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Hoops, scoops, and rackets: Simple tools for exploring spatial relationships


As children explore and incorporate basic science concepts, simple toys, including those made rather than purchased, can engage and reinforce learning. Help reinforce spatial relationships—the space between objects—with the activities below that focus on easy-to-make tools: hoops, scoops, and rackets. Each tool builds a framework for scientific inquiry; mathematical observation; physical agility, coordination, and balance; and social negotiation.

Introduce the tools with questions that help you determine what children already know, what they want to know, and what support they need to master their goals. For example, consider some of the adult skills needed to engage in a game of basketball. Players must be able to communicate intention with and without words, must be able to maintain balance while moving quickly across the court, must have the visual acuity and muscle control to pass the ball successfully, and must accurately estimate the muscle force and body position to put the ball through the hoop. Baseball players, on the other hand, must also judge space and force to hit a moving object in a desired direction.

Each skill develops from early childhood experiences, especially when adults are attentive to the skills children already use and which they want to master, and are willing to provide the environmental supports to help children claim success.


Early explorations
The youngest learners need time to explore the difference between full and empty. Infants observe and respond to empty feeding bottles and bowls with gesture long before they say, “All gone.” Reinforce the science concepts of full and empty by talking about amounts. You might say, for example, “Look, Hannah, your bottle is full of milk.” Or “Micah, can you fill this cup with sand, all the way to the top? Then the cup will be full of sand. When you pour the sand out, the cup is empty.”

Propelled by experience and basic curiosity, toddlers engage in the endless game of gather and dump with any material at hand. Buckets get filled with blocks, for example, and the blocks get dumped and regathered. The tools—blocks and bucket—are teaching the basics of size, shape, and volume—spatial relationship.

Preschoolers, with increasing verbal and physical skills, want to explore directional attributes like through, under, near, into, and over alone, and with other children. Their play with the basic hoops, scoops, and rackets is cooperative and supports social concepts like taking turns, negotiating, and celebrating another’s success.


Making the basic tools
Ask for donations of the materials to create hoops and scoops so that you have enough to avoid conflicts over possession. For toddlers, make enough scoops for every child to have one. You know toddlers copy each other’s behaviors and will squabble if there’s not a scoop for everyone.

Adjust the number of tools to the skill levels and interests of the children in your group.


Here’s what you need:
clean plastic milk jugs with handles and caps
marking pen
cloth tape


1. Turn the jug on its side, handle up. Draw a curved line from about 2-inches below the handle to the base of the jug and up and around to the other side.
2. Cut away the bottom of the jug.
3. Apply cloth tape to the cut edge to provide durability.

Variations: If you will use the scoops only for games of catch, you can use the caps for another activity or throw them away. You may, however, want the use the scoops in the water table or sand table. Having the caps available to put on and take off varies the play.


Hoops can take many forms, from rope taped end-to-end and lain on the floor in a circle, to simple shaped wire or clear plastic tubing, and even purchased hula hoops and basketball goals.


Here’s what you need:
wire clothes hangers
discarded nylon stockings
cloth tape


1. Bend the hanger into a diamond or circle shape. Reshape the hook end into a circle by bringing the end of the hook back to the wire twist to make a handle.
2. Cut the nylon stockings at the top of the leg and discard the panty portion.
3. Pull one stocking leg over the hanger hoop, stretching taunt.
4. Gather the end of the stocking over the wire twist and tape securely in place, making sure to encase the wire ends.


Tools in use
These three tools open opportunities for open-ended play across many developmental levels. Let the children offer suggestions for variations and extensions. Observe carefully to determine how you might modify the play to build more skills and increase children’s pleasure.

Two additional easy-to-make tools increase the play value of scoops, hoops, and rackets: Bean bags and large yarn balls or pom poms. Two tips—fill cloth bean bags with pebbles or Polypropylene pellets (called Poly-Pellets at retailer Hancock Fabrics). These won’t rot or sprout over time if wet. Purchase large pom poms or make yarn balls using heavy acrylic yarn for washability and general durability (see tutorial at

Hoops. Toddlers and young preschoolers best use hoops on the ground—indoors or outside. Place a circle of rope or a purchased hula hoop on the ground and introduce play by describing in and out of the circle. Help children hop into and out of the hoop, play counting games identifying how many children are in and how many out of the hoop, and encourage sorting activities. For example, “Let’s put all the red trucks inside the hoop and the blue trucks outside the hoop.”

Other ways to use a hula hoop include having children do the following:
Hold a hoop vertically and put a designated body part through it. This requires the strength to hold the hoop steady and the balance to negotiate putting an arm or leg through the circle.
Put a hoop on the ground and move around it in as many ways as possible—think moving like a cat, rolling, or skipping.
Touch the hoop with as many body parts as possible at one time.
Jump or hop in and out of the hoop—frontward, backward, and sideways.
Put the hoop on the ground with their legs outside and their arms inside and circling, crab-like, around the circle.

Use more than one hoop to build challenge courses, encouraging physical skills like hopping and leaping from one hoop to the other, and kicking yarn balls or bean bags into the hoop.

Hold the hoop perpendicular to the ground and support children as they move through the hoop (requiring balancing on one leg to step through) or tossing yarn balls through.

Scoops. Introduce the tools in the sensory table to reinforce muscle action and control—both necessary before being able to toss and catch.

For toddlers, color code the tape on the scoop to the color of a yarn ball. Give the children opportunities to scoop balls from the floor, to toss in the air, and to try to toss with one hand and catch in the scoop in the other hand. Note: toddlers will appreciate the opportunity but success with the final task likely won’t come before late preschool. Increase the challenge by substituting bean bags for yarn balls, best with lots of open space outdoors.

As preschoolers move toward cooperative play, encourage them to pair up to play catch. Toss a yarn ball and challenge a partner to catch it. Work to keep the mood light and non-competitive.

Rackets. Introduce rackets after the children are fluid and stable with scoops and catch games. Let them replace the scoops and begin to develop the skills (hand-eye coordination) to strike a yarn ball with a racket. Start by encouraging paddle-ball play—bouncing the yarn ball off a nylon racket. Note: The rackets aren’t sturdy enough to use with bean bags.

Show children how to toss the yarn ball in the air, and swat it with a body part toward a target. Add a hoop and help children aim (balance and coordinate) their bodies to swat the yarn ball into the hoop.

Use a length of rope on the floor and encourage pairs of children to swat yarn balls over the pretend net to each other. As skills (body control and coordination) develop, they will be able to maintain a volley using rackets.