You need a play table in your math classroom!

NEW UPDATE (8.19.17) = SCROLL to the bottom of this post for 10 play table posters.

2.5 years ago Christopher Danielson (@Trianglemancsd) was in negotiations with the Minnesota State Fair people to start something he wanted to call ‘Math On-a-Stick’.  I was brought into this magic early on as I was the President-Elect of our states NCTM affiliate (MCTM).  Lucky, lucky me.  That August I experienced many pretty magical moments with kids and adults that convinced me I needed to make a change in my High School Mathematics Classroom.  I think every state needs their own version of Math On-a-stick (but that is another post) though this would take a lot of organization and you may not have easy access to do so.  What EVERY classroom teacher can do though is start their own Mini-Math On-a-Stick in their own classrooms.  I am asking you to consider adding a ‘play table’ to your classroom this fall. Let me tell you why.

First, let me show you a quick video I made from our first year at the Minnesota State Fair of the Math On-a-stick booth on a rainy afternoon so you can get a taste of it for yourself.  MN Math On-a-stick 2015

During our first year in 2015, Christopher wrote this really lovely blog post titled ‘Let the Children Play’.  After days and days of observing children in the space the great take away was that if we let students play without inserting our adult directions they will in fact make sense out of what they have in front of them.  When we the adults instructed kids to ‘make patterns’ or ‘use color’ in some way, the learning/play of children often stopped.  If play continued what children did was fill a space with the adult’s ideas, not theirs.  Christopher implored us adults to simply let students play and watch what happens.  We could ask, ‘tell me about what you made’ or other questions like this, but the goal was to let the children explore their ideas.  The results were simply magical.

Fast forward one year to the 2nd year of Math On-a-Stick 2016 which happens for 12 days at the end of August through Labor Day at the Minnesota State Fair.  My school begins during this time, but I was out volunteering in the evenings and on weekends.  Last fall, I had been given my own classroom so I decided to set up what I called a ‘Play Table’ by the door to my classroom and see what happens.  Math On-a-stick is geared towards 4-10 year old children, but I had observed teens and adults become obsessed with our play tables so I knew that there was something there for my high school math classroom.  As I volunteered that year I handed Christopher some cash and asked him to make me some items for my play table. (I know, I know.  I am lucky to live near the amazing Christopher and ask him to make me something – lucky for you he has a store) Here is what happened in my classroom and why I think you should make one too.

First, here is what my ‘play table’ looked like.  It was right by the entrance to my classroom. (right next to the backwards bike).  On most days in my classroom there are 2-6 students here during the entire passing time.  As I close the door I have to encourage them to take seats.


Here is one photo of WHY you should do this.  this is what my classroom looks like by the play table regularly.  Students from every skill level surround the table.playing at table

Seriously, don’t ever tell me HS students don’t like manipulatives or will not stay engaged with manipulatives.  I have tons of photos of evidence to the contrary.  What have I done for 25 years denying them daily access to this?   It is a goal in many schools to create a life-long love of reading in all students – not just to have students read so we can say they read.  I am not sure we’ve had the same goal in math in our schools.  How would our schools & math classrooms change if our goal was to create lifelong lovers of math and not to just make them proficient in math?  This year I set out to create a joy for doing math.  I did this in lots of ways (one I shared HERE – math puzzles in the hallway), the play table was just one way.  I challenge you to think of ways to encourage a life-long love of doing mathematics in your students.

Some guidelines I had in setting up my table:

  • The table would be used solely as a play table.  I do not put handouts on the table or use it for other uses.
  • I would put out only 1 type of ‘play item’ at a time.  Having lots to select from resulted in less play.
  • I would ‘mess up’ the play of my students at least once a day if not more frequently.  If a students arrive to see something made, they do admire it, but they often will not play themselves.
  • I would allow students to play there during any downtime in class.  Students played there almost always between classes, before/after school, and occasionally other times.
  • I will watchIMG_4112, listen and learn.

A lot of people asked me what I put on the table.  I had a whole bin of options.  Here is what I used:

  1. TURTLES.  More specifically wooden tiling turtles.  These cute little things were the hit of Math On-a-stick year 1.  Everyone wanted to buy them and at the time you could not, but now you can.  You can buy turtles directly from Christopher at his ‘Talking math with your kids’ store.  IMG_3482IMG_4108
  2. SPIRALING PENTAGONS. These might be my favorite of the year.  They always get attention from students.  I think I probably had these out the most days during this school year.  Again, you can buy these from Christopher’s store.pentagoIMG_3783
  3. TRI-COLORED PENTAGONS.  I got these from Christopher too.  They are not available at his store yet, but I bet you could talk him into making you some if you ask nicely.  I LOVED these.  A third color allowed students to explore symmetry differently than other things I had put at the table during the year.  IMG_4109
  4. MAGFORMERS MAGNETS.  These are the only toy I keep at my house for when kids of any age visit.  I dare you not to keep your hands off of these.  These are the only toy that I had a smidge of behavior management around – as it was tough to tear students away.  I also felt like I lost some of these due to theft – the only toy all year for a few pieces to disappear.  These are expensive, but I highly encourage you buying a set of these each year and building up your own supplies.  Ive been able to get these fairly inexpensively through some online sales.  IMG_4113
  5. INTERLOCKING HEXAGONS.  Around 2 years ago I was paying attention on twitter as Justin Aion (he has since tweeted tons of photos of amazing things he has made)  exclaimed how great these Target $1 toys were.  I quickly went out and scoured many Target $1 bins near me (I live in MN – home of Target – we have one on every other corner).  I bought a ton.  A nice thing about these is that students can go 3-dimensional with these.  One annoying thing about these is they are tough to mess up quickly.  If you live local and are wanting to start your own table this fall, I am happy to donate some of these to the first person that asks.IMG_4111These 2 photos below are from Justin’s twitter account.  WOW, does he have a lot of hexagons.
  6. WOODEN TILES from Christopher.  I have borrowed some tiles from Christopher from time to time.  These ones were loved by my students and provided a challenge to try and tessellate them.  IMG_4073IMG_4106

I learned a lot this year as I watched.  Things I would not have learned had I not done this.  Here are just a few things I learned:

  1. There are students that need this table.  There are students who used this table nearly every day.  Many of my frequent flyers I rarely heard from in class, but I talked to regularly about what they were making.  Some of these students were introverts, and only talked to me when they could do so without making eye-contact and making something at the table.
  2. High School students like to play.  They like to play as much as elementary students.  Unfortunately, we usually take this away from their math experience.  A play table is a simple way to bring this back on a daily basis.
  3. After school my table is often used by friends of students who are taking retests in my room.  It has been great to have something to offer students I don’t know to do as they wait.  They do this more often than go on their phones.  Crazy, right?  Kids of all ages like to play.
  4. My adult colleagues sit here when they stop by to talk.  One day one of my math co-workers made this and asked “I bet we could solve this with a system of equations”.

    My student teacher and I were on the way out of the classroom with our coats on and stopped and played math.  This play resulted in an amazing lesson I taught using these tiles a few weeks later.  I will blog about this lesson soon.  Had I not had my tiles out, I never would have come up with this lesson.  Teachers like exploring with math just like our students.  We need to do more of this too.  We need to play with no agenda and see where it goes.

  5. Which students play with the play table is a type of formative assessment that tells you a lot about your students you can not learn other ways.  I have noticed brilliance in students that was hidden under fear of being wrong and/or lack of quick fact fluency.  I noticed students working together I had no idea ever talked to one another.
  6. fidget tableIf you start a play table others will follow you.  I’ve had many, many math teachers (mostly in MN) follow my lead.  Here is a tweet from earlier this week from another HS teacher in suburban Minneapolis.  I LOVE that he called it a ‘FIDGET TABLE‘.  I may adopt this name for my table next year.  I was inspired by Christopher and others were inspired by me.  I ask that you start your own and inspire those around you.  If you start a table in your classroom, you will find things like this on your table daily.
  7. My 2 favorite play-table objects were the spiraling pentagons and tri-color pentagons from Christopher Danielson.  I think I like these because students have zero prior experience with these – they’ve probably spent very little time exploring properties of pentagons.  I highly recommend getting one of these for your play table.

Next Steps for Sara VDW and a few closing thoughts.

  • I will do this again in my classroom (assuming I have one next year-my school lacks enough classrooms).  I want to explore rearranging my space to make 360 degree access to my table.  In my ideal world, I would have a table I could adjust the height to.  Many students use this daily while standing.  Perhaps I could track down a high table with stools.  (anyone want to donate this to me?).
  • I plan to ask Christopher (I’ll pay $) to make me 2-3 new things for my table.  I am looking at other things at his store like the gallon of pentagons or curvy truchet tiles.    I also have loved the things he does not sell yet, but he tweets photos of at @Trianglemancsd  I am really loving all the mirror tweets lately and want to explore getting whatever mirror he is using.
  • I want to switch out the toy once a week.   I found mixing it up worked well with engagement.  I will continue to put out only one toy at once.  More than this results is little play.
  • kid magnetsIf you don’t have a table in your room, do what my good friend Ali Rubin does.  She simply has some turtles on the corner of her desk.  She calls them a kid magnet.  Students are always stopping at her desk to talk and play.  Don’t let your lack of a table stop you from doing something.
  • I want to take more photos of what students create and print them out and post them around my play table next year.  I want to explore making this interactive and placing a white board underneath with directions like “What math question could you ask about what was created?”  Perhaps this would structure this too much and take away the joy.  The important things for me is to try things and watch and listen with the goal of creating experiences where students develop a lifelong love of doing mathematics.
  • I want to take more time personally to stop and play.  I want to schedule meetings with adults at the table and see what happens.
  • I want to develop another lesson using the tiles connected again to my Advanced Algebra standards I teach.  The one I did this year was amazing (again I will blog soon about this).

Again, to get started, check out Christopher’s Talking Math With your Kids Store.  I make no money from this site.  I simply love everything he does.

math on a stickIf you want to read more about Math On-a-Stick check out posts from Annie Perkins, Lani Horn, Jessica Breuer, Megan Schmidt or check out the Math On-a-stick website.  You should schedule a time to visit Minnesota during our state fair time (August 24-September 4, 2017) and experience Math On-a-stick for yourself.  Last year, amazing #MTBoS people like Annie Fetter, Max Ray and Lani Horn joined us.  Will you be there this year?  If you come, let me know.  I am happy to show off my city to you.

As always I love hearing from you.  How do you help your students develop a lifelong love of doing mathematics?  Share your ideas in the comments below or tweet me @saravdwerf or email me at saravdw@gmail.com.  Until next time.


More Resources!  The amazing Sarah Carter & her ‘Math Equals Love’ blog has tons of puzzles you can print and use at a play table too.  Check out her resources in THIS BLOG and THIS BLOG and This BLOG and This BLOG and This BLOG and This BLOG and finally this one.

UPDATE 8.19.17:  I wanted a sign for my 2017-18 play table, but did not want it to be ‘instructions’ so I made a bunch of ‘Play’ quotes on 8.5×11″ paper.  Here is the Word-Doc:  play posters  There are 10 quotes with pictures of tiles I use in my classroom in the background.  I would love more ‘play’ quotes from women or from cultures of my students (east African, latino, native/indigenous., African american…)  Send them my way if you have any.  Here are 8 of the play quotes….Click above to download them all.

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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