Hands on Patterning and Loose Parts Play


For the past few months, I’ve noticed H has been showing an increased interest in patterns (which she so endearingly pronounces “pattrins”). She points them out in clothing, when we walk outside, in food and in her play.

While she still has a simple understanding of patterns, not having quite realized the full definition or complexity of what constitutes a pattern, she shows pride in being able to recognize them.

To deepen her knowledge and understanding, we’ve read these books which are part of my personal collection.


I’ve been wanting to give her a hands-on way to create her own patterns and further investigate the concept. This morning, I finally set out a very simple activity for her on the still-crumb-covered kitchen table. By sharing how our experience unfolded, I hope to show you all the potential of loose parts (basically collections of items that can be used in many different ways).

I provided a tray that had two elements: dried kidney beans and yellow crystals. Originally I was not planning on prompting her and just wanted to see what she would do, but I thought some guidance might help, so all I did was ask her, “Can you make a pattern?”


I was pleasantly surprised by her attention to detail as she carefully ensured the kidney beans and the gems all faced the same direction (she turned the kidney beans so that they would all be vertical and placed the gems on the widest side).


When I saw that she was able to successfully create a pattern with two elements, I introduced a third: pink milk jug lids. She adjusted her pattern to incorporate these.


When she could no longer reach one end of her pattern, she started working at the starting end. It was interesting because she did not know how to reverse the pattern since she was working in the opposite direction. I had to prompt her with saying the pattern out loud in the opposite direction – by drawing her attention to this fact, she was able to extend her pattern in the opposite direction correctly.

I was further impressed when she created a little game. She removed the milk jug lids and asked me, “What’s missing?” I said, “the lids!” and she said, “You’re correct!” She proceeded to removed the beans and then repeated her question.


She then undid her pattern and started arranging the parts in shapes saying things like “I made a square! I made a circle!”


After making shapes she decided to sort the pieces on the table and said “My bean collection is all done!” Even though I haven’t used the term “collection” in my dialogue with her, I marveled with what an intuitive term it was for a three year old to be able to refer to her loose parts as “collections”. After separating the three elements, she proudly exclaimed that she had three collections.


H really enjoyed playing with the loose parts. She looked at the tray and noticed there were empty spaces so asked me for more. I went on a hunt around the house trying to find a jar of pennies I knew we had somewhere but was unsuccessful. I returned after ten minutes half-hoping she had lost interest, but she hadn’t. She was still sitting there. I checked the pantry and gave her some raw pasta and a pouch of blue beads. She happily announced that she had five collections and then said, “I’m mixing them up. They are having a big party. Tada!”


After this, she loaded the tray back up, sorting the loose parts and said something about the parts going for a train ride. She noticed that one space was still empty so again asked for something to fill the space with.


At this point it became clear that her play was transforming from being a mathematically inclined activity to open-ended dramatic play. She said the parts were soup for her friends that were sick. I offered her a pot and wooden spoon which she gladly accepted. She added blue beads to the pot commenting that they looked like rice.


She asked me for some bowls for her soup and went on to pour some “soup” and feed her stuffed toys. She declared that they felt better after eating the soup but still needed to rest.


When she was done playing, she resorted the pieces and left the tray on the floor. Seven hours later when she woke up from her afternoon nap, she approached the tray again and this time, mixed various elements in the pot. She poured the soup into the bowls and let her friend Lammie have a taste. She also fed me with the wooden spoon and then pointed it at my stomach so that Baby could get a taste too.

Loose part play is promoted by play advocates all around the world. It’s something my daughter really enjoyed in her toddler years. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to provide as many opportunities for it as I would have liked this past year (however it’s always in the back of my mind). By looking at how her play evolved over the day, I hope that you too, can see the value, depth and potential of this type of experience. She started with something more structured (but it was still based on her interests and initiative) and explored patterning, sequencing, geometry, counting, sorting, fine motor development, language and dramatic play. I’m curious to see what she will do next and how a broadening understanding of various patterning sequences will translate into her play.



I Like Pumpkins- Post #3: Let’s Talk about Feelings


In our family, we don’t celebrate halloween but I love the idea of using pumpkins for something beyond cooking. H doesn’t yet have the fine motor control to carve intricate designs (I’m not sure that I do either) but I feel like pumpkins make a good canvas, so to speak. On our trip to Cobb’s Corn Maze, we got a really cool no-carve decorating kit that reminded me of Mr. Potato Head. It contained different facial features that could be pierced into the pumpkin and make faces. I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore and discuss various emotions.

I complimented the opportunity by adding a mirror and asking H to look at her own face. We practiced expressions like happy, sad, angry, and scared, talking about things that made us feel that way. We sometimes replicated these feelings on her pumpkin and then experimented with Mr. Potato Head. She really enjoyed this experience but I wish I would have added a book about feelings- something that could go deeper than these four basic emotions. Having the proper comprehension and vocabulary surrounding expressing one’s self is a lifelong gift that can greatly enhance the quality of relationships.

Adding in the mirror also adds an interesting aspect – children can start to notice the way their facial features change when they experience different emotions and then eventually start reflecting these changes in visual representations, depictions and artwork. They can also start to interpret what these changes in other people’s faces signify, leading to socioemotional growth.

Years ago I had a mentor who employed a strategy that I loved and adopted. When a child does something to hurt another child (alternatively, it can be used when they have caused any emotion, including a positive one), draw the child’s attention to the other child’s face. It can be quite powerful for a child to really notice and internalize another person’s emotions.


Annie and David are playing with the blocks. David is carefully building a tower and Annie decides to knock it over. David starts to cry. Instead of telling Annie to “say sorry” to David, ask her to look at David’s face. How does his face look? Get her to notice, acknowledge and assign meaning to that facial expression. And then continue to use questions to prompt an appropriate reaction. So if Annie acknowledges that David looks sad, you can continue to ask her why David might feel sad. After she responds, ask her what she could do to make David feel better? If she says something like “say sorry,” “give him a hug,” “help him re-build his tower” ask David what he thinks about those ideas and go with a course of action that both children agree to.

This strategy puts us adults in a facilitative role while equiping children with the skills and tools they will need to grow to independently resolve their own conflicts.