Workshop Wednesday: Beanbags (No-Sew DIY)

Who has a child who can’t focus on anything while sitting in a chair? Who has a child who loves playing games and sports, but hates worksheets and written assignments? Who has a child who tries to make everything into an exhibition of physical abilities? You’re in luck! Let us help with some great ideas using beanbags that will enthuse your kinesthetic learner and keep him doing these learning activities on his own while you sneak in a coffee break!

Those energetic students are kinesthetic learners who need to move to be able to learn. Their brains don’t fully wake up and begin to learn until their arms and legs get moving, so these beanbag activities are ideal for getting them involved, holding their attention, and helping them remember what they’re learning.

Inexpensive, no-sew beanbags can be made quickly from discarded socks (no holes or thin spots) by cutting them to an appropriate size and pouring in dry beans or uncooked rice. Tie the ends shut tightly with string, yarn, or plastic zip-ties (trim the ends with scissors), leaving each beanbag about two-thirds full, so that the contents have room to slide around—if filled too full, the bag will be more likely to burst when it lands. Aquarium gravel is a suitable waterproof filler, just in case your beanbags are likely to get left outside in the rain.

What can you do with all the wonderful beanbags you’ll create from your orphan sock stash? Use them for “throwing stones” for hopscotch (and all its variations), whether playing on the sidewalk, driveway, or patio. For indoor activities, hopscotch grids can be drawn with permanent markers onto an old bed sheet or tablecloth, but please use caution when using a cloth on hard surfaces to avoid slipping.

Learning Activities with Beanbags

Matching — If your clothes dryer has given you an abundance of sock orphans, you can mark them with letters or numbers for some preschooler’s matching activities.

ABC’s — Toss a beanbag onto a jumbo ABC-grid and make the sound of the letter selected. Older students may say a word that is spelled with that letter (beginning, ending, etc. your choice). A bigger challenge is to toss two or more beanbags onto the ABC-grid and think of a word that uses all of them.

1-Sentence Stories — Lay out word cards on the floor (sticky notes will stay in place), toss beanbags onto several words, and create a one-sentence story that includes the words selected.

Hopscotch Variations — Make a parts-of-speech hopscotch grid and play the standard hopscotch game with the rules for numbers, but have players give an example of the part of speech selected, such as saying “ticklish” when picking up the beanbag from the adjective section, “skeleton” for a noun, or “angrily” for an adverb. This method can be varied for other subjects, too, such as naming the sections Nations, States, Cities, Lakes, Rivers, and so on for geography. Students would then have to name an appropriate geographical feature.

Math Symbols — Mark some beanbags with math operation symbols and toss them onto a jumbo 100-grid for instant math problems. Throw an unmarked beanbag onto a random square for a starting number, then draw a random operation-symbol beanbag from a sack or pillowcase and toss it onto another square, using that number for the designated operation. Repeat as long as your supply of beanbags lasts. Pencil and paper may be used to assist in calculations, but careful aim and an accurate toss may be the most help.

Target Practice — Use laundry baskets or cardboard boxes for target practice to improve eye-to-hand coordination and tossing skills (just don’t hit the lamp!).

Juggle — Learn to juggle!

These beanbags are quick to make and will add hours of fun to indoor or outdoor playtime, and they are a great way to make lessons kinesthetic for your active students!

See also:

Hopscotch, a Powerful Learning Game

100-Grids & Flashcard Bingo

Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Kinesthetic Learners


Workshop Wednesday: Wikki Stix as Learning Tools

Does your hands-on learner need a new challenge? Try using Wikki Stix as manipulatives. If you’re not familiar with them, Wikki Stix are thin, wax-coated strings that resemble pipe cleaners or chenille sticks, except that they aren’t fuzzy, and they will stick to each other. The sticking-together aspect makes them wonderful learning tools, because they will also stay where you put them, and you can put them just about anywhere: table, window, cookie sheet, poster board — this list can go on forever. Stick them on the glass patio door or the refrigerator door for a kinesthetic, standing-up lesson activity. The Stix are waxy, but leave very little residue, and it is easily cleaned away. Bonus tip: If they accidentally get dropped on the floor and collect a few dust bunnies, cereal crumbs, and pet hair, holding them under running water and air-drying will restore them back to good-as-new condition.

Wikki Stix come in a variety of colors, including neons, and I have also found knock-off brands — check your favorite stores for craft or school supplies. (Wikki Stix brand have a unique bumpy texture that is both tactilely and visually interesting.) Use them full length (8″ long) or cut them into small lengths with scissors, and start creating. Let your students make letters and words, make numbers and math problems, or just have fun making all sorts of fun art projects.

Your older students can combine letters and numbers into the latest complicated formula they are trying to memorize. Yes, Wikki Stix are a fantastic tactile and visual method for color-coding the components of a mathematic or scientific formula! The tactile process of assembling a complex formula from Wikki Stix, complete with color-coding, is a very subtle way of memorizing — once your student has finished this project, he may find he has it committed to memory without even trying!

How can Wikki Stix help with lessons? First of all, let your students use the Wikki Stix as their learning aids — the kids will learn much more if they do it themselves, than if Mom just shows them what she’s made for them. The extended process of building each letter, number, or shape keeps your student’s fingers involved in the lesson, and the child’s brain has to think the process through from a different perspective than if he was just writing normally with a pencil. (By all means, do help the child who needs help getting started with this activity, but encourage his independence once he’s understood what to do.)

Color-code certain parts of words (vowels, phonics patterns, prefixes & suffixes, etc.) or math problems (use different colors for positive and negative numbers, or x-components in one color and y-components in another color).

Make Wikki Stix flashcards with spelling words, vocabulary words, or formulas on a sheet of cardstock and insert the finished cards into plastic page sleeves. Works for spelling, phonics, math, science, geography, history, foreign language, etc. Using this method to “write” troublesome spelling or vocabulary words allows the student to focus on getting each letter and each syllable in the correct order.

Make geometric shapes on flashcards, just like the idea above, and use them for identification and recall drills, or use the shapes as tactile manipulatives for math problems. For a bigger challenge, let your students try identifying the shapes by touch alone, by feeling them with their eyes closed.

Cursive writing can be tricky to practice, especially for those who are just learning it. Stick several Wikki Stix together end-to-end and shape them into cursive writing. Using Wikki Stix for cursive slows the process down considerably and allows the writer to put the lines exactly where they need to go! (and no pesky eraser crumbs!)

Workshop Wednesday: Pocket Charts (DIY)

Have you ever wished you had a pocket chart for use with your homeschool lessons? Letting kids insert flashcards into a pocket chart or rearrange them to suit the lesson concept can provide a tactile element to phonics, reading, spelling, math, geography, etc. If your cards are large enough (3×5″) or if the chart is on the wall or across the room, it can become a kinesthetic method, too. Sometimes you may have just a few uses for a pocket chart in your schooling, but not quite enough to justify investing your hard-earned funds in the fancy teacher-supply-store versions. Try these suggestions for making your own pocket charts.

Secure any of the following to a bulletin board or large sheet of poster board:

Paper envelopes (recycle some junk mail!); the front of the envelope (the side where the address would be written) will be attached to the poster board, so trim the back of the envelope (which will be the front of your pocket) to about 1″ high or enough to allow a card to rest inside but still show the information (I trimmed off the flap, too)

Photo album pages; these come in several sizes that can be carefully cut apart & taped down to poster board as needed  (Consider the variety of special album pages made for film slides, baseball cards, etc.) I turned a trading card page sideways and used a razor knife to slit a side of each pocket open (to become the new top edge) and trimmed it lower (with scissors) for easy insertion of cards, then used clear tape to secure the former open/top edge (now a side).

Plastic page protectors for 8 1/2x 11″ sheets of paper; can be cut down as needed

Clear Contact paper; stick to itself (sticky sides together) to make pockets larger or longer than album pages or page protectors

Clear vinyl zippered bags from sheets, blankets, or pillows; cut them up or use “as is” for jumbo pockets to hold large cards (imagine the possibilities: label the bags with parts of speech & toss a bean bag into the correct one when Mom calls out a word — oh, but we were supposed to be talking about pocket charts here)

Vinyl upholstery fabric can be taped, sewn, or stapled together (if not transparent, cut the front of the pockets low enough that the cards’ information can be seen easily, but the cards will still stay upright in the pocket)

If you don’t have a large bulletin board, you can use brass paper fasteners to secure the pockets to poster board or cardboard, or punch holes with a large yarn needle or awl and sew the pockets to the backing cardboard with yarn or string. Clear packing tape (2″ wide) can also be strong enough to hold the charts to poster board, but is not as easy to remove.

How to use–

  • Letter matching: upper/lower case
  • Letters forming words (use game tiles!)
  • Reading practice with phonics patterns or rhyming words

  • Reading practice with words forming sentences (see photo above)
  • Spelling practice (game tiles again!)
  • Math problems: Insert some numbers and operation symbols, and let the student complete the problem, or let students try to build their own problems correctly.

  • Illustrate place value, borrowing, and carrying (regrouping) for understanding. The physical act of changing ten ones into a ten and moving it from the ones’ column to the tens’ column is a very powerful transformation in a young mathematician’s mind!
  • Chore chart
  • Calendar
  • Matching states, capitals, & postal abbreviations (see photo above)
  • Match vocabulary words with definitions


Once you have made a few dozen word cards, a handy way to store them is in an index card file box. Add a set of ABC divider cards and teach your student how to sort the word cards alphabetically. Your student can even become the Official Keeper of the Word Cards, so he can pull out only the cards needed for each lesson, and then put them away again for next time. He’ll get the bonus activity of learning and practicing alphabetizing, and he’ll never realize that this fun activity is a great lesson in itself!



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: 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!