digits, or concept images and digits together
  • Adults who believe that children can do things for themselves given the right opportunities, role-modelling from other children and time (see Julie Fisher’s book above – can’t recommend it enough!)


The aim here is to create patterns (linear, curved, spiralling, children can decide) where  what we use and the quantity is predetermined by the amount on the dice or spinner.

Choose a ‘loose part’ e.g. a stone and then roll the die or spin the spinner to find out how many of these will be in our pattern. Collect this many of that object e.g. 1 stone. Now repeat this for the other three objects. You might end app with 1 stone, 2 bamboo rings and 4 sticks. This is the pattern we must build and repeat. 

The children could decide to all create their patterns using different orientations (as above: spiral, circles, lines, zig-zag). This offers the opportunity to see what is ‘different’ and what is  ‘the same’. This is a  hugely important skill in mathematics as it focuses children’s attention on the ‘properties’ rather than the ‘appearance’ of the image (think about how many children say a square is no longer a square when it is rotated; they are  classifying it in only one orientation rather than by its properties).


Worthwhile ‘Cup of Coffee’ Reads


‘Subitizing: What is it and why teach it’ by Doug Clements


Hi everyone,

I’m Karen Wilding, I’m an Independent Early Years and Primary Maths Consultant, published author and international conference speaker. I was a Primary teacher and senior leader for over twenty years (4 -11) so I completely understand the challenges of teaching maths brings.

I’m passionate about doing what’s right for children and their teachers to help every child reach their full potential. I know that when learning is hands-on, active and begins with children’s interests and what is meaningful to them, then everyone can learn maths well.

I also believe we need to do things differently. Not for the sake of it, but because too many of us feel we’ve have lost our way and there is a mismatch between what children need and what we’re asked to do. It doesn’t have to feel like this and I can show you how.

I support practitioners in Early Years (child minders, pre-school staff and teachers) and Primary across the world; delivering keynote speeches at conferences, running bespoke in-school school and local training and leading whole-school/setting reviews of provision.

If you’d like a no-obligation chat about where you are and where you’d like to be then don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Phone: (+44) 7800 711340


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