• Anita Demitroff

Loose Parts: a child-led approach that requires more dash than cash (7 tips)

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

When the teacher takes the child’s lead: using Loose Parts in nurseries and the three-year-old classroom

As an English teacher, do you find three-year-olds tricky? Do a few sessions with their younger classmates. When you go back to your class, the three-year-olds will seem like university graduates! And you will leave the other classroom wondering how it is the smaller ones, who’ve only been on this planet a few years, already know so much.

What if that move to the nursery school is a permanent one for you, as a teacher? The good news is that you can employ a similar approach with children from one to three, relying on something called “Loose Parts.” which basically involves putting out theme-based items for the children to engage with while you go around and interact with them.

What first springs to mind are objects that are commonly available at schools, like construction sets, soft toys or instruments.

Children, however, often get a kick out of common household items and recyclables or what is easily found in nature, like pinecones or chestnuts.

Sandie Mourao and Gail Ellis included a section on this within a chapter on science by me (see Acknowledgements) in “Teaching English to Pre-Primary Children”, probably one of the most extensive guides to Early Years ELT available.

The picture above is from Escola Infantil EDAI (Narón, Spain).

How to organise the Loose Parts session

As with most things you do with children in this age group, Circle Time is still involved. First the focus is on the teacher, who reads a story or sings a song after lassoing in the children’s attention with the “Rolly Polly Polly” chant (See Instagram, @youfirsteducation). Perhaps, after the chant, you can develop mindfulness further with something that is striking in visual or audible terms, by using a music box, an energy stick or a plastic ball that expands and contracts.

Then, in Mary Poppins fashion, the teacher presents his or her magic bag or box with a flourish. Watch the video on the @Instagram post for the 26th April to see how you can do this. You unpack the items slowly and suggest ways the children might play with them. However, they have to wait for the signal from you to join in. In times of Covid, a selection of objects gets placed on the tables for each group. Once finished, these things go into 24-hour quarantine.

Below is another photograph taken at Escola Infantil EDAI (Narón, Spain).

Further points to bear in mind

For the children’s safety, wash what you can in the dishwasher, avoid small or breakable parts, ensure nothing harmful has been left on the object from its previous use and always check that nothing has broken from one use to the next.

Routines can be used with all the materials. Slipping something in a pocket or onto someone’s head (There’s a circle on your head/in your pocket do you know?) to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know it”), for example, especially if that child is shy and needs to be coaxed into participating. Also, drawing children’s attention to the qualities of an object reinforces their awareness of concepts like soft, shiny, rough or smooth.

Moreover, the essence of an activity is reinforced. For example, you remark on how we are pushing or pulling an object.

The tidying up routine is crucial and here is where you will be shocked with how much children understand you as you give detailed instructions. For example, I tell them to put the big circles into the green bag and the little ones in the box. “That one goes there” is a useful language chunk.

Have a look at these seven Loose Parts collections that go down a treat with very young learners.

1. Circles

These include old CDs and their holders, all kinds of lids, hoops, pizza holders, the shiny, disposable plates under cakes, hoola hoops and motor skill rings. In the end, you will find yourself rescuing bits before they get binned. For instance, two kitchen lights that no longer worked got disassembled: the circular frames make great big circles for us to wear and the two round, metal sections in the middle serve as gongs to get the children’s attention.

You can spin or roll a circle. You can stack CDs onto the holder. You can also draw attention to the fact that a circle is transparent (I can see you) or shiny. Another idea is to put two circles where your eyes or ears are: Look, my ears/eyes are big!

The introductory song related to the circle box is presented on the @Instagram post for the 27th April and if you want to find out how a Loose Parts session fits into a teaching-learning unit, have a look at our free lesson plan for this week and a great book to complement Circle Time is "Press Here" by Hervé Tullet.

2. Animals in boxes

Look for the trickiest boxes to open: those that are challenging, but not impossible. The surprising thing is that even the smallest child will find a way.

Is there something in the box? Can you see it? Can you hear it? Can you feel it? How do you open it? Pull! You can do it! Well done! You’ve opened it!

3. All kinds of objects can be sent down tubes

Obviously, these can be toilet and kitchen roll tubes, but you can also get nice long ones from fabric shops. Borrow the boom whackers from the Music Room. The children can send spiders and other toy animals or cars down them. They can also balance other objects from the room on the end of a tube; the balls from the play pit are especially handy for this.

Stand the tubes up according to size. Put your hand down a tube and ask where it is. My hand! Where’s my hand? Oh! Here it is.

Look down the tube as if it were a telescope. I can see you! Can you hear me? Sing Roll, roll, roll the tubes on the classroom floor to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

A great Circle Time complement is “Incy Wincy Spider.”

4. Things that open and close

These include clothes pegs; hair slides; lift-open tops from bottles of household cleaning products, foods and spices (all washed carefully beforehand); clean, empty pots with screw-on lids and small purses. Possibly reward the children by letting them find smallish treasures (but not small enough to put into their mouths) inside.

You can attach the pegs to different objects (around a plate to make a sun) or simply say this imaginary critter is going to “bite” the children’s noses or fingers.

Desmond Morris, the anthropologist, says that only a secure child gets a thrill from these playful threats. You encourage the children as they keep trying to get open a tricky mechanism.

Circle Time complement: “Look Out! It’s the Wolf!” by E. Jadoul.

5. Three contrasts: red, yellow and blue or big; medium and small

Miscellaneous objects have made their way into these boxes. For the red, yellow and blue collection, there were things from the kitchen and bits and bobs from broken games, rubbish and packaging. Carefully washed containers of all sizes take on a life of their own when faces are drawn on them for the size threesome. They get hit like a boom whackers, as their size affects the musical note they produce. They can also be stacked into towers or scraped like a percussion instrument if they are ridged. Children can also knock them down with a ball.

If there is space, boxes of all sizes are also great to use. The children get to put one inside or on top of the other or even crawl into them themselves. They push a companion around who has crawled inside and soon learn this task is easier if a blanket is placed under the box.

Circle Time complement: slowly open up and arrange the figures in a matrushka and read "Titch" by P. Hutchins and “Goldilocks” for the three sizes or “Lemons are not Red” by L. Vacarro for the primary colours.

6. Squares, bear and plastic pears

Here, children have to find a bear hidden in squares: drawn inside the flaps of boxes or on photocopied sheets folded into old CD sleeves. Listen to the language that accompanies the exploration and discover a great fold-up on the @Instagram post for the 28th April.

You can throw teddies into the air and sing, ”Where’s the bear? In the air!” Or you toss a bear into the air with a P.E. parachute or blanket that everyone can hold around a circle.

Circle Time complement: “Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear” by E. Gravett is a celebration of rhyme and simplicity. It bemuses one-year-olds and gets the older ones rolling on the floor with laughter.

7. Scarves, socks and hats

The obvious application of these is to play peekaboo and put on and take off articles of clothing. However, you can also set your imagination free. Socks become ears, noses and eyes. You can put them on your hands and do a dance or convert them into beanless bean bags (softer and lighter) to throw and catch or balance on your head, shoulders, knees and … you get the idea. You can find the mates of unmatched socks. Scarves can be thrown into the air to see how they glide down or they can be part of a dance routine.

If you can’t get the children to use a P.E. parachute because of Covid regulations, you can encourage them to toss or simply cradle soft toys on scarves that they hold.

You may put out bubble wrap for the children to jump on as if they were splashing in water with a hat on and an umbrella in their hands (idea from Álvaro Fraga Rodríguez, formerly of You First). This activity goes nicely with Pitter Patter from "Teddy’s Train" (OUP).

Circle Time complement: “Washing Line”by J. Alborough.

So, do you feel sufficiently inspired? The wonderful thing about Loose Parts is that the children themselves often come up with new ways of playing with the same items. Your job as the English teacher is to communicate with them. You will definitely get a buzz out of their excitement as you come into the room with the next box of goodies.

I leave you with this image from Learning Space (Narón, Spain), where the children spent over half an hour with elastic bands.

First, they were exploring the relationship between the sound produced when the band was stretched and when it was loose.

Then they attached the bands to their bodies and objects in the room.

Over half an hour was spent with an item that would otherwise go unnoticed: a magical transformation.


By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.