The Value of Virtual Learning: Focusing on Meaningful Play

by Ann Carlyle, Math Solutions Author
September 22nd, 2020

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Fifteen Ideas for Encouraging Play at Home in Today’s Virtual Learning Environment

Welcome to the first of several “idea-generating” articles created to support and ensure successful learning in an environment where school is partially or fully virtual. We know how challenging it can be to engage little ones in a virtual school environment, and yet how critical it is, now more than ever, to have self-directed student learning.

In this post, Math Solutions’ author Ann Carlyle focuses on how we can make today’s circumstances an opportunity to encourage and emphasize meaningful play at home. She shares fifteen at-home projects inspired by her book, Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math (co-author Brenda Mercado).

I received a question the other day from a parent who was struggling to keep a young child interested in learning math outside of school now that they are stuck at home. She said that she did not want to keep on doing those “awful worksheets” that were so readily available at the grocery store. Her child balked at worksheets. He wanted to play!

In both cases, parents and teachers were asking for ideas in light of today’s virtual learning environments, specifically, “What ideas will hold young children’s interest, utilize items readily available for children at home, allow for children to make their own decisions, and provide enjoyable, creative, and spontaneous learning opportunities?” Welcome to meaningful play.

There are times when it may be appropriate to show children how to do something such as using scissors or a hand drill.  For other kinds of learning, arrange the environment in such a way that children are in charge of it. Listen and respond when they ask for details, information, or help. Follow their leads and build on their ideas. This can be a challenge; however, it’s important to remember that children are powerful constructors of their own learning.

Coincidentally, around the same time I also received a note of appreciation from a teacher who has been using the ideas from my book, Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math (with co-author Brenda Mercado), telling me how much fun she is finally having in supporting parents and children with math learning at home through play.

I’ve gone back to Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math to compile and expand upon a list of meaningful play options. I first share a video showing children engaged in meaningful math-related play in a classroom. Think about how this play can transpire just as meaningfully at home, and what guidance parents might need. As part of this guidance, I’ve listed things to collect and make around the house, followed by fifteen project ideas. At the end of the list I’ve included more inspiration via one of my favorite YouTube videos that went viral (almost one million views!), highlighting one child’s powerful math-infused project. If you find all this helpful, I encourage you to discover more ideas in Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math.

Watch the Video: Dramatic Play in the Hospital

To help children learn about how to be healthy and take good care of themselves, a classroom space is transformed into a hospital with props provided for dramatic play. Watch the video clip in its entirety.

  • How does such play support the development of mathematical ideas?
  • What questions are asked?
  • What might be needed to support this type of play at home?

Household Items to Collect

keysmargarine tubscorkspebbles
tube (penne) pastabroken necklaces/beadsplastic picnic containersclothespins
strainerschopstickstweezerskitchen tongs
spongesziplock bagsmarblesplaying cards
smooth stonesfeathersstacking cupsdry navy beans
leavessticksseed podscoins
jar lidsplastic containerstooth paste lids
funnelspitchersyogurt containerspaper egg cartons
foam egg cartonstoilet paper rollspaper towel rollsbuttons
fabric scrapsspoolslarge eye (blunt) needleswashers and screws
dry lima beansfood coloringliquid detergentpaper clips
dry black beansdry mung beansthreadyarn
checkersgame piecesshellsunshelled nuts
bread tagsnuts and boltsdry kidney beansdry garbanzo beans
boxes (all sizes)strawstoothpickscraft  sticks
bag of sandsaltsmall toyspotting soil

Containers to Collect

muffin tinsegg cartonssilverware drawer insertspaper plates
baby food jarscandy boxesplastic dinner trayscracker trays
measuring cupsmeasuring spoonsice cube traysflat trays
baby bathtubbucketsdish tubstall plastic bottles
paper sackspicnic waresocks

Things to Make

regular playdoughherb playdoughKool-Aid playdoughbubble mix
ooblickoil and water bottlesdyed pasta beadsslime

Questions to Promote Math-Related Meaningful Play

As children play, both teachers and parents should consider the value of asking questions—and not only questions, but open questions. When you ask an open question, you are encouraging children to respond with their own ideas. On the other hand, if you ask a closed question, you are asking for an answer that you already know. This seems artificial. I want to ask questions so I can find out what children are thinking. Following are examples of some of these types of questions. I’ve also included examples, as appropriate, within each of the fifteen play-infused projects.

Key Questions

  • What do you think we can make with these things?
  • Which ones go together? Why?
  • How can you make a picture with these?

Fifteen Ideas for Math-Related Meaningful Play

1. Stringing beads:  Help children create beads by dying penne pasta. Put the uncooked pasta in a baggie, add a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol and several drops of food coloring, and shake. Pour the pasta out onto newspaper to dry. (Drying takes only a few minutes.) Make several batches of different colors of “beads.” Try other pasta types to make different shapes as well. Then string together the beads using a shoelace or yarn.  Ask questions like:

  • “Which colors do you want to use in your necklace?” 
  • “How many beads do you have in your necklace? Let’s count.”
  • “How can we make a longer necklace with these shapes?”

2. Sorting items made of metal: Collect and sort small metal items into trays. Use nuts, bolts, nails, screws, paper clips and safety pins. Use tweezers or magnets as sorting tools. Ask questions like:

  • Which ones go together? Why or why not?”
  • “Which ones have holes?”
  • “How many things can the magnet pick up?”

3. Sorting items in nature: Go on a nature walk. Collect and sort items found in nature (pebbles, feathers, leaves, twigs, an insect wing) into trays. Ask, “Which items go together? Why or why not?”

4. Creating a collage: Make a collage (a picture using assorted items such as string, beans, dried split peas, sand, and twigs) by arranging items onto a plate. If you want to save the collage, use white glue. Ask questions like: “How can we make a picture of our family using these things?” What else can we add to show what we are doing in the picture?

5. Investigating a sandbox: If you don’t have a sandbox, distributing garden soil in a contained area works well too. Like during bath time, have children explore the capacity of a variety of plastic containers, only this time through the use of sand or soil instead of water. Ask, “Which containers hold more?  Which ones hold less? How do you know?”

6. Investigating during bath time: Include a variety of containers for children to play with in the bathtub. Have them explore capacity by filling and emptying the containers, using scoops to fill the containers, and/or using funnels to fill containers. Ask, “Which containers hold more?  Which ones hold less? How do you know?”

7. Making playdough: Research a playdough recipe online. A favorite of mine is the use of ginger and cinnamon for “herb dough.” Don’t forget about “slime” recipes! Once a batch is created, allow children free play with it. Ask questions like,

  • “What does it feel like?”
  • “Can you pour it into your hand?”
  • “What shapes can you make with the dough?”
  • “Can you roll it out so it is a thin pancake shape?”
  • “How many holes can you poke in your dough?”

8. Creating a seed mosaic: Using a plate as the “canvas,” arrange different sizes and colors of seeds to create a mosaic. For example, task children with arranging each kind of seed in growing concentric circles (this can be beautiful to behold!). Ask questions like: “Which color has the most seeds? What do you think will happen if we shake or tilt the plate?”

9. Designing a fairy garden: Place potting soil in a large bin and mix with seeds that will eventually sprout and grow. Use craft sticks to mark the growth of the seedlings. Check in on the project: “How many days have our seeds been growing?” 

10. Burying “treasures”: Collect “treasures” and bury them in a sandbox; use strainers and/or slotted spoons to “dig” them up. Ask questions like:

  • “How deep do you think we will have to dig to find our treasures?”
  • “How many did you find?”
  • “Which things are easier to find?”

11. Creating artwork: Cut straws into various lengths and use them to make a picture. Or use craft sticks and toothpicks to make a picture, letters, or shapes. Ask questions like:

  • “How many sticks did we use?”
  • “How could we make a circle with these things?”

12. Making a robot: Using items such as nuts, bolts, paper clips, and washers, design a robot that can move its arms and legs. Ask questions like:

  • “How do these things go together?”
  • “Which nuts go with these bolts?”
  • “Can you make it spin?”

13. Writing in sand: Write letters and numbers in a sand tray. (Or use salt in the tray.) Ask, “Which letters have only straight lines? Which have curves? Which ones have both curves and straights?”

14. Creating bubble wands: Use kitchen tools to make bubble wands. Try slotted spoons, a potato masher, cookie cutters, and so on. Have children dip the “wands” into a bubble solution and blow bubbles. You can find recipes for all kinds of bubble solutions online. Ask questions like:

  • “What shape bubbles can you make with these tools?”
  • “How can you make the biggest bubble?”

15. Making maracas: Fill different sizes and shapes of containers with beans or pebbles. Use these as rhythm instruments and shake out patterns. Say, “Try this pattern:  shake, shake, rest, shake, shake, rest. How about this one: shake, rest, shake, shake, shake, rest, shake, rest, shake, shake, shake, rest … Now you try one for me to copy.”

16. Building a museum: Create a “museum” and display constructions from the above projects and others. Do a gallery walk, prompting students to “show off” their projects and talk about them.

Remember, “Children are naturally curious and interested in learning when they are provided with a supportive physical and social environment. It is not sufficient to expose children to interesting materials by showing and telling. To engage in making meaning, children need opportunities to show what they know about mathematics and numbers through their play, language, drawings and constructions.”

Watch the Video: Caine’s Arcade 

I’ll conclude with a link to one of my favorite YouTube videos, “Caine’s Arcade”—a real account of a child whose play became a sensational hit. As you watch this video, think about the math involved and how you might encourage meaningful play at home:

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