Blocks and Building

posted by Diann Gano

rainbow blocks     I am block crazy. I love blocks, particularly wooden blocks. Block play is so important in the early years to help children understand important concepts in measurement, spatial reasoning, comparison, estimation, symmetry, and balance. It fosters creativity and reasoning skills. Our home runneth over with blocks and we very often take these blocks outdoors. With all the emphasis on STEM and STEAM these days, block building is our passion, which fits in just wonderfully. You can’t teach creativity. It is learned through play; through trial and error and gifts of time to make their works of mastery grow.

Unit blocks used to be the standard in kindergarten classes across the nation. Teachers aren’t given the time or opportunities to allow children to explore with these very much anymore. It is vital that our children have time to play with these wonderful blocks. They are pricey, but definitely will be passed down for generations. We actually have a small set our family used fifty years ago, included in our block area.

large blocks

We have unit blocks in all sizes. There are tabletop versions and large hollow unit blocks. The hollow blocks also come in a smaller preschool size. We like to use those inside and the full-size hollow blocks outdoors. We also have Kapla blocks, Magnatiles, tree blocks, Legos, Duplos, Tegu, Korxx, the list goes on and on. We love them all.

My obsession with blocks may be partially responsible for the amount of building that happens daily, almost hourly around here. Block building is full of math learning possibilities. We have blocks in every room of our home, but we build indoors and outdoors with things other than blocks. When children learn to create with blocks, they take those skills and re-create that building in larger and smaller scales with supplies that are made available. Yes, loose parts!

Before I share with you our outdoor building set up, I want to share a bit about two of the blocks I mentioned above. The Korxx blocks are literally made from cork. They come from Germany and we have left them outdoors. That was the primary reason I bought them in the first place. However, the minute my “not so loving all these blocks” husband laid eyes on them he was sold. Why? They don’t crash and knick our hardwood floors. J True. So if that has been an obstacle for you and blocks, try these blocks. They stack great, they are quiet and are pretty close to unit blocks!

I also mentioned Tegu blocks. For those of you who haven’t been introduced to these, they are magnetic. The secret is the magnets are built inside these wooden blocks, so there is never a fear of choking or swallowing with young children. Genius, right? They also challenge our kids to figure out the polarity of the magnets, which is a true critical thinking skill, which we love! Tegu blocks are made by a socially responsible company that treats it’s workers, the land, and the people kindly. You can learn more about these beautiful and addictive blocks here.


outdoor blocks basket of blocks







On days when the yard is too muddy, the sun and humidity are stifling, or we have all just hit the wall and need a calming day, I set the stage. I usually do this on our deck, but depending where the sun or shade or wind is, other parts of our outdoor play space work also. You need a flat space to build on. The deck, sidewalk, any flat area will work. A sheet of plywood covered by a blanket or rug will suffice.


When setting the stage for block play, I usually start with the unit blocks, but we have acquired a large number of wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes that create for some wonder hours of play.

One of the reasons that I love blocks so much is that although it is often a group activity, it is very individualized.

children with outdoor blocksThere are six children playing blocks, they are all getting along just great because they are sharing space. They aren’t sharing blocks or ideas. It is very personal play above. It’s not always like that. It was on this given day. It’s the beauty of block play.building wiht blocks outdoor blocks play block structure babies with blocks balancing on blocks









It is always developmentally appropriate because the child creates at the level they are at. It’s very personal and very perfect! It is gender neutral. I also love to watch the mentoring and scaffolding that happens when children watch what their friends are building and how it was built. Block building follows the natural flow of children’s curiosity and concentration. They can try something over and over again until they are satisfied with their creation. When opportunities for math occur in such enriched environment and children are given the time to create, and think, they will develop the skills needed to be successful in the future.Our block area is also an ideal setting for loose parts to be added in. People are often added to the block area in the form of fairies, guys or Playmobile characters to name of few. We like people that don’t have a screen character associated with them because it allows for more imagination and creativity without repeating a scene we saw on television yesterday.

Our block area is also an ideal setting for loose parts to be added in. People are often added to the block area in the form of fairies, guys or Playmobile characters to name of few. We like people that don’t have a screen character associated with them because it allows for more imagination and creativity without repeating a scene we saw on television yesterday.

people sorted

Our farm and zoo animals are added, along with rocks, sticks and other natural materials.

block vehicle


If you have the great fortune to own a set of hollow blocks, taking them outdoors will change the amount of time they are played with and how they are played with. Often these blocks get lost in a closet because they are big, loud and heavy. These have all the outdoor big block cartelements needed for some great outdoor building. We first built a box to store them in and added them to a pushcart. This worked well for a while, but it was still a bit difficult to get in and out of the garage to play with.






bin of blocksoutdoor container






outdoor platform

We are constantly building something. It may be in the sandbox, or in the rain garden. It may be hideout or a hut. All that building is math. It’s problem-solving and logical thinking. It’s estimating and measuring. It’s creative and risk-taking. We need to take risks to try new ideas in our math equations. It’s all so very, very good.


small rocks with child in pinkrocks as blocks

Water, Worms and Measuring


posted by Diann Gano

Have you ever seen a child with a tape measure? They are in all their glory! We have small tape measures that sometimes make it on our walks around the neighborhood. We like to measure seedpods, sticks, each other, our shadows, you name it. Did you find a worm? We are measuring machines. We like tape measures that are small enough to fit in a pocket, because you just never know when you will need to measure something. We may not know the numbers or what the spaces means, but it is fun! It exposes them to the concept and the visual number, when their brain is ready the important parts will fall into place.

mesauring tape

Living on the Mississippi River, each spring we get sucked into watching our beloved bald eagles. When we decided we should make our own nest, out came the tape measures! Did you know the average eagle nest is six feet wide? This is the perfect time to grab a tape measure and create a nest!

boys in the shrubs

We use worms to teach length and we sometimes measure them with tape measures but we honestly do a lot more observation and estimating with them because they are perfect just the way they are. We love worms. Did you know that worms don’t have teeth? Worms don’t have pinchers or stingers. They have no eyes, no legs, no arms. They will never hurt us. We try equally hard not to hurt our worms, but when you are two and investigating…well, sometimes it doesn’t end so well.wormsWe love worms because they help create healthy, beautiful lawns, which is hard to do when you have lots of two legged friends playing on it all day. People often ask how we “get” our kids to hold a worm. We read a lot of books about worms, we watch them for long periods of time, and if you have one brave friend, you are pretty much assured the bravery will come. Patience and calm, whispering voices can help also. Worms like moist ground, which leads us to water.

water pump

I love water play almost as much as I love blocks. When you have water in your play area, it is the equalizer among all children. Regardless of their age or language or social ability, water will bring them together. We love water play so much that we created our pump with the help of a buried rain barrel. Water gives us plenty of opportunities to understand volume and measurement and estimation. It turns dirt into mud, which makes it easier to find worms! It is a loose part. It may be my absolute favorite loose part. Be sure to add it in some form to your play area because it is so incredible.

This is one of our favorite stories, about water and time and discovery. We had our pump and I had some fabric in the yard as a loose part for making forts or whatever. These boys decided they wanted to capture water in the fabric.

I knew it wasn’t going to work, but why would I say no to such a learning opportunity. So,

boys measuringthe boys started pumping the water into the bright blue fabric.






HUH????? No way! Oh my goodness! Who knew that fabric was actually waterproof? collecting water  Ha! So now we had ourselves a project!collecting water The boys quickly decided this could create an amazing mote in the sandbox.







boys with collected water

Another lesson learned in giving children long periods of time, never stopping the obvious and the importance of loose parts. Look at the delight on their faces! Okay, well maybe one is carrying most of the load, but the other two are thrilled.


Let them play!muddy mess

So, let’s talk some more about water and containers. Many cities are giving away rain barrels or offering them for sale. These make fabulous sources of water, specifically if you have a spigot for your child to control. Think of the math opportunities of measuring, estimating, mixing.   If you don’t have a water resource nearby, take some out with you. Think about milk jugs or buckets or big thermoses with spigots. Children love spigots. It gives them power to control something. You will also love having a source of water to wash your child before they return indoors.

Oh, how we love to cook. We do a lot of cooking around here, often outdoors, with loose parts and water. We spend hours mixing and stirring and adding and serving. Cooking is a math-athon of opportunities. (Yep, I think I made that word up. I like it!) It is important when you are cooking for play or cooking for actual consumption that children have their own bowls and utensils. It adds to the learning value. Watching your friend is not the same as having your own bowl, measuring spoons and spatula. We have been through many types of pots and pans and spoons and measuring devices. I recently jumped on a deal for a plastic children’s toy tea set to add to our play. I normally stay away from such things, but I’ll admit it, the price and the reviews sold me. Sadly, I didn’t love it. Within six months it was stained, and ugly and just not nice to look at. It didn’t seem to bother the children, but it bothered me. For the same amount of money, I could have purchased A LOT of real pots, pans, spoons, measuring cups and utensils from a garage sale or Goodwill. Keep it real. Include pots and pans, pouring pots for sure, and utensils and most importantly sand and water. We have tried to get away from plastic shovels but they really are nice for what we use them for. Metal shovels are sharper and heavier and just don’t seem to work as well for us. Metal works well for dirt. In sand, we use plastic.

coolking with mud

Sand. I know, I know. A lot of parents hate it. I promise you it will bring you hours and hours of deep, calm, investigative, creative play. The bigger the area, the bigger the creations and the more friends can play. Mud kitchens are all the rage right now and for many of the same reasons. I, personally prefer sand. It’s easier for me to clean up with a household of little friends. Sand, dirt, and mud are essential parts of loose parts play. Think of it as a short-term investment for long-term brain development. Sand and dirt support children on the mathematical learning journey. Children will explore space and measurement and shapes. They will start making comparisons of dry and wet and how that affects what they are building or mixing.

girl wiht leaf

This is where loose parts will come in handy. They are the ingredients and the spices. You will want lots of rocks, flower petals, grass clippings, native prairie grasses, sand, small sticks, and feathers. The more choices the better, because every experience changes the recipe! There’s a whole lot of math going on.

toddler baking wiht mud



cooking mud












If I still haven’t sold you on sand or water play, let’s try rice. We color our rice with liquid watercolor, but plain rice is just fine. I have really gotten away from using our sand and water table very often. They aren’t nearly as easy to use as tubs on the ground. We like to use these big tubs. You could use those long, plastic storage containers for under the bed or oil drip pans from the auto supply store for a fraction of the price I paid for these, and the colors will be much less annoying. The long, plastic storage containers also come with the bonus lid, which is great for storage. We like to lay out a large sheet or blanket to help with clean up. Be sure to add funnels and all the utensils listed above. The measuring and pouring and learning will bring you hours of quiet time. The rice is very calming and it is so very inviting.outdoor sand tables

I watched these four-year-olds as they investigated the rice one day. I knew it was coming.




outdoor sand tables 1







outdoor sand tables 2







………yep, yep, there it is.

sitting inside sand tables


Good stuff that rice is. Just like a day at the beach. Cheap, because that’s math, and we like cheap. Buy the big 25-pound bag because like sand, more is better. Your child may need to crawl into it someday!






Logic, Puzzles, Brain Teasers & Games

posted by Stephanie Forsman

I love playing games, doing puzzles, and figuring out a good brain teaser. I do the New York Times Crossword Puzzle everyday and while I struggle in the later half of the week, I love learning new information, keeping my brain sharp, and that sense of accomplishment after I have successfully completed a difficult puzzle. I try to instill this same love of logic puzzles in my students. We love to play, it’s how we learn.

Brain teasers, games, and puzzles boost brain activity, increase fluency and memory, improve concentration, promote harmonious group dynamics, and give one a sense of pride when they have successfully completed a challenge. I always have individual puzzles, such as Kenken or the “Find the Embedded Objects in the Picture”, like the ones in the old Highlights magazines, set out for my students when they finish their work early. I also engage the whole class in brain teasers in which they must work together to come up with the answer.

One of my favorite brain teasers is “Valley of the Green Glass Doors” taught to me by a former assistant who was a life-long camper and camp counselor. Many camp games translate well into the classroom. “Valley of the Green Glass Doors” is played with a group and I usually play it during Morning Meeting or at the end of the day. I begin by explaining that only certain things can be in the “Valley of the Green Glass Doors” and give examples such as, “There can be the MOON but no STARS…” I then give numerous examples. The key being that only words with double letters can be in the “vaLLey of the grEEn glaSS dOOrs.” I make a chart and have it hanging up for reference during the duration of the brain teaser.


At first, it is hilarious to listen to the children try and make sense of the logic. I usually need to provide some scaffolding by encouraging them to “think out of the box” and “try and different approach.” I also need to manage the frustration levels and keep the mood light and jovial which isn’t always easy to do.

Once someone figures out the pattern, they must check with me to see if they are correct and if they are, they then become the person to write down the correct answers and play the role of facilitator. They must also promise not to reveal the pattern to anyone else, which, as you can imagine, is also very difficult but prompts a worthwhile discussion on the benefits of working through a challenging problem on your own and not finding an easy way out when the going gets tough. I also have to inform the parents that we are playing this game and not to let the children go home and look up the answers on the Internet. This brain teaser can go on for several days. I recommend playing this with older students, 3rd & 4th grade. Each year, when I do my “End of the Year” reflection, “Valley of the Green Glass Doors” is always a highlight.

Another great brain teaser puzzle that is easier and we can play almost anywhere is “Bagel, Pico, Ferme.” The game begins with one person secretly choosing a number with no repeated digits. I usually start with a 3-digit number. The children attempt to guess the number, and the one who identifies the number correctly, becomes the next facilitator. For each guess that has no numbers correct, they respond: “Bagel.” If they guess a correct number but that number is in the wrong place, they respond: “Pico.” For each number the guess has correct and in the correct place, they respond: “Fermi.” In the beginning, I keep a chart to keep track of their responses but as they get the hang of the game, the chart no longer becomes necessary.

As an example, the number I think of is 489. I let the children know that I have thought of a 3-digit number and using the rules of “Bagel, Pico, Ferme” they will now take turns to figure out my number.


This game helps to improve memory and solidify place value. The children need to remember what number has already been used and in what place. I also use place value language by saying, “The 8 is a correct number but it is not in the hundred’s place” for the 2nd guess and then, “Yes, the 8 is in the one’s place” for the 3rd guess. This game is similar to the board game, Mastermind, is a game that I love and always have in my classroom.

Riddles are fun too! “Four is Magic” is my favorite and is fun to play once the kids have worked their way through “Valley of the Green Glass Doors” and know to look beyond the obvious.

3 is 5 is 4 is magic. Why is the number 3 the number 5? Why is 5 the number 4? Why is 4 magic?

Answer: 3 is 5 because there are five letters in the word three. 5 is 4 because there are four letters in the word five. 4 is magic because there are four letters in the word four. is a wonderful resource to find new games, brain teasers, and puzzles. Also, one of my favorite resources, Pinterest I also like to ask the children, many of them who attend camp or play games with their families if they have any they’d like to share.

One of the important things to remember when introducing and playing these games, brain teasers, and puzzles with your children is that there is a lot of teaching, managing, and emotional supporting that goes into these activities. The children need to essentially be “trained” in how to successfully master these activities. Have fun!





posted by Stephanie Forsman

clockMeasurement is an area of my math curriculum that I often feel gets neglected, rushed through, and sometimes, at crunch time, overlooked all together.  As a result, I have worked on infusing small aspects of measurement into the routines of the day.  From linear measurement to volume, weight and mass to telling time, temperature and money, measurement is an everyday skill, “real life math.” It is important that children know how to identify appropriate units and choose the correct tools and technology for measuring those units.

One of my favorite topics that I consistently revisit throughout the year is Time. Even in 3rd and 4th grade, some children cannot tell time and rely on the adults in their life to tell them where they need to be and when. At the beginning of the school year, regardless of what grade I am teaching, I do a quick lesson on Time – 24 hours in a day, AM & PM, the short hand is the hour hand and the long hand is the minute hand. One of my favorite tools to teach Time is a Judy Clock. I have a class set and each student has one in which they practice telling time and learning the concept of elapsed time. A Judy Clock features easy-to-read numerals that show elapsed time in 5 min intervals. The clock makes learning to tell the time simple and fun for children and comes with visible functioning gears that maintain correct hour hand and minute hand relationships.



I will routinely ask the children to show me the time on their clocks or I will pose questions, “if it is 10:45 AM now and we have lunch at 12:00 PM, how much time does that leave us for snack and math?” Another handy time telling tool I have is a rubber clock stamp.
I will routinely ask the children to show me the time on their clocks or I will pose questions, “if it is 10:45 AM now and we have lunch at 12:00 PM, how much time does that leave us for snack and math?” Another handy time telling tool I have is a rubber clock stamp.

When I put up the day’s schedule on the board, I will put the event and the time and then have a blank picture of a clock where the children will draw in the correct time using the hour and minute hands.  I will write times such as “Math – 10:45 AM” with a blank clock next to it and make sure that the child responsible for noting the time will make sure that the hour hand is closer to the number 11 than to the number 10.

Just like my parents did with my brother and I when we were growing up, I like to have a height chart located on the inside of my doorway. One of our beginning of the year activities is to partner up and mark your height on the door. I use a cloth tape measure for this activity and it does require a pre-lesson on how to use the measurement instrument. The first year that I did this activity, I just gave the children the tape measure and had them go at it. I quickly realized that the majority of the children did not know what to do when they had run out of tape measure but still had not completely measured their friend. I have a class set of 60 inch, cloth tape measures that the children use throughout the year. I find that the cloth tape measures are easier to manipulate, cheaper, and easier to store.  After a lessons in which we discuss “How many inches in a foot?” and “If a child measures 52 inches, how would we record that in feet and inches?”, we place our names, the date and our heights against the door. We do this activity 3 times a year and at the end of the year, each child figures out how much they’ve grown through the school year. In our end-of-the-year reflection, we include our physical growth as part of the child’s reflection, “This year, I have grown 3 ½ inches and have become a much more of a risk taker when approaching difficult math problems.”

It is also extremely important to allow them exploration of various types of measurement tools and educate them to which tool is best for which situation.  Measuring how long things are, how tall they are, or how far apart they might be are all examples of length measurements. I expose the children to all sorts of measurement units in which they can use to measure various objects. Centimeters, inches, feet, yards, miles, and kilometers are all the units we use to measure distance, height, and length.

We brainstorm items we’d like to measure and then categorize them according to the units of measurement we’d use.


I like to put this conversion chart up in the classroom for constant reference –

1 foot = 12 inches

1 yard = 3 feet = 36 inches

1 mile = 1,760 yards = 5,280 feet = 63,360 inches

Liquid measurement is another aspect of measurement that when I run across it, often need to look up a conversion chart to make sure that I am measuring correctly. I am not always certain that 2 pints equal a quart since I very rarely use these units of measurement.  Again, this is when a conversion chart comes in handy but we make our own “Gallon Man” with empty, recycled containers that the children bring in from home. We bring in one plastic gallon (milk), 4 quarts (milk or juice), 8 pints (ice cream, yogurt), and 16 cups (yogurt, sour cream). Preferably all plastic and clean. Before I put up a conversion chart, I essentially create a water table and see if the children can come up with the equivalents on their own. “How many quarts equal a gallon?”, “If there are 2 cups in a pint, how many cups in a quart?” After figuring out the conversions ourselves, we create “Gallon Man.” We actually create this by attaching the quarts to the gallon with holes and wires for the arms and legs and then 2 pints to each quart and finally, 2 cups to each pint. We should rename our creature “Gallon Robot” or “Conversion Robot.”


We hang up “Gallon Man” in our classroom for easy reference.

Teaching measurement or any concept for that manner, using hands-on activities, manipulatives, and real-life applications makes concepts more interesting, engaging, and fun for my students. I get a lot of my ideas from Pinterest and often, these “real life math” lessons take little time and don’t take away time from keeping pace with my mandatory math curriculum.


Math Morning Meeting

posted by Stephanie Forsman

Each morning, my class has a Morning Meeting that consists of a Morning Message, a Greeting, a Share, and an activity. It is a great way to start the day, reinforces our sense of community, and sets the expectations and goals for the day.  These meetings last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. While I cover many topics during these meetings, my favorite topic is math. I love a Math Morning Meeting!

I have an interactive Morning Message (a message written on chart paper with an area for the kids’ responses) that the children work on during morning arrival and then later talk about during Morning Meeting.  Anything from identifying and giving the monetary value of coins to measuring various line segments with a ruler using both inches and centimeters, we try to either reinforce what we are working on in math or cover a topic that isn’t heavily hit upon in our curriculum. For example, when working on multiplication facts, I will put up problems that are related and share a pattern.

3 x 3 =

3 x 6 =

3 x 12 =

3 x 24 =

I have a problem for each of the children and one that I use as an example.

For Morning Meeting, we sit in a circle and begin with a Greeting. In keeping with our Math topic of the day, we play Match Card Greeting. I give each child a card on which I’ve written part of an equation. For example, one child gets a card that says “3 x 6”; and another student gets one that says “= 18.” The children move around trying to find the match for their card. When the children find their match, they greet each other. A simple “Hello” or “Good morning” is fine. I always keep a big stack of Index cards on hand for games such as this and this greeting can be adapted and/ or modified for almost any concept; addition, subtraction, shape recognition.

After the Greeting and the children are settled back into a circle, we do a Share. Share can be anything. Topic driven, partner share, a prearranged share in which one student shares something they’ve experienced or an object brought in from home.  During a Math Morning Meeting and when we are working on a specific skill, I will announce a topic for an around-the-circle sharing. Since we are working with multiples of “3”, I will refer back to the Morning Message and ask the children what they notice. “I am definitely seeing a pattern with not only the answers but the problems. Who else is noticing what I am noticing?” The children take a minute to think and then I will start to entertain answers. The children get so excited to share what they notice and there are usually so many extensions and directions I can go based on their observations, that I usually have to jot down notes and table some of their observations for another time.

Since we are working on multiples of “3”, we will play an adapted game of “Ruof” called, “eerht” which ends up sounding like “earth.”  Three spelled backwards. The children stand in a circle for this game. The children count off and on every multiple of “3”, they say “eerht”  1, 2, eerht, 4, 5, eerht… If the they say the multiple of three or make some other mistake, they sit down and the count off starts again.  I play this game for every multiple up to 12 and have even played this game using square and prime numbers. The children love it and challenge themselves to see how high they can count.

After the activity, the children sit back down and we end our Morning Meeting with a heads up about what we’ll be working on during math that day, pretty obvious given our Morning Meeting work and ask if there are any questions, comments or concerns.

Math Mornings Meeting are so beneficial and bring so much enthusiasm to the math that is happening in your classrooms. By 9:15 am, we’ve already had a good 20 minutes of math, the children had fun practicing their math facts, and their minds are warmed up and thinking about math for the rest of the day. I highly recommend the book, Doing Math in Morning Meeting, 150 Quick Activities That Connect to Your Curriculum by Andy Dousis, Margaret Wilson, Roxann Kriete. The book contains math-themed ideas for all four Morning Meeting components: greeting, group activity, sharing, and morning message. Have fun!

Click here to see the link to the book below.



Habits of Mind

posted by Stephanie Forsman

Setting up a nurturing mathematical environment & community is an essential beginning to any school year.  When  getting to know my students, I like to dig deeper and find out what kind of learners they are, where their strengths lie, and what areas they intend to work on during the upcoming year.

Teaching 2nd, 3rd, and now 4th grade for the past 20 years, I have seen so many students arrive on the first day of school declaring themselves “Bad at Math.”  When I push them to expand upon that statement, I typically receive, “I just don’t like it” or “I like reading instead” They have already, at the age of 7 or 8 years old, started to shut down in math. For years, I took the approach of cheerleading them through their difficulties, offering extra support, and diversifying the curriculum with “fun” activities such as puzzles, activities that involved food, and various games instead of focusing on giving these children the emotional tools they needed to work through difficult problems.  A couple of years ago, my school hired a math consultant and she introduced us to Habits of Mind and it changed not only my approach to math and all other aspects of my grade curriculum and teaching.

Habits of MindHabits of Mind are essentially 16 characteristics of what students do when they come across a problem where the answer isn’t immediately obvious. So much of our math curriculums have been about focusing on getting the correct answer. Habits of Mind has us also looking at what the children do when they don’t know the answer. “We are interested in enhancing the ways students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce it. We want students to learn how to develop a critical stance with their work: inquiring, editing, thinking flexibly, and learning from another person’s perspective. The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information but also knowing how to act on it.” Arthur L. Costa, Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind (An amazing book! I highly recommend it!)


I put these Habits of Mind up on the wall of my classroom and keep them there all year long as a reference. I break them up into 3 categories: the actual Habit of Mind, the short and memorable definition, and what it looks like in the classroom. For example, my favorite Habit of Mind is “Flexibility” The short and sweet definition of “Flexibility” is:  Look at it another way.  The way it looks in the classroom is to change your perspectives, think of other ways to solve the problem, listen to other classmates’ options and strategies.


This is a wonderful Habit of Mind for a student who consistently uses the same strategy to solve a problem despite the results. Last year, I had a student who was very determined to always use the subtraction algorithm despite the fact that he wasn’t always correct and that he wasn’t relying on his number sense to solve problems like 100 – 25.  He resisted adapting strategies such as an open-number line or extended notation. After many frustrating and tear inducing experiences with the algorithm, his classmates encouraged him try out the other learned strategies. Coming from his peers and not mandated from his teacher was a key element in his willingness to try another approach. After playing with several strategies during our subtraction unit, he declared that he was much more successful counting up on an open-number line than he had been using the algorithm which then led to a very rich discussion about what strategy to use when and how important it is to have an arsenal of strategies at our disposal. Developing critical thinkers and empowering the children with the tools they need to become successful problem solvers has helped turn those “I don’t like math” children into successful mathematicians. From that moment on, this student’s Habit of Mind was that he needed to work  “flexibility” and when he became stubborn or adamant during a difficult math session, we, our classroom community, only needed to remind him of being flexible and he was able to switch gears and do just that.


One of the beauties of Habits of Mind is that everyone has something they need to work on. That same year, I had what we call a “high-flyer” She was mathematically savvy, great with rote memorization and up until 3rd grade, had gotten away with relying on her mental math abilities to solve problems correctly. She didn’t like to show her work and while the majority of the time, she solved the problem correctly, she wasn’t able to recognize where she went astray if she happened to solve the problem incorrectly. As the problems started to become multi-step and it all became too much to hold in her head, she began to stumble. “Striving for Accuracy and Precision” became her Habit of Mind to work on.  Check it again!  Show your work!  A desire for exactness, using your Math Journal to show your work and be neat & organized in your mathematical thinking is what it looks like in the classroom.


You can easily find Habits of Mind on the Internet along with so many wonderful and creative ways in which teachers implement them.  We were so dedicated to our Habits of Mind last year that our end-of-the year, written by the students play was based on solving a very tough math problem and using our Habits of Mind to do so. We had children act out each Habit of Mind. There was also a great and almighty HOM (acronym for Habits of Mind) who kept the children focused while solving the problem and a teacher who presented the problem and threw additional obstacles in their way such as time constraints, taking away manipulatives, and adding extensions to the problem along the way. It was adorable!



Cooking with Preschoolers

posted by Alison Balis Hirsch

Cooking with kids offers a wonderful array of learning opportunities for young children. It provides practice in language arts (vocabulary and “reading” a recipe), science (chemistry and exploring the senses), and developing social skills (cooperation and turn-taking). The kitchen also provides a range of math practice such as counting, measuring, and understanding order.

IMG_5879In my son’s pre-k class, the teachers and children cooked together almost weekly; the recipes coincided with their Letter Of The Week. So for B week they made banana bread and for O week they made omelets. The recipes were simple enough for the teachers and children (ages 4 to 5-years-old) to manage, each having a minimum number of ingredients. My son LOVED the rice pudding so much that I asked his teacher for the recipe. When I saw how simple it was, I suggested we collect ALL of her recipes and create a cookbook to share with other parents, whom I imagined were equally excited to cook with their kids at home. After all, these were recipes already vetted by our experienced and talented teacher.


As a teacher in the classroom, we sought out parent/caregiver volunteers to assist with cooking projects. Having the child’s special grown-up allowed those participants to engage in the school life of their child, providing them with an opportunity to better know the other children and teachers and also observe their own child in the context of the classroom. It also allowed us to maintain good adult/child ratios while working with small groups of children (typically 4 – 5), in the kitchen. The children who cooked or prepared snack (sometimes it was simply designing bagel faces with cut fruit, vegetables and sprouts) usually delighted in their food and seemed proud to share their creations with their classmates. The learning continued through the service portion of the meal, since the child chefs, with the help of the grown-ups, needed to figure out how to divide what they made into equal portions for their friends. Something like bagel faces required counting and one-to-one correspondence; baking a quiche required cutting it into enough equal-sized pieces to serve everyone.

For recipes that were made frequently, we made recipe booklets that were much more readable for children. Play dough was something we made with children on a weekly basis and for that we created cards, bound by binder rings that had visual instructions and described quantities with pictures.january photos 070

Cooking presents children with plenty of opportunities to learn and is also a great way to teach principles of good nutrition and encourage an adventurous palate: in my experience kids are much more likely to try foods they’ve grown or prepared themselves.


Classroom Jobs: The Snack Helper

posted by Alison Hirsch Balis

There are many reasons to provide “jobs” for children in the preschool setting. A job shows the importance of the child’s contribution to the group and his/her affect on the social fabric that is the class community; it provides practice in children’s developing social skills, such as speaking in front of the group to give a weather report or choosing a song to sing together with the whole class; it allows each child to have a turn in a “leadership” role by being in charge of a task; and then a particular job can present a pre-academic lesson in manner which is meaningful to the children in the group.

Setting the table for snack is one example of using math in a relevant way while practicing one-to-one correspondence, a foundational math skill needed in counting. In his/her role, the Snack Helper assists the teacher to prepare the tables for group snack. This responsibility ensures that each table has the appropriate number of snacks and also that each place where a child will sit has a snack… because it doesn’t really help to have all 18 snacks placed on one table when the 18 kids sit at 4 separate tables.

My school was a 5-day program and our class had the same 18 children each day, minus any absences. Because we occasionally had fewer than 18 children, and also because there may not have been a child to match every chair at each table (we had two tables that sat 6 kids and two tables that sat 4 kids, for a total of 20 seats), we designed four individual number cards showing the numeral, the number word and the number quantity (for practice subitizing) of either 4, 5 or 6 (four, five or six) – the possible number of kids at a table depending on attendance that day. Just as a reminder, the definition of subitize is to perceive the number of (a group of items) at a glance and without counting. It’s more or less the math equivalent of sight words.


The teachers placed the laminated number cards on each of the four tables, indicating to the Snack Helpers (there were two) how many snacks to set out. The Snack Helpers needed to “read” the cards and set the corresponding number of snack bowls and drinking cups for their classmates. It was not at all uncommon to see the two children working together to correctly set out snack for their friends. So in addition, we were supporting and encouraging collaboration and vocabulary while providing a great benefit to the teachers – help setting the table!

As an aside, we began the school year pouring milk or water FOR the kids, but after a couple of months, we provided small pitchers so that once seated, the children could practice this skill on their own. A pitcher like this one (almost 17 ounces /.5 liter) works really well for children since the lid helps minimize over-pouring.

water jug

Order in the Classroom

by Alison Balis Hirsch




  1. the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method
  2. an authoritative command, direction or instruction


  1. to put into a methodical, systematic arrangement
  2. to bring about order

One of the first learning experiences I recall as a student teacher in a Boston Public School pre-k was on the subject of classroom design and organization. Our room was especially small and we shared it with 16 three and four-year olds. “Order” was not only a math concept we wanted to explore with the children, but also a necessity in terms of keeping the materials organized for both children and teachers working together in that space on a daily basis.

The head teacher had begun the school year by sorting, according to habitat, all of the plastic animals used for imaginative play: oceans, jungle, forest, etc. Taped to the open bin in which they were stored (on shelves at the child’s height) was a photo of a few of those animals together with the written word of its habitat. Categorizing helped the children identify where both to find the items s/he was seeking and also return the items at clean-up. This is a system I have used not only in my classrooms, but also to an extent in my home. Using uniform, clear boxes with lids (so they can be stacked if needed) for the storage of ALL playthings and classroom supplies is ideal. This way, everyone can see what is inside. On the container you can adhere the laminated photograph. Alternatively, I’ve used wide packing tape over the entire width and length of the photo, which works beautifully.

BlocksThe blocks area was another place in need of an organization system so the many various shapes (½ unit, unit, double unit, quad unit, pillar, ½ circle, ¼ circle, pillar, roman arch, triangle, arch, circle curve, crossing, y-switch, elliptical curve) could be quickly found and put away with relative ease. We cut out from colored contact paper a template of each shape and adhered them on the area of the shelves where children would stack the matching blocks.

Having a system in place for children’s personal belongings also helps everyone keep track of items. Individual and personalized hooks and/or cubbies where children hang their backpacks and jackets on a daily basis is preferred so that children can come to expect where to find their items from home. We alphabetized the names along the row of hooks, and below each name was a different color swatch. The color swatch (used from hardware store paint swatches) helped children who were not yet identifying their names, or first letter of their name, to recognize their hook.

Sorting classroom items by attribute (markers/pencils/crayons; red/orange/yellow; cars/trains/trucks) is an early math concept which is relevant to a child’s world. Identifying and naming shapes increases match vocabulary. To take it a little further, managing to identify attributes of objects, and then placing them where they belong, empowers kids to help maintain and respect their environment, keeps items organized for the community and is visually calming.


The Importance of Daily Routines

Following a daily routine at school provides stability for children, allowing them to feel more secure in the classroom setting. The schedule should not be rigid; in fact, the ideal schedule is flexible and adapts to both the needs and interests of the kids, allowing for spontaneity within the structure of the school day. A regular and predictable routine helps children understand what’s coming next, what they’ll be expected to do during each part of their day and encourages autonomy, independence and confidence. Mostly, it helps children feel relaxed and free to explore the room, activities and relationships. I have also found that this structure works well for all types of teachers. It provides a framework for necessary curricular planning and allows for creative responses to “what-if” scenarios.

Generally speaking, the daily schedule should have large chunks of time dedicated to broad activities. It is far more important to have an hour scheduled for “free play” and the next hour scheduled for “outdoor time” than to include a ten-minute chunk for “transition” or “bathroom break.” The broad categories ensure fluidity and allow the teachers to meet the needs of the group flexibly on each day.

Mathematically, sticking to a daily routine allows children experience sequencing first-hand and will help when it comes time for more sophisticated math operations such as adding and subtracting two digit numbers and understanding the order of operations, the rules that define which procedures to perform first in a math equation (surely we all remember: PEDMA or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally/parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction). The order of routine in the classroom becomes meaningful to children when they realize, for example, that they can’t sit down to eat snack at the table unless they’ve first cleaned the table of playthings (“cleanup time”). This is also true when they are working on getting dressed to go outside. First the children put on their coats and then they put on their mittens. The natural consequence of putting on mittens before coats is that for most, it simply isn’t possible to zip the zipper or close the buttons with mittens on. Encouraging “order of operations” within the classroom structures and activities by allowing the children to see, feel, and experience the natural outcomes of the sequencing hammers the concepts home in real and meaningful ways.

When creating a schedule, don’t forget to allow ample time for transitions which can be stressful to both children and adults); be sure to incorporate a realistic time for clean up, hand-washing, and dressing (for going outdoors), in addition to snack set-up and preparing to go home. Transitions are learning opportunities in their own right! However, best practice asks that we minimize transitions as much as possible to lessen the anxiety associated with them and to increase the time children spend at play.

I have seen a preschool class transition from free play to cleanup time, only to sit at the rug and wait for the whole group to transition to the washroom for hand washing. Once arriving at the washroom, all of the children had to sit against the wall and wait to have their turn washing their hands. Once they were done, they lined up and waited for all of the children to finish. They then went back to the classroom and sat at the tables while they waited for the snack to arrive. Each part of this scenario is another transition and there are far too many. How would you reduce the above-described transitions down to 2?

I have found that teachers who voice the daily routines as a part of their practice encourage this type of thinking in the children. It is OK and actually recommended that you say things like, “First we have snack and then we go outside.” Or, “After you wake up, your dad is coming to get you.” Even though you might think you say these things every day – all day long – young children do not have enough experience in their short lives to know for sure how the schedule works. They need reassurance about their upcoming activities and the way their day will unfold. You can provide that by giving voice to the daily routines in your classroom.

posted by Alison Balis Hirsch