I have a confession to make – I love manipulatives! I have only a few, though, from using points from the Scholastic book sales from my classroom. I’ve been pretty picky choosing the sets I get – fall acorns and squirrels, frogs, and there’s even a set of puppies. But really, for the most part, I’ve never had the budget to buy the many I’d love to own.
Instead, I’ve found unexpected items to use for the centers I plan in my classroom. It’s pretty creative and fun to think of different things that my preschoolers and PreKers will find interesting and maybe even weird or funny. There’s been a giggle or two and lots of smiles from kids when they see what’s out for them at center work when they come into their classroom.
I’ve heard, “Why are there so many shoes and socks, Mrs. Weide?” Yep – you read that right. Shoes and socks! But more about that later.
The very best feedback, though, has been when parents tell me they’ve used unexpected items of their own at home at the request of the preschoolers and PreKers. All that learning and sharing going on at home – I love it!
Look Around Your School for the Unexpected!
What can you find at your school that your student would think was different or something maybe they haven’t seen before? Look from a different angle in your supply room – skooch down and look up or to the side. Do items look different from that angle? What would your students think about those things? Look in cabinets – what would kids find interesting? Is there at kitchen at your school? I’ve been lucky to have a full kitchen and a full size gym at the my school. How about different kids of spoons from the kitchen – wooden spoons, slotted spoons, large, small, plastic . . . you get the idea. How about things that don’t go together to put out for patterning or color sorting – trucks and tea cups from your kitchen center?
Paper Die Cut Shapes
For a few years in our supply room there was a box with about 200 large envelopes inside, and they came in six bright, cheerful colors. I’d used some for Mother’s Day gifts, but it seemed nobody else ever used them. On a particularly dreary, rainy day in Oregon, those cheerful envelopes called out to me. I grabbed a few of each color, took them into my room with no idea how to use them.
Then it hit me – right there, on a back table, was a shape center all ready to go. That table was calling out for these cheerful envelopes! I placed a few colored envelopes on the table, left only paper die cut shapes with the same matching envelope colors on the table, and there was the shape and color center for the day! Not only did kids match up the colors, I modeled putting the paper die cut shapes inside the envelopes. Shapes, colors AND muscle strengthening for writing while placing the shapes inside the envelopes!
Here’s another hint for center setup with the die cut paper shapes: Hide the shapes around your classroom, and as kids are arriving ask each student to find a colored shape. For instance, “Cassie, can you find an orange rectangle?” Not only can you use this as an assessment for colors and shapes, kids can place the shapes on a table, and they’re helping to set up the center work for the day.
What’s At Home To Use In Centers?
Did you know there’s a treasure trove of center supplies right in your own home? Lids from energy drinks, juice lids, twist lids from salad dressing, ketchup, mayo, BBQ sauce, and even milk containers.
Not only can you use the lids for counter manipulatives, color matching, sorting sizes of lids, patterning, you can add a small piece of blue tape to each lid and draw shapes, letters, or numbers on them. Use these for different letter and number recognition centers, matching, sorting, and patterning center work in your classroom. Remember to use blue tape so you can peel it off, and you’ll be able use the lids for another center.
There’s letters and numbers to cut out from any box of cereal or mac & cheese. There’s letters on labels from any can of soup, green beans or corn. Use these letters and numbers for recognition, matching uppercase and lowercase letters, practice with spelling names, placing numbers 1-10 and backwards from 10-1.
How about using plastic tumblers (cylinders) from home and wood blocks (cubes) from your classroom block center for a 3-D shape center. So easy, and early learners can totally pick up on these advanced shapes. Another idea – use an empty egg carton, and kids count twist tops from applesauce pouches as they put them in each space.
Shoes and Socks!
Remember the shoes and socks I mentioned earlier? Well, here’s the story: We were learning about the nursery rhyme There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, so I brought in 16 pairs of shoes and socks from my home! We used these in centers for patterning, counting, sorting colors, sorting sizes, and measuring “how many shoes are you long?” learning. Those centers were So. Much. Fun!
Fun Centers In Your Classroom
Even though cute, bright, cheerful manipulatives are out there to purchase, there’s no need to spend your classroom funds for these. I’m betting your students, and you as their teacher, will actually have more fun together using just “stuff” from around your school or home. Your students won’t learn any better or more quickly, or be less engaged, using unexpected items in unexpected ways in your classroom centers!
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