Sunday, January 02, 2011

Memories Of Play

I'm sure there are toys being manufactured today that are every bit as fun and educational as the ones I played with as a boy. And I'm sure there are toys I played with as a boy that were just as crappy as most of the toys I see in the toy aisles today. The way I know the difference is that the toys I remember playing with were the good ones. I figure if something about those toys stuck with me all these years, I must have learned something important from playing with them.

That's the theory at least.

I've written before about how my younger brother and I took pretty good care of our toys, many of them surviving in mom's attic until they've found their current destiny at Woodland Park. These may or may not be the right things for other teachers to break out in a room full of preschoolers, but for me, these are toys with which I already know how to play: I have genuine wisdom, for once, to pass on to the kids. 

Toys like my small, but pristine Matchbox car collection . . .

. . . or this cool fighter jet coin bank . . .

. . . or Lite Brite . . .

My experience with toys like these, I believe, enhances the play in our classroom. That's why I'm always on the lookout for toys with history.

Recently, we've been playing with a game called Rebound at Woodland Park, the original of which was made from plastic. Several years ago I came across these wooden "retro" reproductions that may be even better than the one we used to own.

It's a shuffle board style game employing pucks with steel marbles in the center. (To be clear, there are two of them side-by-side in this picture. That's just the way Peter rolls!)  The idea is to release the puck on the right side of the track with enough force that it bounces off first one, then the other of the two thick rubber bands stretched on pegs at the opposite end. From there the puck continues down the left side of the track where, if you have the touch, will score you some points in one of the 4 scoring zones. If you throw it too hard the puck just drops off into a "well" at the end of the track, scoring zero points, although this has, so far, become the goal for most of the kids.

Many of my memories of playing with Rebound involve experimenting rather than playing the game the proper way and keeping score. I would spend hours sending puck after puck around the bend, adjusting the rubber bands, testing theories, lining up other pucks as targets, blasting through walls of pucks, trying out spins and other techniques that I thought might help in my quest to master the physics of the thing. It's incredibly gratifying to be there as present day children learn the same lessons.

Another toy from my childhood that we've been using lately is a game called Barrel of Monkeys which you can still buy new quite reasonably.

For the uninitiated, the idea is to start with one monkey, then use it to hook another, then another, and so on, the person with the longest chain being the winner.  Now this one I do recall almost always playing as the game rules suggest, but I must have been older than preschool aged because I've found that the kids struggle with the deft touch required to form chains longer than 3 or 4 monkeys. That's why I built "monkey bars" from the old standby 1/2-inch PVC pipe from which to hang their chains.

I thought of it as a sort of extension of the seasonal tree decorating in which we'd been engaged during the past month. Not bad, but it's clear we'll need more monkeys if we do this in the future.

But now to the real point of this post. A couple years ago I found this old "math" toy on our shelves.

It's pretty cool. It comes with a bunch of 10 gram weights that allow kids to experiment with the relationships between numbers along a kind of number line printed on a scale. If you hang one weight on the number "8" on one side, for instance, you can balance it by hanging another weight on the "8" on the other side of the scale, but you can also balance it by hanging weights on the "3" and the "5", or hanging four weights on the "2", or eight weights on the "1", and so on.

It's a clever, versatile toy, and I love how the kids play with it, experimenting, testing, calculating, predicting. And while we do figure out ways to take turns in class, it's the kind of thing with which I'd like the kids to have the luxury of open-ended horsing around without the pressure of someone waiting behind them for a turn.

I don't even know what to call this thing, but I'd sure like to find a couple more. Has anyone ever seen one like it, and if so, where? What's it called? Are they still around? Do I need to build my own? (The idea of making all those 10-gram weights intimidates me a little.)

I think this is just the kind of toy that could create memories of play to pass on for generations. Thanks for the help!

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Kate said...

We use this math balance with our RightStart math (homeschooling) curriculum! We *love* it so much. You can buy them from their website, (Check the manipulative section of the online store.) You can also find them on Amazon if you search for "math balance."

If you go to the RightStart site, you should take a look at their abacus. Probably not what you need in a PreK classroom, but they are brilliant in the way they have colored the beads by 5s. (6 is easily visualized as 5+1, 8 is 5+3, etc.)

Have fun!

Shelly said...

Have you ever been to Math n Stuff? It is on Roosevelt in the Maple Leaf area. I bet they carry something like this!

Michaele Sommerville said...

Yep! It's a math balance:

Go here:

to find a make-it-yourself version (paperclips, cups)



Anonymous said...

We have it, too! From RightStart math. Also, try their geoboards with rubber bands. Hours of creative play and fun!

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks for the tips everyone! I just assumed the math balance was some sort of vintage item because I found it, dusty, on the back of a shelf. I'm glad they still make it!