Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Happy Accident

We have a set of Cuisenaire Rods that pre-dates my arrival at Woodland Park 16 years ago. I reckon most preschools have a box of them around the place, but for those who are unfamiliar, these "hands-on" manipulatives have been a staple of elementary school mathematics education since the 1950's. These colorful rectangular prisms of varying lengths are designed to allow children to discover basic mathematical concepts.

It's unlikely that I would have ever purchased them myself, because I have no particular mathematics agenda for the kids, but I've been living with them as long as I've been teaching, trotting them out once or month or so, watching children goof around with them, then packing them away. In other words, they have been gently enough used that they will likely still be with me when I finally retire. I've never attempted to coach kids through any of the exercises or drills or games detailed in the instruction manual (indeed, entire books have been written on their use), but those who choose to engage with them generally wind up talking about foundational concepts like "longer" and "shorter," "biggest" and "smallest," and often discover that different colors represent different lengths. Many kids use them like small unit blocks, carefully constructing castles and parking garages. They've been used as currency, treasures, and pretend piano keys. Most kids most days, however, just pause to push them around for a few minutes while on their way elsewhere.

I have mixed feelings about Cuisenaire Rods. On the one hand, they are attractive, well-made items that feel good in one's hand. On the other, they represent for me the vanguard of "educational toys" or the infuriating notion of "play with a purpose," as if other sorts of play are purposeless. I appreciate that they can help some children achieve a better grasp of the elementary math concepts that we've decided we must foist upon children, but I also increasingly find myself rejecting the whole notion of adults self-importantly picking and choosing what children must learn, even if they are these nearly "holy" fundamentals of math which most of us would learn simply by living personally meaningful lives. No, there is a reason I'm a preschool teacher where it is still possible to be a play purist, someone who views play as an intrinsically good thing, like love, something that needs no justification beyond it's existence. That there are a host of collateral benefits that result from play, just as there are with love, is a happy accident.

I often comment that our school runs on garbage, which means that we are forever receiving donations from the recycling bins and attics and garages of people who know me. I walked away from my doctor's appointment last week with a bag full of wine corks, tiny medicine sample bottles, and a collection of small, square, shallow cardboard boxes that are apparently part of the packaging from 4-packs of Trader Joe's brand of pineapple juice. I put them on the table alongside the Cuisenaire Rods and the children quickly discovered that the longest rods fit perfectly, which told me that the interior of these boxes is 10 cm X 10 cm, which ought to make perfect little trays in which to arrange the colorful bits into tidy mosaics. I recognized immediately that this was precisely the sort of thing that Cuisenaire Rod advocates would point to as "play with a purpose." Indeed, while researching this post, I discovered that someone is manufacturing trays just like these boxes as companions to the rods.

I did not coax, cajole or even role model filling these boxes, but I did sit with them, which is usually enough to attract a few children. The three-year-olds tended to pile the blocks into the boxes fairly randomly, but the four and five-year-olds, those that paused to do more than push the blocks around, all discovered the base ten truth of the boxes, paving the bottoms of their trays with rainbows of tidily arranged blocks. It occurred to me that "play with a purpose" advocates would be crowing about the "math learning" that was taking place. Meanwhile I, a play purist, was celebrating the fact that the children who had chosen to play here were simply doing so in a personally meaningful way, discovering what they were developmentally ready to discover, asking and answering their own questions without the imposition of an adult agenda.

I will likely always include our Cuisenaire Rods in our rotation of classroom toys, and for the next few days I'll make them available alongside these boxes, not for any learning purpose, but rather because they seem to have made the rods into something with which the children are more likely to play. And play is a pure good. Anything else is a happy accident.

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