Inside the Mommyvan

Homeschooling & Life Inside the Mommyvan - an old dog learning new tricks


We spent some time at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa yesterday. One topic of discussion this morning was the high-wire bike, and why the kids woule never ever go on it.

We did a little science project about center of mass and how it affects balancing, and now they can’t wait to ride!


Kids love to play with magnets, and there are some great learning experiences to be had with even a small educational magnet kit.

Those iron filings, though. They create such a beautiful illustration of magnetic fields for young and old alike, but the potential for a disastrous mess–especially with younger students–makes me dread even opening the container.


Until today’s brainstorm: my trusty Ziploc bags to the rescue! I dumped the iron filings into a large (gallon-size) zipper bag and sealed it up. With the help of a paper plate or thin piece of cardboard, I can now make those beautiful field line images, and even let the kids fool around with them, with no mess!


This is the magnet kit we’re using. It comes with a bar magnet, two sizes of horseshoe magnets, iron filings, and a batch of small steel pellets that are great for comparing the strength of different magnets.


Graphs are fun. It’s a nice break from the fact-memorizing, the math-sentence-building, answering “Do I do this with plus or minus?” for the 73rd time this morning.

Today was graphs. Embracing the Singapore Math model to its fullest, we built graphs with colored shapes. We identified one problem with using different shapes in our graph, in that they don’t line up with one another very well. We moved on to making math link cubes, in matching colors, to represent each shape.

From there, it was on to picture and symbol graphs on paper, plus a Discovery Education video showing different types of bar graphs. Finally, we did a few SM worksheets, reading graphs printed on paper, into which were snuck a few difference problems. It was fun to watch the kids pull a lesson from last week out of their brains, finding “how many more” and “how many fewer” using subtraction sentences. I’m not sure they even realized they were doing it, but I sure did, and it is reassuring to know that some of it is sinking in!

Lego bricks are a wonderful thing.

Anyone who spends time around kids knows how great they are for young children, encouraging creative play, fine motor development, spatial reasoning (a fancy name for understanding how things work in a 3-D world, a very early precursor to mechanics / engineering / physics concepts), sorting into various different categories (color, size, etc. — this is a cornerstone of both early math and science), even teamwork and following directions (for the kits that come with building plans). Later on, a world of motors, gears, and programming robots awaits to take older kids deeper into the increasingly important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) areas.

I’ve even heard it said that they could be used for home defense, as any parent who has found Lego bricks in the dark with their bare feet can imagine.

There are many ways that Lego pieces can be used as math manipulatives. Just do a web search for Lego and math, and you’ll discover tips and lesson plans for everything from preschool-level color identification, sorting, and pattern-making to fractions, graphing, statistics, and more.

One concept that popped up here during Lego play one day was multiplication. Although it will be a while before my own kids are memorizing their times tables, they are already “getting” the concept of multiplication while working on addition: they know that 2 + 2 = 4, and that 4 + 2 = 6, so it’s a short Lego bricks logical jump to 2 + 2 + 2, or three twos, is also equal to 6. Did you get that? Three twos make six. 3 x 2 = 6.

They didn’t quite get it at first, but one of the most common Lego bricks illustrated the concept perfectly. See the red one there in the middle? Three rows of two studs each. 3 x 2. I pulled a few more bricks from the bin and we looked at their “multiplication stories” — 2 x 6, 2 x 2, 4 x 4, 1 x 4 — which happen to be very similar to the names commonly used to refer to the size of a brick or plate (“one by four” or “two by two”).

Suddenly I saw light bulbs flicker to life above my little students’ heads. Multiplying is almost the same as adding, which they already understand. In fact, multiplication is adding, just a shortcut to adding the same number together many times. As is true for other math ideas, it’s a lot easier to see in some concrete way for the first time, or the first several times. When the manipulatives are something as fun as Lego, the learning sometimes seems to happen all by itself!

We’re working our way through addition. My kids get it, sort of, but have not yet memorized the “number bonds” (addition facts) up to 10 so it’s drills, worksheets, and more drills.

Sometimes they get stuck. Not necessarily on a new concept, just stuck on something they know, but can’t quite pull out of the memory banks.

Sometimes the worksheet doesn’t offer quite enough in the way of visual aids to help them figure it out, so I dive into my Drawer O’ Math Manipulatives.

Out came the Bear Family Counters. These are colorful, fun, and very versatile for anything from patterns, to weighing & measuring, to addition & subtraction. They’re usually the hit of the party. Today, however, the bears were failing at their most basic task: being counters for sums. We’ve used them for a year or so now, and never before have I seen this kind of confusion.

I demonstrated, I counted with them, I watched them line up the bears and knock them down again. As soon as I walked away from a desk, though, my little pupil would seemingly forget how to count past three. I scratched my head for ten minutes before I decided to punt. Punt the bears, that is. Back into their little plastic lair they went, to be replaced on the desks by MathLink Cubes. As if by magic, the kids whizzed right through the rest of the problems, even the kiddie algebra (3 + __ = 10) using the cubes.

So the moral of this story is: if at first they don’t succeed, try a different tool. What works one day may be a total flop the next. Be flexible, and try to remember that even the most basic ideas, the ones that are near-automatic for our fully-developed and educated brains, they are still struggling to understand.

Like probably every homeschooler ever, I started out prepared with my trusty bucket of Cuisenaire Rods. I have vague, but happy memories of playing with them myself as a kid, and my children love it when I get them out because they can make great designs with the pretty colored sticks (how Montessori of us, right?)


But wait… math? We’re supposed to use these for math?

I knew that, really; what I didn’t know was how to go about doing it. Fortunately a chance note from a fellow homeschool mom who happens to be in the 3-kindergarteners boat with me, sent me to her blog (Crafty Erin) and from there to Education Unboxed.

If you’d seen me browsing this site, you would have witnessed those ‘aha!’ balloons visibly popping over my head one after another. It has videos of a real homeschooling mom using Cuisenaire rods to demonstrate to real kids various math concepts from adding one to basic algebra.

Wow! Seeing them in action made using the rods, and the underlying target concepts, clear in a way I hadn’t been able to grasp from the brief text descriptions I’d read previously. Take a look, and enjoy using your Cuisenaire Rods for something more than advanced macaroni art!