Workshop Wednesday: Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Have you ever found yourself wishing you had a whole big bunch of fancy-schmancy letter or number manipulatives to help your struggling learner? Well, don’t move, because you’re about to learn how to make them inexpensively for yourself!

A child who has difficulty learning letters or phonics patterns, identifying syllables, spelling words, or reading will usually benefit from using letter manipulatives, something he can move around and re-position himself. The struggling student might be any age, so using letter tiles is helpful for older students who already know the letters but struggle in spelling or syllable divisions.

Number manipulatives are helpful for the student who struggles with math, as are extra tiles with math operation symbols, to use them in building and solving equations. It’s one thing to use math cubes to illustrate 3 + 2 = 5, but it’s another thing entirely to use number tiles to solve 3 + 2 = 4 + y.

It’s fairly easy to cut out letter or number shapes by enlarging a simple font to super-size status, about 3″ tall (or around 350 points) on your computer’s word processor. Experiment to find a font you like, enlarge the letters or numbers, then print them on cardstock and cut out. These shapes can also be used as templates for making cut-out letters or numbers from materials that can’t be put through a computer printer, or to get more letters or numbers from a single sheet of paper.

Squares or rectangles can be turned into cards or tiles by writing the letters or numbers on them with a Sharpie marker. I have used cardstock, sandpaper, and cereal box cardboard for these with great success. The sandpaper adds a nice tactile element for kids whose learning styles appreciate more texture. I have varied the sizes, depending on the age of the kids using them and the application they will fulfill — 6″ squares are great for matching games on the floor, but 1″ squares work great as tabletop tiles for spelling practice. We had a few hundred small letter tiles made from cardstock, which were great for building a list of spelling words.

For students who are just learning their letters, I highly recommend starting with upper case letters first, then once the student knows them without mistakes, introducing the lower case letters as the “little brothers” of the upper case. This results in less confusion and fewer possibilities for reversals.

These cut-out letter shapes are wonderful tools for teaching and learning recognition, matching, phonics, spelling, syllables, and so on, whether by themselves or in combination with cards, tiles, and a variety of sizes and font styles (especially helpful for learning to recognize all the different appearances letters can have). You could even make some in the exact same size and shape as the letter tiles from a Scrabble or Bananagrams game and combine them all for even more learning fun!

I have made letter and number shapes and cards from these materials:

  • Sandpaper (fine to medium texture works best)
  • Craft foam
  • Textured fabrics (corduroy, vinyl, fleece, denim, etc.)
  • Cardboard (including cereal boxes), poster board, etc.
  • Cardstock
  • Textured scrapbooking paper

Bonus Tips:

  • Sometimes I needed to glue an identical shape of cardstock or cardboard to the backs of some flimsy materials for stability and durability, especially with cloth or thin paper.
  • Wood or foam cut-outs can sometimes be found with craft supplies for a quicker start.
  • It can also be helpful to decorate the front side and/or bottom edge of letters and numbers to help kids learn to orient them correctly (even a line drawn with a marker can be enough to discern top from bottom or front from back).

Letter Activities:

  • Matching — sort lots of different letter shapes, tiles, and cards into separate piles for each letter. Alphabetizing — mix up one set of letters (A-Z) and put them into alphabetical order.
  • Phonics Practice — use letters to make short words (2-3 letters) and practice reading their sounds in order to read the words. Change one consonant and read again; repeat. Ditto for changing the vowel. Repeat for longer words as skills increase.
  • Spelling practice — use your supply of letter manipulatives to build spelling or vocabulary words. Add as many words as possible that use the same phonics patterns.
  • Syllables — build a vocabulary word, then scoot the letters apart to divide the word into its proper syllables. Compare to the dictionary entry to self-check.

Number Activities:

  • Matching — sort lots of different number shapes, tiles, and cards into separate piles for each number.
  • Numerical order — mix up a set of numbers (0-9 or 1-10) and put them into numerical order.
  • Number value — match the appropriate number shapes, tiles, and cards with the dots on dice or dominoes.
  • Double-digit numbers — combine digits to make teens, twenties, etc. and practice reading them. Ditto for three-digit numbers and beyond.
  • Arithmetic practice — build arithmetic problems using the number shapes, tiles, cards, and operation symbols, and put the correct numbers in place for the answers.
  • More operations — be sure to make some commas, decimal points, fraction bars, dollar & cent signs, percent signs, and anything else your student will encounter in his math lessons.


For more activity ideas, see also (in any order):

ABC Flashcards

Building Blocks for Success in Spelling

Building Blocks for Success in Math

“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play

What Is the Missing Element?

Letter & Number Recognition

Tactile Learners

Workshop Wednesday: Untangling the Math Pages

Do your student’s math papers sometimes look more like a tangled jumble of numbers instead of neatly arranged problems? Do you have a student who gets confused over complex math problems? Our old friends, graph paper and color, can come to the rescue once again!

Graph paper was a blessing when my young students began writing math problems, but their numbers sometimes wandered aimlessly down the page, causing us to wonder which place value some digits represented. Using 1/4″ graph paper (4 squares per inch), I showed my son how to put one digit in each square and line up all of the ones’ column digits. That way, the tens’ digits ended up in the correct column, as did every other place value. It helped my student keep track of his math problems, which helped him perform the calculations correctly, which led to faster learning. It was a great benefit for the small price of a pad of graph paper.

Math function signs can be written in colors for kids who struggle with noticing which operation is required or in which order certain operations should be done. For example, parentheses in their favorite blue may catch their eyes first, and they know to do that before going on to the yellow plus signs later.

For particularly large and difficult math problems with complex fractions or higher math, I encouraged my kids to use an entire sheet of paper for each problem, if necessary. I told them they could make only as many changes per step as they were comfortable with and instructed them to leave a blank line after each step of the problem. That made it much easier for them to tell where they were and what they were doing. It also helped them to know they could use as much paper as necessary to be able to understand the steps and the transformations of tricky calculations (paper is cheap; understanding is priceless). Spread those numbers out so you can see exactly which digit belongs where, and skip a line between steps for amazing clarity in those super complicated problems.

Something my daughter Jen came up with on her own was to write each step with a different colored pencil. She is a strong visual learner, so color often played an important role in her schoolwork, and her set of colored pencils seemed like a natural tool to use for understanding the transitions in how each step changed from the one before it. The colors helped her eyes and brain differentiate one step from another, so the changes were much easier to see and understand. Using colored pencils can also work for students who get overwhelmed by trying to solve large math problems, helping them to focus on only one step at a time.

For those students who have difficulty understanding what is happening in each step, color can also be used to show the process of solving. The parent-teacher can write out everything in black pencil that remains the same for the next step, and use color only for the changing elements, to clarify what was changed in each step and exactly how it changed. Use a different color for each step to keep the transitions easier to follow.

Color can also make math more interesting for students who find math to be boring but find art to be all kinds of fun. Perhaps doing math in color is just the enticement little Billy or Sally needs! Bonus tip: Erasable colored pencils are well worth the slightly higher price!

Workshop Wednesday: The Moving Answer Worksheet

Addition facts are not tricky; they are merely a short-cut to counting from one number to a higher number. Subtraction is not a difficult procedure; subtraction is just un-doing addition. When taught together, addition and subtraction become different ways of looking at the same problem. Children often get the impression that addition is one skill, and subtraction is a completely different skill. They are not different skills, they are just different methods of looking at the same facts. It’s the same principle as if you and I were holding several pencils, but I give you a pencil, and then you give me a pencil. We can trade pencils back and forth for as long as we want, but we are still holding the same total number of pencils.

When my kids got stumped on variations of the same math fact (is 2+3 different from 3+2?), I created a simple worksheet to show them how to see those variations as always being the same statement, no matter what form it took. I rearranged the numbers in every way possible, and I moved the answer blank around to different locations, too. By completing this short worksheet, my kids learned to see the statement as a whole, instead of seeing each variation of it as a completely different problem. By combining the addition and subtraction variations of the same math fact, my kids caught on quickly to the idea that those particular numbers always went together, whether adding or subtracting.

Some math teachers and some math programs only place the answer blank at the extreme right end of each problem at this stage. Some students who experience this consistency can become incredibly confused when they are eventually presented with a problem that has the answer blank in a different location. Learning to relate to each set of facts as a completed puzzle helps students identify which piece of the puzzle is missing, and the many variations possible in this worksheet will prepare students for later math (such as algebra) when the answer blanks shift around to different positions within the problems.

Notice how this method was extended in a few examples to include the arithmetic symbols, as well as the numbers, such as in 2 ___ 3 = 5. Obviously, a plus sign belongs in that space, since 2 and 3 must be added to equal 5. It’s obvious to you and me, because we’ve been doing this for so many years, but to a youngster just learning arithmetic, it’s not quite as apparent, and a little discovery is good for the brain cells.

This principle can also be applied to multiplication and division facts, as division is simply the un-doing of multiplication. The stage of learning the facts is a good time to combine these skills, since there are no remainders yet.

The worksheets don’t have to be fancy at all — a handwritten version is just as valid as a computer printed one, but handwriting will probably be much faster and easier to produce. Stick to one set of numbers for each worksheet, but include all the possible variations. Your students will catch on quickly!

Use other learning style methods along with this visual worksheet. Auditory learners will benefit from discussing the patterns in the problems and will appreciate a chance to answer orally. It helps to connect learning styles if you encourage them to write their answers in the blanks after giving the correct oral answer. Do any of the following activities with your auditory learner, but talk about what you’re doing and read the problems aloud, or let him talk aloud to himself. Background music is also helpful for auditory students who need it as “white noise” to drown out other noises and help them concentrate, so keep the iPod and headphones handy! If you have any other students nearby who are not auditory learners, they may appreciate being allowed to do their work in another part of the house — my visual/tactile daughter did a lot of lessons quietly in her bedroom while her auditory brother and I discussed his work in the kitchen.

Tactile learners can use manipulatives to help solve these problems, such as small blocks or dry beans. The same group of objects can be used for the entire worksheet by rearranging them to fit each of the various problems. Other helpful items may be individual cereal-box cardboard “flashcards” for each number and arithmetic symbol–students can arrange and rearrange them to see which piece of the puzzle is missing. Tactile learners need to keep their fingers and hands involved during the lesson, so use whatever materials you have available to make that happen, even if that means making the worksheets large enough to hold numbers formed from Play-Doh on each answer blank!

Kinesthetic learners work well with large-scale manipulatives, such as sports balls arranged in groups in the back yard to fit the problems. You can adapt tactile manipulative, table-top methods for kinesthetic learners by making things large enough that they will be using the big muscles of arms and legs instead of just fingers to move items around. Another good kinesthetic learning method is to write large problems on a whiteboard or chalkboard, or use a slick-finish white shower curtain liner as a giant piece of paper on the floor and write on it with wet-erase markers (or use Post-It notes for the answers). Chalk on the sidewalk or driveway is another good stand-by for over-sized writing projects, but don’t forget that your kinesthetic student will also respond well to doing standard worksheets if he can lie on his tummy on the floor to do them! Any method that keeps those big muscles active is a kinesthetic method, so if you want your student sitting quietly in a chair, it’s not a kinesthetic lesson.

Whatever your students’ learning styles may be, it should be their goal to learn how to learn through every style. Therefore, using a few of the above ideas for each student in whatever lessons you do will increase their ability to learn through other styles and increase their overall understanding. Besides that, variety just makes the learning that much more fun!

Workshop Wednesday: 100-Grids and Flashcard Bingo

A 100-grid is another marvelous teaching and learning tool that can be made in numerous fun ways. A standard 100-grid contains the numbers from 1 to 100 (too obvious?) in ten rows of ten squares each, 1-10 in the top row, then 11-20 in the second row, and so on.

Draw the grid on the driveway with chalk; your kids may also get Dad’s permission to draw it on the garage floor if they promise to sweep it clean again when they’re done. I drew a 100-grid on an old tablecloth (you can also use an old bedsheet) with permanent markers for a reusable, storable, portable, floor-cloth version. These grids are big enough for your kinesthetic learners to hop around on for hopscotch-style, action learning!

Draw a smaller 100-grid on paper or cover the blank-grid side of a Scrabble Junior game board with clear Con-Tact paper (to make it washable & more durable) and fill in the numbers with either wet-erase or dry-erase markers. These versions are more tactile, since your students can use game pawns, pennies, or dry beans for marking number squares in learning activities.

Add a visual learning element to your 100-grid activities by alternating colors of the numbers. To skip-count by 2’s, write the odd numbers in one color and the even numbers in another color. To skip-count by 3’s, use one color for the multiples of 3 and another color for all the other numbers. If you want to do this activity many times for many multiples, write all the numbers out in one color, then place a colored marker on the appropriate skip-counting intervals.

Do you have an auditory learner? Challenge him to say the numbers aloud while hopping or jumping from number to number, or while placing markers on the correct squares.

Try varying the arrangement of the numbers in your grid for some interesting game play. If you have a Chutes and Ladders game, you can see one simple variation of our grid — it starts in the lower left corner and zig-zags back and forth to the top. For another game board variation, start with 1 at an outer corner and spiral the numbers in toward the central 100 square–but you might want to outline the path to make it easier to follow.

For a very simple game to practice math skills using these novelty grids, remove the face cards from a normal deck of playing cards and use the remaining “math deck” for an addition game. Let each player select a pawn and set it just off the grid near the 1 square; on his turn, each player will turn up a card from the deck and move his pawn that many spaces. The first player to reach 100 wins that round. For more advanced play, let the black cards represent positive numbers (adding, or moving forward) and let the red cards represent negative numbers (subtracting, or moving backward).

Another amazing math activity is the “Sieve of Eratosthenes.” This scholar from long, long ago created a fairly simple mathematical process for isolating prime numbers. On a standard 100-grid, have your students cover each multiple of 2, starting after 2 itself, to cover each number that has 2 as one of its factors. Since 2 has only itself and 1 as factors, leave it uncovered; it is a prime number. Now repeat with 3, covering each number after 3 that is a multiple of 3. Continue for 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. The numbers that are left uncovered are all prime numbers that have no other factors besides themselves and 1. This is fun to do on paper, using colored pencils to color in the squares and using a different color for each round. Starting with a light color and getting a bit darker on each round will show very plainly which numbers have the most factors — they will be very dark when you have finished.

Now for a bonus — here are the instructions for a game I call “Flashcard Bingo,” that is played on a 100-grid.



  • 1-100 chart
  • Math flashcards–combine addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division flashcards (The combination of cards used should be appropriate to the players’ skills.)
  • Several dozen markers for each player (colored paper squares, pennies, dry beans, etc.). If playing outdoors, larger objects, such as poker chips, can be used as markers.

Shuffle all the flashcards together and place them in an index card file box or other box that will hold all the cards and allow extra room for fingers to draw them out.

Use the honor system for not peeking at the answers if they are printed on the cards, or have players draw & hold cards for each other, covering answers as needed.

The first player draws a card at random and gives the answer to the problem. If he gives the correct answer, the player puts his marker on the answer number’s square on the 100-grid. If the card has two different problems on front & back, he may look at both problems and choose either side of the card for strategy: if the player already has possession of the square for that card’s answer, he may choose to answer the problem on the opposite side.

If the player gives an incorrect answer, the next player gets a chance to answer correctly and “steal” the square. If the second player cannot answer correctly, each player in turn is given a chance to answer and steal the square with the correct answer. The player giving the correct answer may not be holding the flashcard or may not have seen the answer on the flashcard.

At the end of a player’s turn, his card is returned to a random location in the box. Play proceeds to the left of the player who drew that card, even if he answered incorrectly, and even if the player who gave the correct answer is the next player in the circle.

If a player’s answer number is already covered by another player’s marker, the new player may “bump” the occupying player’s marker off the grid and place his own marker on the square, or the player may opt to take another card instead of bumping the occupying player’s marker.

If the player already has possession of the squares for both sides of the card, he may announce that he will combine both answers as desired (adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing) to achieve a hard-to-reach number square, such as prime numbers or large numbers. Paper & pencil may be permitted, but not calculators. If a player draws a flashcard with a correct answer of 0 or an answer larger than 100, and he is not able to combine the answers from both sides of the card, he may opt to draw again. There is no limit to how many cards a player can draw, as long as he already owns the squares representing the answers to the cards drawn, but he must use the first available square.

Winner is the first player to get 5 markers in a straight row, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.

Advanced Option: Add a game die for another challenge. Players roll the die on each turn and add, subtract, multiply, or divide that number into the answer on the flashcard to determine which square to occupy on the grid.

Discussion Question: As your students play this game, ask them if they notice which part of the grid accumulates the most markers and if they can explain why that happens.

Younger Players Option—

Use only addition & subtraction facts from 1-20. Play on a 20-grid with 4 rows of 5 squares each (1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20). Winner is the first player to get 4 markers in a straight row in any direction, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.

For more ideas, see also:
Applying Learning Styles with Skip-Counting
Hopscotch–A Powerful Learning Game

Workshop Wednesday: Flannel-Graph

Back when I was a wee tot, every one of my Sunday School teachers used a flannel-graph to illustrate lessons. If you’re not sure what I mean, a flannel-graph was a board covered in fuzzy flannel fabric, usually made so it could fold in the middle like a book. Teachers opened it enough to stand it on a table or spread it wide open on an easel. Cut-out pictures made of felt could be placed on the flannel board and magically stayed where they were placed — well, it appeared to be magic to a small child in the Sunday School classroom. What really intrigued me was when the teacher would place a paper picture on the board, and it stuck, too! I remember watching those pieces of paper carefully, trying to see what gave them their magical sticking ability, finally noticing a small strip of fuzzy cloth glued on the back of each one. One summer, during Vacation Bible School, I got to make my very own set! Each student was given a set of pictures appropriate to whatever the lesson was that day, and we got to color them, cut them out, and glue a small strip of sandpaper on the back of each one. Many years later, I applied that same simple technology to making quiet toys and learning aids for my kids.

I cut a remnant of flannel cloth about the size of a pillow case, but I did not attach it to a board. Instead, we would spread it over a pillow or sofa cushion or any suitable surface and place felt shapes on the cloth. My tactile child loved to smooth out the pieces, rearrange them, and rub them with her fingers. She would use the random geometric shapes to make simple pictures or sort the pieces into groups of squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles. We had a storage box for all of the pieces that allowed them to be stored flat, since a wrinkled or folded piece does not make good pictures in the next session. Our flannel cloth was folded up and placed in the top of the box for the next use. I also added a few pieces of yarn at my daughter’s request, to use for flower stems, grass, fences, and other imaginative play. This was her favorite quiet-time toy, and she never ran out of ideas for pictures to make with the pieces.

A sheet of Care Bear puffy stickers added another dimension to this set by sticking each one onto the back of a piece of sandpaper and carefully cutting around the sticker. Re-usable stickers!

The more I thought about my old Sunday School lessons, the more I realized we could use this low-tech play set for some creative learning aids. I glued a small strip of sandpaper onto the backs of some cereal-box cardboard math cards for some magically-adhesive, tactile flashcards.

Colors, shapes, letters, words, numbers, and more — how will you use this idea? This activity can grow with your students and expand to fit their needs. How about lots and lots of sandpaper-backed letter squares for tactile spelling practice? Or lots and lots of little number squares and arithmetic symbols for tactile math practice? Ooooh, how about flannel-graph fraction pieces? Mix and match fractional segments to prove that three-quarters of a circle occupies the same space as nine-twelfths of that circle.

The tactile student who plays with a paper clip or twirls his pencil during lessons needs that finger interaction as much as a visual student needs to study the diagram or read the directions himself. Tactile learning aids work for any student who prefers to keep his fingers busy, not just for fidgety youngsters. Tactile fingers help the student absorb information, just as much as standing up and moving around helps a kinesthetic learner pay attention and concentrate. Older students can make their own flannel-graph states from a cut-up map for tactile, self-checking, geography practice. Use flannel-graph techniques to create a timeline of historical events. Even diagramming can be accomplished with flannel-graph word cards! If some lesson concept is giving your student trouble, try making some flannel-graph manipulatives for it. Brainstorm together, and let your imaginations run wild! The textures can be surprisingly helpful for learning — and a lot of fun, too!


See this article for more ideas: Felt Shapes

Workshop Wednesday: Jumpropes

I spent a lot of summer days in my childhood jumping rope, so when we heard about a precision jumprope team in our area, we had to investigate. My kids joined the group and learned some amazing acrobatic tricks that make jumping rope much more fun and a great way to impress your friends! In this Workshop Wednesday, we will also move beyond merely jumping the ropes and explore some other ideas that will show you how to use jumpropes in making ordinary lessons extraordinary! These tips will take lessons off the table and out of the classroom and make them into kinesthetic learning fun!

Jumping rope is a great strength and stamina building activity, which is why boxers and other athletes use it as part of their training. Before we get started in the how-to’s of fancier jumping, let’s talk over some basics. Speed ropes are best for this type of activity; a speed rope is plastic or vinyl but may be solid or a hollow tube, with handles that spin freely. To get your rope to the perfect size for your body, stand on the middle of the rope and pull the handles up as high as they will go: the handles should come up to your shoulders. To shorten a rope, untie the knot in one end and retie it at the appropriate length, sliding the handles back in place; you can cut off the excess rope if you wish, or keep some extra length for kids who are still growing. If your rope is too short, you will be more likely to trip over it; if your rope is made of something soft like braided cotton roping, it will move too slowly and mess up your timing.

Ow! If you are new to jumping rope or haven’t done it for a long time, you will probably experience a painful side-ache after an extended period of steady jumping. This is an indication that you are retaining too much carbon dioxide from breathing in more than you are breathing out. You can remedy this situation by exhaling forcibly for a count of 5, then inhale for only a count of 3, and repeat until the ache is gone. I know it hurts, and this is hard to do when all you want to do is gasp for more air, but controlling your breathing like this for about a minute will dissolve that pain! The more you practice jumping rope, the quicker you will get in shape, and the sooner those side-aches will be a thing of the past. Trust me.

If you’re all practiced up and ready to move beyond ordinary rope-skipping, try using a jumping-jack technique: move your feet about shoulder-width apart on one jump, then bring them back together on the next jump, repeating the out-in-out-in movement over and over. Another variation is a forward-backward jump: jump a half-step forward on the first jump, then jump back a step on the next jump, repeating the forward-backward-forward-backward motion. Another move that is fun to watch (and impresses your friends) is called the Slalom: move both feet to the left on one jump, then move both feet to the right on the next jump, repeating left-right-left-right.

As your legs get stronger, you can try squatting down on one jump, then standing up on the next: up-down-up-down. When your muscles are ready for a really big challenge, try the Cossack, which resembles a Russian Cossack dance done while jumping rope: squat down for jump #1, extend your right leg on jump #2, pull in your leg again for jump #3, extend your left leg for jump #4, and repeat jumps 1-4. Every jump takes place in a squatting position, but you hop up and down a little as you jump the rope and switch your legs out and in. Try practicing the leg moves without the rope first for best results. It takes lots of strength and coordination to do this one, but no one who sees you perform it will ever forget it, and they may ask you to show it off to everyone who comes along!

Once these basics steps have been mastered, you can use them to make boring lessons more interesting. Mom can call out a spelling word for the student to spell out loud while jumping. Mom can hold up math flashcards, and the jumping student can call out the answers. What other basic facts could be reviewed while jumping rope? Try defining vocabulary words, giving examples of parts of speech, calling out matching states and capitals, and so on. The jumprope games of my youth incorporated counting rhymes, but today’s kids could use songs, raps, or poems for whatever subject they are learning and give an auditory element to their learning-while-jumping.

After everyone’s tired from all that jumping, the jumpropes can still help out in lessons. Lay several ropes in the grass or on the floor in vertical parallel lines and create a timeline, using the ropes for century divisions. Hang a name tag around Barbie’s neck and let her represent Betsy Ross. GI Joe can receive a similar name tag and become Jim Bowie at the Alamo. My Little Pony might represent the Cavalry at the battle of Little Big Horn, and a tiny model of the Empire State Building can be built from Legos, and all of these historical people and events (and more) can be placed in the appropriate places in your time line. Those same parallel ropes could be used for lanes in a relay race or as part of an obstacle course, and please don’t overlook the obvious math lesson concepts of vertical, horizontal, parallel, and perpendicular.

Now let’s rearrange the ropes a little to make a hopscotch pattern on the grass, as a nice change from playing hopscotch on hard concrete. Tennis balls can be used instead of rocks for the marking “stones,” and the squares can be marked with numbers or other information written on large pieces of paper or cereal box cardboard, held in place with shoes, bricks, or anything heavy that won’t blow away on windy days. Remove the obstacles and add a garden hose and a sprinkler for some hot weather fun!

Another rearrangement of the ropes can create a giant tic-tac-toe grid on your lawn. Use extra shoes or sports balls for the markers. Little ones can walk across the grid to place their markers, but older kids will enjoy the challenge of standing behind a marked line (another jumprope!) and trying to toss their markers onto the correct squares. Objects that bounce and roll will only add to the challenge and the fun.

Our lessons for today wouldn’t be complete without making gigantic Venn diagrams with our jumpropes. This example shows square things in the left group, red things in the right group, and square red things in the intersection of the two groups. Challenge your students to create their own Venn diagrams for practice in understanding the various ways objects can be categorized, perhaps using sports equipment, toys, shoes, or anything that can be sorted appropriately. Jumpropes can also be used indoors for this type of jumbo lessons on the floor.

See also:
Hopscotch–A Powerful Learning Game
Kinesthetic Learners

Workshop Wednesday: Freebie Magnets

Magnets are a wonderful learning tool for tactile learners. There is something about that magical, magnetic connection that appeals to fingers of all ages. Fortunately, most of us have a ready supply of free advertising magnets from the pizza place, the hairdresser, the auto mechanic, the new phone directory, and every politician who marches in a summer parade. Peel your collection off the refrigerator, and let’s turn them into some great learning aids. I’ll list several possible uses and some basic how-to’s for the magnets. You’ll want to analyze what topic your students are struggling with or where they need the most help, and then focus your efforts there. Students can also help make magnetic learning aids, and helping to make them means the learning begins right away.

Stickers are probably the easiest things to turn into magnets, since you just have to stick them onto a magnet and cut around the stickers with scissors or a razor knife (such as an X-Acto). I have used scrapbooking stickers that looked like Scrabble letter tiles, foam letter stickers that were shaped like small jigsaw puzzle pieces, and 3-dimensional plastic stickers with raised animal shapes. The puzzle piece stickers were slightly tricky because of their irregular shapes, but I cut the magnets into squares small enough to fit in the center of each sticker, and then (after attaching the magnets) dusted the surrounding sticky edges with baby powder, using a dry artist’s paintbrush. It took two rounds of dusting powder to get the foam pieces to stop sticking to each other, but I’ve had no problems with them since then. With regularly shaped stickers, it is fairly simple to line them up next to each other (as many as will fit on the magnet), press them down securely, and then cut them apart. If your stickers have rounded corners, cut them apart as squares first, then round off each corner with scissors. There may be a strip of magnet left at the side that is too narrow to hold more stickers, but hang onto that piece—you’ll cut it up and use it later.

Once upon a time, my kids had some puffy stickers that they wanted to be able to save and reuse. Magnets to the rescue! I covered the backs of the stickers with adhesive plastic, then attached a magnet to each one. Those cartoon character magnets became a great quiet toy for imaginative play.

Craft foam sheets allow you to make your choice of subject matter by writing on the foam with a permanent marker, such as a Sharpie. (Some foam sheets can even be purchased with a magnetic backing already attached!) I had some magnetic strips that were adhesive on one side (leftovers from a weather-stripping project), so I cut squares of craft foam the same width as the magnetic strip, stuck them on, and cut the magnetic strip between the squares. Adding numbers to each square produced magnetic manipulatives for math! I drew arithmetic operation symbols on a few more squares to complete the set.

Laminated placemats have been featured in a previous Workshop Wednesday article, but I will mention them again here for good measure. That example showed a periodic table of elements placemat that I turned into magnets, but any subject matter will do. If a placemat doesn’t lend itself to a building block format (such as the periodic table) or a map (USA, etc.), perhaps you can cut it into a simple jigsaw-style puzzle to entice your kids to play with the magnetic pieces and learn the information.

I have also used the plain (back) side of a thick foam-like vinyl placemat by cutting it into the desired shapes and attaching a small piece of leftover magnet to the back of each piece (formerly the front of the placemat). Adhesive squares made for scrapbooking, card making, and other popular paper crafts work great for attaching magnets (without the mess and hazards of hot glue guns). These vinyl-foam placemats are a bit heavier than craft foam and are made of a material that is not subject to the static electricity that can leave you covered in bits of craft foam for the rest of the day. Yes, that is a magnetic map of Iowa’s 99 counties, made from the backside of an orange jack-o-lantern placemat, but please don’t feel you have to try something quite so ambitious as your first project (that thing was tricky!).

A USA jigsaw puzzle (cut on state borders) received new life as a magnetic puzzle with the addition of a magnet square to the back of each puzzle piece.

Letter game tiles were repurposed with the addition of a magnet on the back of each tile.

Sandpaper cut into small squares can be glued to cardstock for added strength and then attached to a magnet. Grab your Sharpie marker again and write or draw letters, numbers, symbols, etc. for magnetic manipulatives with a bonus tactile texture. I made some in 1” squares, but don’t let that limit your imagination!

Funny facial features (eyes, eyebrows, noses, mouths, mustaches, ears, etc.) drawn on cardstock and attached to magnets become a fun game for preschoolers (I saw that idea on Pinterest, but I don’t know who originated it; someone deserves the credit!). Now what if you used the same principle for body parts and made interchangeable heads, bodies, legs, feet, arms, and tails for a magnetic build-a-monster activity? Build-a-bug, build-a-robot, build-a-car, build-an-animal, build-an-alien—the possibilities are endless! Your older students may have fun creating these magnets for their younger siblings, and they’ll learn some great problem-solving skills in the process. I wonder if we can make these small enough to fit in this empty Altoids tin? Hmmm… then Mom could keep it in her purse for Timmy to play with in church or while waiting in a restaurant!

So let’s review: we’ve discussed making magnets for letters to use for phonics and spelling practice, numbers and operation symbols for math, chemical elements for science, and states for geography. Need more ideas? How about geometric shapes, colors, incrementally-scaled pieces for number value (make them match the size of other math blocks you may own), fraction pieces, or pattern blocks. Have a struggling reader? Use the “magnetic poetry” type of word magnets (purchased or home-made) to focus on reading one word at a time, then adding them together to build a sentence. Have a struggling writer? Those same magnetic words can help him write sentences, stories, or poetry, since it can be much easier to rearrange someone else’s words than it is to think up new words from your own head. Pick up a small, inexpensive, cardboard skeleton party decoration, cut it apart into individual bones or groups of bones (such as the rib cage, hands, feet, etc.), attach some magnets, and you have an anatomy learning aid. Plastic or cardboard coins can become magnetic money manipulatives (say that three times really quickly).

When you have accumulated a large supply of educational magnets, the traffic in front of your refrigerator may get overly congested. Solution: steel cookie sheets or steel pizza pans are lap-sized and much more portable than the refrigerator door. If you need to shop for steel pans, you may want to take along a small magnet in your pocket for testing purposes. (That nosy store clerk will leave you alone when you explain that you’re obviously shopping in the kitchen section for educational materials.)

Now before I forget, there is one other accessory that makes magnetic learning aids even more beneficial: paper. I drew a Sudoku grid large enough to hold our number magnets and placed it on the cookie sheet, using the magnets to hold it in place. Ta-da, magnetic Sudoku can take the visual puzzles from a book or newspaper and turn them into a tactile masterpiece. A worksheet with fill-in-the-blank problems could hold magnets on those blanks instead of written answers. Your kids might choose to color an underwater background picture to place behind their letter magnets, just because they are learning to spell the names of ocean creatures.

Learning isn’t limited to books, life doesn’t happen between the pages of a workbook, and we learn what we enjoy. Magnets get fingers involved, and fingers love to learn! So what are you waiting for???

See also:
What Is the Missing Element?
Placemats + Magnets = Educational FUN!