When I think about the ways kids learn and the way an environment can support learning, I am reminded about the importance of providing kids with materials that can help them visualize a concept or an idea they are working on. Many of us are visual learners and creating a visual to represent a concept can be very useful in order to cement our understanding.
Even you aren’t a visual learner, neuroscience research has found that learning occurs when we use different areas of the brain (Park & Brannon, 2013). When students are learning math, they use five areas of the brain. Two of those areas process visual and spatial information (Boalar, Munson, & Williams, 2017). This highlights the importance of providing children with tools and materials to create models for the mathematical concepts they are learning and to continue to do so as they get older.
Architects, scientists and mathematicians use models to show, explain, and work through their ideas. You can go to youcubed.org to read more about the importance of using visuals in math learning and teaching.
Using various kinds of materials also helps children who are learning to read and write. Multi-sensory learning, learning that involves visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic (movement) elements is especially beneficial for young kids, kids with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. In the photo above, kinetic sand and letters stamps are used while saying the sound of the a letter. The use of the materials allows the child to have a tactile, kinesthetic and verbal experience to learn about letter concepts. Kinetic sand offers a sensory experience to children. Clay and play dough also provide a sensory experience for children learning letters. By building the letter the child has to think about the parts of the letter (the straight lines, curves, and their position).
In our learning space there are a variety materials available. We use these materials to explore certain concepts but we also use a lot of our materials freely as process art or for tinkering.
There are lots of educational materials and toys available that aid learning and some might be useful to have on hand but they are not necessary. Many household and natural objects can be used to explore number and literacy concepts. Here’s a list of what I’ve found most useful to have on hand.
Materials Most Used by the Kids
- white paper
Materials Used for Learning Math
- counters (shells, rocks, glass beads, buttons, poker chips..)
- ten frame to organize count (see image)
- unifix cubes or snap cubes
Materials Used for Learning to Read and Write
- small counters (glass beads, toothpicks, rocks, buttons, etc)
- salt or sand tray
- lined and unlined paper
- cards with photographs of real items (animal cards, food, plants…)
- paper strips for writing letters, words, or sentences
- various kinds of alphabets (magnetic letters, alphabet tiles, sand paper letters)
- pencils and markers
- reference charts or printables of the alphabet, digraphs, sight words…)
Additional Materials to Consider
- play dough
- washable paint
- colored paper
- a box with clean recycling materials like cereal boxes, plastic tubs, paper towel tubes, cardboard oatmeal containers
Boaler, J, Munison, J, & Williams, C (2017). Mindset Mathematics: Visualizing and Investigating Big Ideas Grade 4. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Park, J. & Brannon, E. (2013). Training the approximate number system improves math proficiency. Association for Psychological Science, 1-7.