Boxes and Marbles


From the Marina Pics Photostream on Flickr

Sometimes the best teaching, learning and play happens at unexpected moments, in unplanned ways. I’ve developed the habit of collecting interesting odds and ends (or, as my husband refers to it, junk!) that I think might be interesting for my students to use or play with. Last year I began to collect all sorts of small boxes with tops. Jewelry boxes. Chocolate boxes. Party favor boxes. Any kind of smallish box. One day during Explore Time I put these boxes out with very little introduction. “I’ve been collecting all of these little boxes. Some are smaller, some are bigger. Some are long. Some are tall. I wonder what you could do with these boxes.”

I thought, perhaps, that the kids might sort them, stack them, line them up from largest to smallest, switch around the tops to see if they would fit on other boxes–all worthwhile and independent tasks. And for a few days this is exactly what they did. I walked around and asked some questions–“How do you build a strong stack of boxes so they don’t fall over?” “How did you know which box was ‘bigger’ when you lined them up–the long skinny one, or the shorter deep one?” We talked in groups, we debriefed as a group, more children became interested in the boxes.

And then, a couple of days into the box play, one girl decided to bring over a large jar of marbles to the box play area (the kind of marbles with flat bottoms that you can buy in bulk at craft stores like Michael’s) and started to pretend that she was a queen filling her boxes with jewels and passing out these “presents” to her faithful followers (other children she had roped into this game!). I listened as the children played.

“I love presents. Please, Queen, fill this big box with jewels.”

“Oooh! Look how many jewels fit in that box!”

“I am an evil witch. So I only get one very small box full of bad jewels.”

“Ha! Only five jewels in that bad witch box.”

I watched. I listened some more. “Ah ha!” I thought to myself. “This is exactly that magical moment I’ve been waiting for.” I could have stopped here. The children’s independent play was mathematical and imaginative. However, this was the perfect opportunity to go deeper. During our debrief session, I helped the group of kids playing with boxes and marbles explain to the other children what and how they were playing. I asked questions like:

“How did you know which present box would fit the most jewels?”

“Are there some boxes that are the same size? How could you tell if they were really the same?”

“Which jewel boxes were good for giving to the evil witch?”

In our next Explore Time sessions (the “replay” sessions) I helped the children to explore volume and capacity with the marbles and boxes, and think about how we could estimate, count, measure and record our results.  This exploration lasted many days and resulted in some great play and child-made charts detailing which boxes were “present boxes” and which were “witch” boxes, listing the marble capacity of each box.

I started this post by writing about what a happy surprise this investigation was. Those “junk boxes” I collected provided a lot more mathematical investigation that I ever imagined. But it’s not all “luck.” There are some important elements we can put into place in our classroom to encourage this kind of play. These are some I’ve come up with. What would you add or change?

Creating a Culture of Mathematical Play:

  • Collect interesting materials that you think may spur mathematical play. Include traditional math manipulatives, but also go beyond them. Introduce materials that seem to beg certain investigations (collections to be counted, different size vases to be filled with water) Change the materials available on a regular basis.
  • Give it time. In order for deep play and learning to occur, kids need time to engage however they want with the materials before they get into deeper investigations.
  • Ask questions. Say, “Let’s try that out.”
  • When one or two kids start a particularly “mathy” investigation, help them to get others involved. “Laura is thinking about how to make a poster for the witch boxes. What should she put on the poster? Maybe you all want to work together on this project. Let’s get you some chart paper and markers.”

Note: In my last two posts, Explore and Play-Debrief-Replay, I wrote about the importance of mathematical play throughout the primary grades (and beyond!) and how we, as teachers, can help focus and deepen children’s play.

One thought on “Boxes and Marbles

  1. I teach grade 6 math. If more of my students had had a myriad of mathematical experiences like the ones you describe, my students would be more inclined to view math as enjoyable, doable, and solvable!

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