The Activity Jar

**UPDATED** — See the photo link at the bottom of this article.

Homeschooling parents often lament that they lack the educational gadgets and fancy learning aids that students can benefit from in “real” school classrooms. The Activity Jar is a wonderful store of math manipulatives and assorted learning aids that you can assemble yourself from no-cost items readily available in your home. Gathering the items and filling the jar is as much fun as dumping the contents out again and playing with them.

How to Assemble an Activity Jar–
Begin with one rather large, wide-mouthed container, such as a gallon jar (unbreakable plastic, if possible). Use a small storage tub or cardboard box if you wish, but a secure lid is a must and see-through sides are a bonus. Now set out on a scavenger hunt through your home and garage, poking through the “junk” drawers and all of those little nooks and crannies that tend to collect odds and ends. Pick up those interesting bits of stuff and place them into your jar. Continue this process until you have unearthed all possible objects or until your container is approximately 75% full. Do not give in to the impulse to fill your container brim-full, or you will seriously impede the clean-up phase of using the Activity Jar. Close the lid and set the container aside for a rainy day or any other time when your children want something to do or need practice in sorting, categorizing, or math in general. Bear in mind that the jar will be shaken and rattled around often, so you may need to remove any objects from the jar that become broken with use and replace them with more objects as you find them to keep the Activity Jar’s contents new and interesting.

Be creative with what you select, thinking “outside the box” and including items from all areas of your home, not exclusively small toys. Do include tiny toys, coins, buttons, paper clips, nuts and bolts, and any other fascinating flotsam and jetsam. This is a great opportunity to recycle the remnants from incomplete, broken, or discarded board games. Be careful to select only larger pieces if toddlers may be at risk for swallowing the objects.

How to Use the Activity Jar–
Pour the contents into a large cake pan, unless your children can easily reach into the container to remove the items. Caution: unless your children are already skilled in sharing and showing patience, you will want to limit the Activity Jar to one student at a time. The discovery process can foster territorial feelings and selfishness, especially if two students are attempting to divide the contents without supervision or guidance. Encouraging your students to work together as a team toward a common goal can help them to overcome competition and rivalry.

Allow a student to begin with periods of free play with the objects, and watch him begin sorting without being prompted. When the student has exhausted his own ideas, challenge him to begin sorting the contents into 3 basic categories: Category A (such as round), Category B (such as not round), and Category C (for Other, or I’m not sure what to call this one, because one side of it is A and the other side is B). Other possible basic categories (for A & B) are flat objects and fat objects, single-colored objects and multi-colored objects, buttons and not buttons. Category C is always useful for speeding up the process, since there will usually be something that does not fall easily into the two main categories. Use more cake pans, cookie sheets, shoe boxes, freezer containers, bowls, muffin pans, egg cartons, paper cups, or any containers that will make the sorting process simple and easy.

Once Categories A and B have been sorted out, choose one of them and set the other objects aside for now. Further divide this selection of objects into more specific categories. Sort single-colored objects into individual color families; sort round or flat objects into disk-shaped objects and non-disk shapes; or sort the objects into general size categories of small, medium, and large before measuring them for more accurate classifications. Again, it may help your child to have an “Other” category for things that are difficult to categorize into his chosen groupings.

Preschoolers can enjoy digging through the contents of an Activity Jar (filled with toddler-safe objects) while Mom is helping their older siblings with lessons. Provide them with several empty plastic bowls or freezer containers, and they will have fun sorting and moving objects from here to there and back again.

How to Learn from the Activity Jar–

Sorting and categorizing are the most basic skills that can be learned. Since the jar contains a variety of objects, the student must make decisions for which category applies to each object. Begin with very basic categories (as described above) and proceed to more complicated descriptions later, as the student’s abilities advance. The more the student sorts and categorizes, the finer the details become that can be used for sorting as categories are divided and sub-divided into smaller and smaller groupings.

Even the youngest student can perform simple sorting tasks. Vocabulary and recognition skills are increased as preschoolers practice sorting to learn shapes: Let’s find all of the round things. Color names can be even easier to demonstrate with the jar’s goodies: Today, let’s find all of the blue things. Now let’s make another group of things that have some blue on them.

Students quickly learn that each object can be classified in numerous ways: a single button may be round, flat, pink, have a certain number of holes through its middle, and be an object that starts with the letter “B” or a color that starts with the letter “P.” It may have a design of squares on its top, and it may be made of wood. The student will expand his abstract thinking skills as he learns to look at each object in numerous ways and learns to see all of the various attributes of any given item. Sorting these same objects over and over (by colors, by shapes, by materials, etc.) will illustrate to your child how common objects can be anything but common.

As skill levels advance, so can the sorting criteria, as well as the mathematical applications. Students of all ages will benefit from practice in sorting and counting, resorting and recounting, but other skills can be improved as well: comparing, judging, and classifying; the basic arithmetic of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing; illustrating fractions and percentages; taking measurements; and on and on.

Once your student has divided and sub-divided objects into satisfactory groupings, challenge him to count the total number of objects and count the number of objects in each sub-group. A student who can perform long division can calculate each smaller group as a percentage of the larger group. If the concept of percent is difficult for the student to grasp, try the exercise again, but this time limit the large group to exactly 100 objects, then repeat the sorting, counting, and arithmetic portions. After the student understands percentages of 100, he can try again with a different (larger or smaller) number of objects as the larger grouping. Fractions can also be illustrated with sub-groups: one student has sorted out 12 game tokens, 6 of which are red; therefore, one-half of the tokens are red. Notice that 2 of those red tokens have a pattern of ridges on them, representing one-third of the red tokens and one-sixth of the larger group of 12 tokens.

Algebra uses the concept of sorting with polynomials. An algebraic expression may contain many objects to sort and categorize, but instead of being red buttons and blue buttons, pennies and nickels, and yellow and white game tokens, they look like X and 2X, XY and 3XY, and 4Y and 2Y. A student who understands that buttons are buttons and that coins are not buttons can also understand that X and 2X are both X-objects, and that neither of them are XY-objects or Y-objects. That is the basis of algebra: sorting and grouping similar objects, while not grouping dissimilar objects.

The skills to be gained from an Activity Jar are nearly limitless. Classification is the basis of scientific research, sorting useful facts from insignificant facts. The plant and animal kingdoms are carefully sorted and classified into similar groups. Other applications of the Activity Jar cover many academic subjects. The visually-oriented student might make graphs and charts to show how many objects were sorted into each group or compile lists of attributes (color, size, shape, material, etc.) for some items. The tactile student might experiment with stacking objects to see which types of shapes can and cannot be stacked easily. You can spur your students’ creativity by them to invent a game using some of the objects. Sharpen your students’ tactile and memory skills by placing some objects inside a paper sack, then asking each student to reach into the sack and try to identify the objects by touch alone. To improve auditory skills, secretly place an object inside a box and challenge your students to listen closely as each one shakes and tips the box to see if he can determine what type of object is inside, just from the sounds it makes while sliding back and forth.

The more activities your students do with the Activity Jar, the more ideas you and your students will think of for new activities to try. Your applications for the Activity Jar will probably go far beyond the few simple projects that I have described here, making your jar one of the most valuable learning aids in your homeschool. And you thought this was just a jar full of useless junk.

Photos of my Activity Jar and some examples of sorting activities can be viewed HERE.

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