Throughout history, children have used loose parts for play. Loose parts are open-ended materials that can be assembled, reassembled, lined up, or gathered together, and they can be used in all sorts of creative ways. Children have always played creatively with stones, sticks, acorns, pinecones, and even bones!

Some say that the modern day game of jacks has roots in ancient Greece, as children used to use sheep knucklebones to throw a stone in the air, and see how many bones they could grab before it hit the ground. In other interpretations of this game, is there anything else we could use instead of bones? Well, leave it to children all over the world to find alternatives! Children have played games similar to jacks with pebbles in China and Korea, giant seeds in Samoa, or seashells in the Philippines. What loose parts can you think of?

Set up Time: 5 minutes


While this game can be played in a few different ways (indeed, children may come up with their own variations!), this is the simplest.

Scatter your loose parts on a flat surface. We are using acorns, but we also show that you could play with letters, pieces of pasta, or truly any loose parts!

Gather a ball (we used a ping pong type ball, but you can use a small rubber ball, a tennis ball, whatever you have on hand).

Round 1: Bounce the ball. While the ball is in the air, grab one acorn before the ball bounces again. Let the next person have a turn. If you miss it, the next person gets a turn. Keep going one at a time until you have gathered all the acorns. Count how many each person has at the end!

Round 2: If children are old enough and have mastered grabbing one, see if they can grab two acorns before the ball hits the ground.

Toddler adaptation: Many children may not have the dexterity to bounce the ball and grab the acorns. So, you can do this together! Offer to bounce the ball and invite them to grab an acorn while you wait to catch the ball. Remind them to focus on the acorns and that you will be focusing on the ball.


  • Loose parts (acorns, uncooked pasta, letters)
  • Ball that bounces (ping pong ball, tennis ball, small rubber ball)

Learning Through Play

Cognitive: Problem Solving – Invite children to help you brainstorm about the types of materials that you could use. What size material should you use? How would the game change if we used something that was harder to grasp (say, something flat like a coin, or something prickly like a pinecone). Even in the simplest of games, there is often intentionality behind the types of materials that we use to play, and our choices can change the game. If children enjoy this game, explore playing it inside and outside, with different loose parts: buttons, bottle caps, chestnuts, pom poms, seashells, etc.

Social-Emotional: Empowerment – One of the reasons that a game like jacks or knucklebones is popular all over the world is that children love games of strategy. It encourages them to build their focus, pay attention to the board and the location of your game pieces. These games are also a way for children to build a healthy attitude towards trying, failing, and trying again. Through play, children can build a positive attitude towards challenges that will take them through life and their academic career.

School Readiness: Counting – Games like this are great for early arithmetic. You can ask simple questions “How many are left?” “How many do you have?”, paired with parallel talk “Oh, I see that we had ten to start with, and now you have two–let’s see how many are on the board now”.

See this activity in the Rayz Kidz app along with the other fun games. Rayz Kidz is your trusted source for play-based activities featuring over 100 themes and 500+ hands-on activities and clear descriptions of the beautiful learning that is happening through play.