Cuisenaire rods are one example of tools used by Calhoun teachers to help bring math to life for young learners. Each rod has a different color and length, turning abstract values into something that children can see and feel. Because of the tool’s effectiveness in helping students construct understanding, even college professors have been known to use Cuisenaire rods to illustrate advanced mathematical concepts. Here are a few examples of Cuisenaire rod activities from our early childhood classrooms.
Children first build a staircase with five rods, each representing a value from one to five. Next, the teacher challenges them to continue their staircase up to ten steps, while only using rods one through five and without placing two of the same rods next to each other within a single step. The teacher might also ask students to construct each sequential step using one more rod than they used on the previous step (two numbers that come together to make six, three numbers that come together to make seven, etc.). Through this activity children practice addition while exploring the different ways numbers can be composed and decomposed.
Mystery Train (first grade)
The teacher provides a series of clues about a “train” (a horizontal line of Cuisenaire rods placed end to end) and challenges students to determine the value of the mystery train. A teacher might say, “One of my rods is two more than the other rod,” and children then build their own trains that fit the description. Through this activity, children practice addition and discover the various ways to make a number. It also promotes the idea that there can be multiple answers to a given problem. Students develop flexibility as problem-solvers through the process of continuously searching for viable solutions, looking for evidence and checking their work.
How Long, How Many? (second grade)
In this game, students make four-sided, solid shapes with Cuisenaire rods and place them on a 10-by-10 grid until no more space is available. To play, children roll a die to determine which rods to take—the first roll determines what size rod, and the second roll determines how many of those rods. The activity can serve as an early introduction to multiplication as students observe the different ways to form rectangles. As they calculate the area of shapes, students are exploring the big ideas of equivalency and part/whole relationships. They also practice addition, subtraction and strategic thinking by keeping track of how many spaces are covered and how many remain on the board.