How to use natural loose parts for outdoor learning

October 14, 2023

Autumn is here and it’s the perfect time to build your natural loose parts collection! At the end of this blog post is a free guide sharing a natural loose parts list to collect and all of our top tips for storing them to make them last for the full year ahead!

But first, why should you even consider going to the effort of collecting natural loose parts for outdoor learning? And when you have them how do you use them?

The purpose of natural loose parts for outdoor learning

We are big advocates of primary teachers utilising their classroom equipment outdoors, it saves on making new resources and if it’s readily available, why not? However, not all equipment we use indoors is suitable for helping you take the curriculum outdoors. Let’s start by looking at maths for example, the equipment we use such as numicon and base ten is quite expensive to buy and therefore if it is lost in your wide open outdoor area, it will unlikely be replaced within the same school year. Plus, speaking from experience, the small ‘ones’ in these equipment do get lost making them unusable. This is not what we’re aiming for when taking the curriculum outdoors.

Natural loose parts are available in an abundance at this time of year. They are easily replaced and best of all they’re free! Their size also makes them more suitable for your outdoor space as typically they’re larger and help you take activities large-scale to boost the children’s engagement in their learning. Finally, if they are left outdoors, there is no environmental impact as it is in fact where they belong!

How to use natural loose parts for outdoor learning

One of our favourite ways to utilise natural loose parts is as manipulatives for maths! There are so many different ways to achieve this. By swapping out your classroom equipment for natural loose parts it can really boost the children’s engagement too as they are so tactile to handle, children find natural loose parts difficult to resist engaging with! Plus, whilst our aim here isn’t to build children’s connection with nature, simply by having natural loose parts included in your outdoor lesson this naturally occurs as the children will come to know their name & handle them, building familiarity with a part of nature they might not have interacted with otherwise.

Below is a range of different maths activities taken from lesson plans across the Alfresco Learning Hub:

Use natural loose parts to create a number line and also represent the numbers on the number line, this could be adapted for a wide range of numbers for KS2 & you don't need as many variations as pictured here!
Stick bundles are a fabourite of ours for KS1. They are such a brilliant representation of what ten is!
Explore number bonds by investigating how many are left when some conkers are hidden under the cup or plant pot!
Represent 2 digit numbers using a part, whole model and two different natural loose parts to represent tens and ones. Here we have used pine cones for tens and smaller fir cones for ones.

Investigating multiples of 4 with sticks, the square frames offer an opportunity for children to count out the multiples whilst they are building fluency!

Another way to make use of natural loose parts is for visual representations

This approach enables teachers to use natural loose parts to create cross-curricular links! One of our favourite activities in science is giving children the challenge to create an image of the scientific concept they are learning about. It is amazing to see how they go about this and helps you as the teacher gain a better understanding of their depth of understanding too. Using natural loose parts to achieve this is often much more effective than chalk as it brings a variety of textures and children have to reason with themselves as they create the representation. Below are some examples of these types of activities.

Here we have the findings of a nature hunt linked with science for LKS2.
This example uses flowers that were picked duiring the summer but could easily be replicated with autumnal loose parts. Using them to create map of a local walk the children had been on.
Another science link! Creating a platte for different animal diets, using natural loose parts adds an element of creativity and imagination!

Keeping your natural loose parts

Using the natural loose parts that are already available in your outdoor space can be a big time saver. However, having some saved in an indoor ‘bank’ will give you something to use with your class even when the winter turns the ones outdoors into wet & soggy messes. It is possible to store your natural loose parts and reuse them, our collection we use in our staff training has been going for years now! To help you create this bank of natural loose parts, we have put together a guide for you! Inside is our top tips for foraging and storing a range of items so wherever you live, there will be something you can collect and add to your own bank of natural loose parts. 

Simply download the guide below and sign up to our emails to receive Nature Nourishment - an email that shares even more outdoor learning ideas across the primary curriculum.