Do Math Manipulatives Equate To Play?

On Thursday night I wrote this tweet …

and before I get down to working on my Communication of Learning comments today, I need to expand on my thinking.

Education is full of edu-jargon, and while I’m not a fan of it, I will say that I’m sometimes guilty of also using these terms. Lately, two terms that I hear the most are “play-based learning” and “inquiry.” Due to a renewed focus on math, these words are often used in conjunction with this subject area. My struggle here is two-fold.

  • As often as the terms are used, they rarely seem to be accompanied by specific examples of what this actually looks like in math. Please note that I know there are exceptions to this rule, and I do follow and interact online and in-person with some people who share amazing examples of meaningful math in a classroom environment. But far too often, I think I hear, “these skills are reinforced through ‘play and inquiry,'” but without a look at what this actually means.
  • Hands-on learning with math manipulatives is so often the way that “play” seems to be defined, but does the use of math manipulatives equate to play-based learning? I feel as though this second struggle is my biggest one, and maybe it’s because of my interpretation of the new Kindergarten Program Document that I continue to question this.

Our updated program document explicitly states to start with the child’s interests and make the links to the expectations. I know that this is contrary to much of what we’ve done in the past. “Noticing and naming” is such a huge component of this. It’s as we observe the students and see the math, that we help them see it too, and give them the math vocabulary to explain their experiences and understand their learning. So much math happens during student-initiated play, and so rarely does this play involve your typical math manipulatives. Does this matter though? I think of this experience in the forest yesterday.

We could have taught sorting in a different way. I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve given students sorting circles, sorting trays, and buckets of various manipulatives. We have a whole cabinet full of loose parts and plastic bears, dinosaurs, and an assortment of other animals that could all work for sorting. If we put these out on a table or on the floor, students might sort them into groups and count them. We might even encourage them to do this. Technically, I guess that they’re “playing” with the manipulatives, but does this make the play meaningful to them?

This doesn’t mean that we can’t — and don’t — use manipulatives to teach or reinforce specific concepts with students when the students are ready to explore these ideas. A group of children helped me make a rekenrek in our outdoor classroom. We’ve used this since then in different ways through play. 

And while using these different tools can sometimes help solidify (or teach) specific concepts for students that can then be further explored through play, I think that this kind of “play” still varies from play-based learning. 

I know that this is an argument around language, and does the word choice matter? I think that it does though. If “play” is just being seen as hands-on learning with math manipulatives, are we missing the richness that comes from the meaningful math that happens during free play? I know that there’s always a fear that if we don’t use certain tools, teach certain strategies, or instruct in a certain way, that we won’t prepare our students for the future. But I look at some of the math that’s happened in our classroom, through play, in just this past week alone.

Students are talking about — and working with — math concepts, and we’re discussing math with the students. To me, this is play-based learning in math, but am I missing something here? What does play-based and/or inquiry-based math learning look like for you? As I see the variety of ideas shared online, I start to wonder about my own perspective and want to gain a better understanding of other people’s perspectives … no matter how “uncomfortable” this may be for me. As I tweeted before, “nobody said that One Word Ontario words are easy.”


Why Would We Stop “Mixing A Rainbow?”

Sometimes it just takes a small moment to make you stop and think. This is what happened to me today. As I was packing up to get ready for home, a few students in the After Care Program (which runs in our classroom) called me over to see the puffy paint they were making together. They were making a few different colours, and when the After Care Facilitator, Miss Michelle, asked what colour they wanted next, the students insisted on “rainbow.” Both Miss Michelle and I mentioned that if all of the colours were mixed together, they would just get brown puffy paint. And this was the moment …

It was Annabel’s comment that made me open up my bag, take out my iPad, and record this video. I just had to capture the “rainbow.”

In her three sentences, this Kindergarten student summed up what inquiry and play-based learning are all about. It’s not about the final product, the right answer, or the quick response: it’s about the process!

Inadvertently, I almost took that away from the students in this group.

  • Why did I have to tell them what would happen?
  • Why did I have to stop the experiment?
  • Why did the final colour matter anyway?

Tonight, I’m grateful for some four- and five-year-olds that did not back down. I’m grateful for an amazing After Care Facilitator that heard their words and listened to their request. And I’m grateful for the reminder that we should always make time to wonder, to experiment, and to find out for ourselves. 

At the beginning of the school year, so many of our students just wanted to know the “correct answer.” Now they share and test theories, create experiments, solve problems, and realize the value that comes from owning the learning. Thinking about this child’s wise words tonight, I’m hoping that the “process” always holds as much joy for her as it does now. Maybe we all need to believe that “mixing a rainbow” is possible … or at least honour the voices of those that do. What do you think?


Contemplating Coding Once Again … What Do You Think?

I have blogged a lot about coding before, and this is a topic that I continue to contemplate as I learn more about it. When I read the finalized Kindergarten Program Document this summer, I saw some great connections to coding and some explicit mentioning of it as well.

Since our school participated in the Hour of Code, my teaching partner and I decided to try out some coding apps with the students. Many children enjoyed using these apps, and demonstrated various math skills, including directional language, spatial sense, counting skills, subitizing skills, and one-to-one correspondence. That said, there was something about these apps that bothered me … at the time, I wasn’t sure what, but I knew it was something.

Weeks after the Hour of Code, we introduced coding again when a student asked to use the computer one day. He really wanted to play a game, so instead, we thought that we would give him an opportunity for some thinking and application of math skills. We showed this student to Kodable, and before long, a group of other children came over to see what he was doing. They started to take turns playing the game and helped each other throughout the process. I heard lots of different language that made me happy.

  • “First you have to go across and then up …”
  • “Turn left, then go straight, and then turn right …”
  • “You only have 40 seconds now.”
  • “Yay! We got 10 more points.”
  • “Oh look! I figured out the mistake. I turned the wrong way. This time I have to …”

From the quotes above, you can see the use of mathematical language. You can see the reflection and the willingness to go back and try again. You can also see that coding in this case was “social,” and that’s definitely evident through the videos below.

All of this is wonderful, and yet, there’s still something that’s bothering me

A couple of days after this, my teaching partner gave a group of students an iPad to use. They used one of coding apps on it. There were many similar conversations to the ones shared above. Stepping back and watching and listening more closely, I started to figure out what was bothering me: many of the students using these coding websites and apps were quickly becoming dysregulated. It was almost like watching a child that spent hours playing a video game. They couldn’t seem to bring themselves down from that game high.

  • They were loud.
  • They were interrupting each other.
  • They wanted control over the game: the iPad or computer needed to be in their hands.
  • They were emotional: from huge bouts of excitement to angry cries to upset screams.
  • They struggled with pulling themselves away from the device … even when it was time to clean up and to get ready for home.

It didn’t take long for this to happen either: after 5-10 minutes, you could see the change in the students. 

Now then, I have my conundrum. On one hand, I love the thinking and math application that comes out of coding. I feel as though if we developed these skills at an early age, students could build on them in later years and do even more. But on the other hand, I’m concerned about the dysregulation that comes from this use of technology, and the impact that this has on our learners. Maybe some low-tech coding options would help, and I realize that this is a possibility, but there’s a lot of great learning that can also come from these high-tech options. I know that the children love these apps and websites, and some may argue that this excitement is just a sign of “engagement.” I wonder if it’s more than that though: could this be a sign of dysregulation, and what might this mean for our learners? We’re currently in an educational system that has us exploring the benefits of coding while also learning more about mental health and well-being. It’s where these two ideas meet, that I’m left wondering the most. What about you?


No Weaknesses. No Problem.

Like other Ontario educators from around the province, I’m in the midst of starting our Communications of Learning: the new name for the Kindergarten report card. I’m even reluctant to write down the word “report card” because I think that the term “Communication of Learning” conveys a very different message. When we hear “report card,” we often think evaluation. Reporting lets parents know how well their child is doing, but also highlights areas of weakness. The “Communication of Learning” is different. We are truly writing a learning story on each child. We are not focusing on what the child can’t do. 

  • We’re highlighting what they can.
  • We’re highlighting the biggest areas of growth.
  • And we’re providing specific next steps that meets the needs of each child.

I know that there are concerns that the “Communication of Learning” does not include weaknesses. I will admit that at first I had some reservations about this too. Shouldn’t a parent know if their child is struggling? But then I stopped and I did some more thinking.

  • For years, on the Kindergarten Report Cards, we were asked not to write about weaknesses: focus on what the child can do and what you’re doing to move the child forward.
  • I also wonder if this decision to avoid highlighting “weaknesses” also aligns with the underlying message in the document to focus on the whole child. If we truly view the child as “competent and capable of complex thinking,” would we not be focused more on abilities?
  • Our finalized document also gives us permission to access the ELECT Document if the curriculum expectations do not match the child and his/her needs. Again, our Program Document gives the important message that each child will meet with success based on expectations that are at his/her developmental level. 

Just because weaknesses are not discussed in the “Communication of Learning,” it doesn’t mean that we can’t speak to parents if we have concerns. I can’t help but wonder if our finalized document though changes the overall message about learning that has not been explicitly communicated until now: learning is developmental, so children progress at their own rate. We can support this progression in the classroom. We can provide interventions as necessary, but we also have to reach and teach each child where they’re at. 

  • So if we have that child that is developmentally like a two-year-old and believes that everything is “mine,” we have to model how to share.
  • And if we have that child that is still exploring cause and effect, we have to let him/her explore the same thing again and again, so that he/she starts to make the connections.
  • And if we have that child that still hits, kicks, and screams because that’s how children communicate until they have the words and the control to do something different, then we have to be there — calmly — to support this student and model other options. We have to give him/her the words that he/she may not already have. 

These may present as “weaknesses,” but if we re-frame, could we instead see them as just developmental realities? Do focusing on these areas become our Next Steps: looking at specific ways to move to the next developmental milestones?

I’ve written report cards for Grades 1-6, and I know how different this viewpoint is from what we’re used to doing. Imagine though if all “report cards” became “Communications of Learning.” We always say that “children matter the most in education”: the Communication of Learning truly supports this belief and views students through an asset lens. If we really stopped to think, why does a statement of “weaknesses” matter? If we consistently highlight for children their individual growth as compared against themselves, how might this change their mindset and their overall growth? As I use this Snow/Ice Day to work on our Communications of Learning, I can’t help but ask myself these questions. What do you think?


Letting Go … Again!

It was a conversation with my teaching partner, Paula, the other day that inspired this blog post. 

Our discussion and some of the comments on this Instagram post made me think about the other ways that children demonstrate their independence in the classroom.

    • It’s in the reminders that the milk hasn’t arrived, and then the collection of the chocolate and white milks that we need for our class.

    • It’s in the children in the library figuring out how many students need straws for their milk, and then walking back to the classroom, collecting the right number of straws, and bringing them back to the library.
    • It’s in the children accessing the milk list on their own to figure out who gets milk and what kind they get.
    • It’s in the children helping to hand out pizza each week.
    • It’s in the child using the list on my iPad to collect the students that are in the afternoon library group.
    • It’s in children looking at the library books that Paula holds up each week, determining which one belongs to them, and joining the line to head to the library. 

    • It’s in the children lining up the wet boots so that they dry and others can find them easily on the way home.

    • It’s in the children organizing the cubby room, so that all children can find their belongings at home time. 
    • It’s in the children switching and recording the home reading books when our parent volunteer is away. 

  • It’s in the children determining their own times to eat, and packing up their backpacks when they’re done. It’s in them knowing if they haven’t finished eating yet when Paula provides the final reminder that “it’s time to eat.” It’s in children listening to their bodies and being aware of what they need when they need it. 

I can’t help but look back at this list and think about the number of times that I would have tried to do every job that’s listed here. I would have spent my lunch hour and prep time checking lists, collecting items, and organizing materials. At the time, I thought that I was doing what was best for kids. But now I wonder … 

  • Was I trusting them to make good decisions on their own?
  • Was I allowing them to become independent? 

This year has been a great reminder for me that when we believe in children and give them opportunities to be responsible, they consistently amaze us with what they can do. Yes, some children need more support than others, but they don’t always need our support. When students realize that we need them, they will also regularly help each other (and us) more. 

We currently have 32 children in our class, and that is a lot of four- and five-year-olds. There are all kinds of reasons that smaller numbers would be beneficial, but one thing that bigger numbers taught me is that sometimes we need to let certain things go, and rely on our students in addition to them relying on us. For me, this was a lesson worth learning, and I thank my teaching partner for this important reframe. As our students continue to move up in the grades, I think that this independence will serve them well. Whether an educator, a parent, or both, how do you develop this independence in children? What value have you noticed in doing so? I would love to hear your stories!