Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Play and Manipulatives

I went to see a documentary in the cinema yesterday (thank you Estelle), a charming inside-the classroom child's-height study of a French Montessori classroom, Le Maître est l'Enfant (The Teacher is the Child):

I love all the Montessori materials, like these beautifully-made cylinders and the wonderful tuned bells behind. I love these sets of cylinders:
I love the Pink Tower and the Broad Stair:
And who wouldn't like this lot. I especially like the ovoid and ellipsoid:
If I could, I'd have all of these things in Kindergarten. But then, there's a whole wealth of materials and manipulatives out there. How to choose?

I've just been reading Matthew Oldridge's blog post (again, thank you Estelle!), Stay in Kindergarten, For Your Whole Life which in turn is a review, of sorts, of Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten.

Resnick makes the useful distinction between 'playpen' and 'playground' play, which I think I understand. Think of Lego. You get the play where you're puting it together according to the instructions, then there's when you do whatever you like with a pile of Lego. I agree, both are important. And I'm also looking for ways to bridge the two, ways of getting more playground into the playpen particularly.

Thing is, there's a lot of learning for us teachers to do about how to use any materials, which ones lend themselves to 'playground'-style play, which ones have the right constraints to help with more structured (but still playful) learning. Materials don't have magic properties when it comes to structuring learning, they have to be used intelligently and responsively. There's a sad bit in this section of a video about Froebel's 'Gifts', another wonderful set of sets of manipulatives.
Teachers ended up using the gifts 'by rote', 'dictating their use to the four and five-year-olds in their care'!

Look too at this photo from around 1970. The teacher is getting all the students to build virtually the same tower.
I still think they enjoyed it, but the teacher could have also said, 'Could you all build me any kind of tower?' and she probably would have got lots of this kind of thing and more, and the students would have been challenged in a different way, maybe felt more ownership, and have learnt more from each other. The teacher would have noticed new things, new next steps to take...

And we all need to learn about ways to build in more options, more choice.
Sometimes I see materials being played with in a way that suggest new more-structured inquiry that I haven't thought of before. Like how this student keeps making circles and circle-related things out of the straws and connectors:
What would a whole set of circles look like? What could you build a circle into? What other simple curved shapes are possible?

Sometimes I see a place manipulatives that aren't on the market. These last few days I've been making some Truchet tiles. They're not very regular, and I think I either need to go bigger or use the laser cutter:
Playing with straws and connectors, I've realised we need different connectors that don't just connect at 90°:
I've been lucky to part of Kassia Wedekind's short course on mathematical play. Teachers of students from Kindergarten to University all reflecting on what makes maths playful. It's really interesting to compare notes on what goes well in terms of play. Often people choose materials that really lend themselves both to divergent play and to mathematics, like dominoes, Cuisenaire rods, pattern blocks and Polydron. We looked together at Sara VanDerWerf's blog post You Need a Play Table in Math Class. It's challenging me to think how I bridge the playground-playpen gap with thoughtful responses to students' play.

And in case you haven't seen it, you might like to watch Kassia's talk on play:


  1. Great post. Thanks for writing it. Do you think there is a difference between wooden toys and something plastic or even 3d printed? Wood seems more fun to handle but I do not have the skills to carve them myself

    1. Hi David! Interesting thought! A small part of the charm of the Montessori classroom in the film was the quality of the objects the children play with. Glass vases on tables, china pouring jugs, and those beautiful big solid wood solid shapes of various kinds. I think we as adults take pleasure in the feel, sound, weight and look of wooden things and my guess is that children do too. In my classroom, all the pattern blocks and Cuisenaire rods are the wooden versions (though there's plenty of plastic too).