Category Archives: supplies

How to Get Your Child’s Hands On Math

Numbers can be a pretty abstract concept for a preschooler to wrap her mind around.  But just as a storybook turns abstract letters into a meaningful story, the abstract concepts of numeracy, patterning, and comparison find real meaning in the objects they represent.  Putting these real objects into the small hands of young children makes the abstract concrete as we connect these math terms and concepts with experiences and  understandings they’ve been building over  a lifetime.

I began thinking of some of my favorite math manipulatives to use with young children and found that while my thoughts began with formal sets you can buy from an educational supplier, my mind soon drifted to those wonderful home-spun manips that are cheap or even free (some of my favorite words when it comes to describing educational supplies).  And of course with these thoughts buzzing in my brain, I began to notice all the ways to turn everyday experiences into a hands-on math experience.

And so, in those categories, here are a few of my favorite math manipulatives to use with young children.

Manips You Can Buy:

Unifix Cubes:  I love these versatile blocks!  They’re great for counting and stacking as a visual representation of numbers.  It’s easy to see that 8 is bigger than 2 when you see the two standing side by side!  They’re perfect for a quick and easy bar graph as well as pattern building and hands-on adding and subtracting.  Plus, if you hand a basket of these to a group of children, they could explore, play, and create freely for quite some time.  That’s always a good sign of a wonderful manip!

Pattern Blocks:  If you really want children to understand shapes, they have to hold them, build with them, make patterns with them, sort them, and compare them.  Pattern blocks fit the bill here, and kids love them!

Cheap or Free:

Largely, the purpose of math manipulatives is to provide a concrete, movable object to represent each part of a number in a one-to-one ratio (one object, count one number).  This gives meaning to numbers and story problems and turns math into an experience instead of just another subject.  You can buy counting bears, but really all you need is an assortment of physical items that can be counted and sorted.  Here are a few items that meet those requirements without a trip to a specialty store:  buttons, dry beans, craft pom poms, plastic lids, coins, bottle caps, beads. 

Invent hands-on games using dice or number cards (I like using spare Phase 10 decks).  Add either one to a board game you already have or create one by simply drawing a path of squares.  Use favorite toys like cars, animal figures, or little people to advance along a counting game you can create together!

 On the Fly:

We’ve all heard the complaint from someone somewhere along the road: Why do I need to know this stuff?  If you really want the children you love and teach to see math as something that they use in the real world, well, then you have to take advantage of opportunities for them to use it in the real world!  Here are a few ways to do just that:

Let them use the scales at the grocery store.  Count apples as you add, read and compare the weight.

Use snacks to sort, count, make patterns, and of course, subtract! 

Make your own counting travel mix.

Find patterns in striped socks, polka-dotted ties, and checked shirts.

Set the table together!  One plate for each person is one-to-one counting in action.

Make collections of treasures to sort, count, and compare.

What are your favorite ways to make math a hands-on experience for the little ones you love and teach?

Top photo by John Evans.

Button photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian.
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Filed under Article, Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, supplies

Up, Up, and Away! Superhero Capes for Preschoolers!

While I’m working on some exciting new things, here’s a revisit to an old post originally posted February 25, 2009!

dscn1253If you’re looking for a quick, inexpensive, no-sew way to create capes for your super-preschooler, look no further!  No super powers are required here, just fabric, self-adhesive Velcro tabs, and scissors!

For your fabric, start with tricot (pronounced “tree-co”).  Call your local fabric stores to find one that carries it.  It is fabulously shiny and light so that it ripples and flows as the wearer takes flight!  As for super powers, it doesn’t fray, so it doesn’t require any hemming to finish the edges. 

Tricot comes on very wide bolts.  You only need about 20 inches for a cape, so with the wide width, you can purchase twenty inches and make about 3 or 4 capes.  Once you have the tricot, cut a rectangle about 18 inches by 20 inches.  (The size is by no means exact.  This is the size that has worked for my 2-5 year olds, but feel free to adjust!)


Next, fold the piece in half, lengthwise, and round out the bottom and top to give the cape more shape.  The cuts don’t need to be exact, but this is the shape I cut mine into.


 Last step, attach the Velcro to the corners.  One tab goes on the inside, the other on the outside, so that the corners overlap smoothly when the tabs are attached.dscn1260 

If you aren’t absolutely, morally opposed to sewing, you could reinforce the tabs with a quick “x” stitch to strengthen them against the repeated pulling they will be getting. 


Ka-pow!  You’re done!  If you want to, you can add embellishments such as sequins, logos ,or crests, but I haven’t seen any lack of enthusiasm from wearers of the plain variety.  Additionally, leaving the cape plain gives it more versatility for a variety of players and story-lines.  Capes are a simple and great addition to power up dramatic play!

Read more about superhero play here!

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Filed under dramatic play, Learning through Play and Experience, supplies

Mapping Out Your Preschool Study Themes

Last year I wrote about mapping out your year  with an enduring idea and unit themes.  This year, I thought I’d help you out (and myself) by creating a Thematic Brainstorm Form to help you with the steps in the planning process.  This isn’t your lesson plan, this is merely to get the ideas going. 

Purposeful Planning 

Once you clarify the purpose of your theme (concepts and developmental objectives, etc.) it’s easier to stay focused on what types of learning activities you are looking for (as opposed to filling your unit full of “cute” activities).  As you fill in the boxes with learning activities, it’s easy to step back and see which area is lacking and then you can have a more purposeful search through your resources.  (I confess, the “Books” section is far too small for a really great unit- I’m hoping you’ll fill the entire back of the sheet with wonderful books to incorporate into book activities, story times, and reading areas.)

If you like, there is room in the left margin for punching holes and keeping your brainstorm form in your lesson planning binder.  As you use this form more frequently you will find that you naturally begin planning your lessons with more purpose, looking for activities that fill in objectives and round out your experiences.

Recognize. Emphasize. Maximize.

This form is also helpful for what I call the “Recognize, Emphasize, Maximize Method“.  Quite simply, when you take the time to recognize what it is you are trying to teach with an activity, you are more prepared to emphasize those objectives as you work and play within a unit.  You are able to take advantage of natural learning experiences because you are aware of what to look for.  As you emphasize these objectives, you maximize the learning outcomes.  By following this method, you can ensure that the activities you use are “Not Just Cute”.

 Top photo by iprole.
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Filed under procedure/organization, supplies, Uncategorized, Unit Themes

Does Your Alphabet Chart Need to Be Recalled?

I’m issuing my  own product recall on alphabet charts, and yours might be included! 

This isn’t a safety issue, I can’t imagine an alphabet chart causing physical harm (though I suppose the occasional paper cut could be pretty traumatic) but the alphabet chart you’re using might not be teaching what it’s meant to teach.

Alphabet charts, those posters or room headers that show upper and lower case letters along with a picture, are meant to be a reference point for children.  They are meant to help a child associate the written letter with its accompanying sound.  So you have “Tt” next to a tiger, “Ff” next to a frog, and “Dd” next to a  dinosaur.  Easy enough, right?

X is for X-Con

The letter X is the biggest offender on these alphabet charts.  Most alphabet charts show “Xx” x-ray, or “Xx” xylophone.  These cues won’t help your children much, unless they’re trying to spell X-Men or xenophobia.  Now I’ll be the first to agree, that finding a familiar word that begins with x is not an easy task.  Just check out this list of words starting with x.  Not too child friendly.  The problem is, the purpose of an alphabet chart is not just to match letters to cute pictures with the same beginning letter, it is to offer visual cues to match with a useful sound. 

The most common sound for the letter X, particularly in the early stages of reading and writing is the “ks” sound.  That is the X sound children need to learn.  Now, I don’t think I can come up with a word starting with X and the “ks” sound, but I know a few common words that end with the X-“ks” sound.  Box and fox, for example.  The fact that the sound is at the end doesn’t make it less useful.  In fact, it’s more useful because it teaches the actual sound the child needs to learn.

Other Offenders

X is by far the worst offender, but you might want to take a look at the vowels on your chart too.  Vowels are the Jason Bourne of the English language.  Just when you think you know exactly what they’re about, they change on you.  While we teach long and short sounds, we all know there are about twenty subtly different sounds those five letters can produce-  think R controlled, schwa, diphthongs.  For the sake of basic concepts, an alphabet chart should ideally show a picture corresponding with the short sound for the vowels.  The long sounds are obvious – they state the letter’s name.  It’s the short sounds that children will need to be reminded of.  So instead of “Ii” ice cream, it would be better to find “Ii” insect, or iguana, or igloo.  Now, this may require some vocabulary training, but really, with any alphabet chart, you need to spend some time explaining what each picture represents.  Otherwise you have children reciting A for Crocodile or Q for Pretty Princess.

Quick Fix

The good news is, you don’t have to send your chart in to the factory to be retrofitted with a new part.  You can do that yourself.  Simply identify the offenders in your alphabet chart, choose words that more appropriately match the sound cues you are trying to teach, do a quick image search on the internet, print, paste over the offender, and you’re done!

Charts Vs Books

Now I don’t want you to suddenly rifle through all your alphabet storybooks and throw them out as well.  Alphabet books like Alphabet Under Construction by Denise Fleming, or Jerry Pallotta’s Icky Bug Alphabet Book shouldn’t be held to the same standard as the alphabet charts.  While charts are meant as a ready reference across situations, alphabet books are meant to show application of the alphabet within a theme or context.  They can show “airbrush” for A because tomorrow you’ll show them another book with “anaconda” for A.  Books can show variation, but your chart needs to show consistent basic concepts.

No one will come from the government to enforce this recall.  But if you have children trying to spell the word “zebra” with an X, you can’t say I didn’t warn you about your misleading “xylophone“.


You may also be interested in A Culture of Literacy: Teaching Preschooler’s the ABCs and More.


Top photo by ctech.

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Filed under Article, Building Readers, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience, procedure/organization, supplies

Playing in the Gutters

 Anyone who knows me well, knows I am no stranger to Home Depot.  Having married a man with a penchant for home remodeling, I have learned to navigate the aisles well, in search of the right size of screws, the critically needed electrical wire, or the aesthetically pleasing cabinet pull.  Almost without fail, I see something at “the Depot” that appeals to the preschool teacher in me (or maybe it’s the preschooler in me). 

Well, here’s one hardware store find, I think is a blast to use with kids.  These are vinyl gutters.  I can’t recall the price, but I know it was just a few dollars.  They’re the same kind used to run along the edge of your roof.  I had them cut on site at a variety of lengths- 1, 2, 3, and 4 feet.  (I don’t know if there is typically a charge to cut it, I just asked and mentioned it was for preschool.  It’s amazing what people will do for those little ones!)

Once they’re cut, children can use their own imaginations along with constructive and spatial skills to build ramps – or a series of ramps- for cars or balls right in your living room or block area.  Couches, chairs, blocks, stairs, hands, almost anything can be used to prop them up into an inclined plane!

You can set them up with cups, bins, or buckets to catch balls, marbles, or even water, as it runs along the track!  Let the children be involved in creating the track and setting out the targets.  Their gears will be turning as they hypothesize and experiment with their new ideas.

Use them in a large water table, or outside with a small pool.  Add some toy spiders and sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider, acting it out as you go!  Set them out in your sandbox for a sand slide or cement chute.  Place them in your playground and see what else the children use them for!

You could even use the gutters on a warm summer play day and have a water race!  Have a group figure out how to work together with their pieces of the gutter to get the water from point A to point B.  They can hold them at different heights as the water runs from one person’s section to another’s!  They quickly learn what a little elevation does for a ramp!  It’s a great mix of science and social skills in one as they work together toward the goal.  (You could play essentially the same game using a ball instead.)

These gutters could be used in so many ways!  Your children will likely show you some new ideas as you let them explore with them!  They really lend themselves to exploration with physics concepts like velocity, inertia, motion, acceleration, gravity….you get the idea.  As an added bonus, they store rather nicely as they stack one inside the other.  So go on.  Play in the gutters!  Tell your mom I said you could.


Filed under Blocks, Large Motor Skills, Learning through Play and Experience, science activity, supplies

This Could Be the Safest Finger-Paint Ever

I recently had a teacher ask about art projects for the very young, particularly young two’s.  She was especially concerned with the safety factor, as the little ones have a tendency to try to eat what they’re working with.  I have a long list of suggestions for her, but I’ll share just one with you now!

The first project that came to mind was finger-painting!  This finger-paint recipe is fantastic!  It’s so easy and made from ingredients that are safe enough to eat — but it doesn’t taste great, so I doubt they’d try more than once.  (Though as soon as I say that, some little child somewhere will eat an entire container of this like it was yogurt.  Oh well, like I said, it’s safe.)

Cornstarch Finger-Paint

3 Tbsp sugar

½ cup cornstarch

2 cups cold water


Liquid Soap

Mix the sugar and cornstarch in a sauce pan.  Add the water and mix well.  Cook over med-low heat, stirring all the time, until thick, about 5 minutes.  (To me, it looks almost like Vaseline.)  Remove from the stove, cool, and pour into containers (muffin tins are great for a variety of colors).  Add a little food coloring or liquid watercolors to each cup and then a drop or two of soap to help with the washability.  (Liquid watercolors are ideal, as they are more washable, though food coloring is pretty safe once it is fully mixed into the paint solution.)  Mix well and paint when cool!  If making the night before, store in the refrigerator.

One thing I like to do with this recipe is to make it without any color, and put about 1/4 a cup or so in plastic bags.  Then I let the children mix in the color by working the *well-sealed* bag.  It’s particularly exciting to let the children choose two primary colors and mix it all together until a secondary color is formed.

Finger-painting can be done on paper plates, poster board, or art paper.  For many young children, however, finger-painting is about the experience and exploration, not about making something to be displayed on a refrigerator or bulletin board.  So you may even want to do finger-painting right onto art trays or the table top.  If you do finger-painting on a table top or tray, you can always do a reverse print by pressing paper onto the paint and lifting it again to reveal the design!

This is a great creative sensory activity, while also working fine motor skills.  And if they happen to lick their fingers.  No problem!

Top photo by NecoGarnica.


Filed under Create, fine motor skills, Learning through Play and Experience, Recipes - Nonedible, sensory activity, supplies

Cornmeal Play

If you’re looking for something new to put in your sensory table, consider cornmeal!  Some types are more fine than others – the fine stuff can leave a bit of a dusty residue on those little hands, but no permanent harm done, right?  Whether you have coarse or fine cornmeal, the kiddos just love it!  Compliment the play with toy cars, scoops in a variety of sizes, and even combs to create a fun texture!  Around Valentine’s Day, I threw in some foam hearts and the children kept themselves engaged burying and digging up their “treasures”!  You could add any foam features, plastic figures, or some beads or rocks. 

Sensory play builds curiosity and creativity in children as they engage in open-ended play.  Small motor skills are also developed as they dig and scoop and manipulate the material.  Language and social skills also come into play as the children work together and create dramatic storylines along with their play.  Try it out!

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Filed under fine motor skills, Learning through Play and Experience, sensory activity, supplies