Architecting Numbers – at the Lower Grades

Here’s a glimpse of the wonderful ways you can use Cuisenaire Rods to enhance comprehension of number concepts while fostering creativity.

There is just no end to what you can do with the rods across the grade levels (up to the age kids are no longer enthralled by colorful miniblocks). Sorting, counting, crunching all the operations, geometry, odds and evens conception, patterning, money reinforcement. Today Tennyson rehearsed (precise) counting past 35, while exercising visuospatial skills and creativity. After exploring linear designs with the rods when he first got them (say, with different rods lined up like a train), he started going multidimensional.  So we “built the number 36” in all directions (horizontally, vertically and up).

Note: If you’re viewing from your phone, the photos may reformat.

1. After establishing that a yellow stick equals five ones (the white center cube being a unit of one as you can see in the first photo), we first practiced counting by 5s.  Rather than take the time to write out 5, 10, 15, 20 to help him keep track of the sequence, I grabbed some clothespins already marked so (from other math activities) right off the table. P1030493

2. Counting the cube in the center, we get 21.

3.  Add a cube to each yellow, for a picture of 21 + 4 = 25


4. My little student saw the green rod = 3 ones.  So he laid it down, counting 28.  Add two white cubes to the green, and you get 30 (see next photo).


5. He inserted another green rod running north and south between the top two cubes (the next photo below).  The last green rod that roofs the structure gives us 36 (last large photo). So today’s math was a multisensory play with numbers (which he saw, touched, talked through) that normally might extend beyond a kindergartener’s understanding.  Yes, plenty of kinders can

P1030500count well beyond 40, but a firm concrete grasp of what things beyond 20 can look can come alive this way. I procured the rods from

The company provides great customer service and some of the best prices online. I made my first purchase after comparing RR with about ten other merchants.  The company beats Amazon’s prices on a lot of products.



P1030091 P1020666

On another day, Tennyson arranged the rods systematically.  We discussed symmetry and examined number sequence.  It all started from free play and experimentation with size and color (as with the last photo from a different day). Kids will also understand odd vs. even with the help of the red that represents two units (that is, fits two white cubes).


Last week, I was trying to fit in a few minutes of the math we hadn’t gotten to that day.  I normally don’t let lessons run into the evening, wanting Tennyson to rest his mind with the rhythm of the closing day.  “Pay attention.  Show me two other groups you can make from these 5 cubes.”  He was fidgety, half-occupied with some giant legos he found more interesting that moment than the cuisenaire rods.  Mildly frustrated but not wanting to force it, I freed him to play.  A short while later, he called me to see what he had built.

Oh, my.

It was a section of a neighborhood.  Lego steps rose against a wall.  In front of them stood two bipolar arrows.  Much like the street signs that confused the hec out of me when I moved to CA, where the same street has one name if you turn left and becomes another when you turn right. Tennyson explained this way to the sunflower fields, that way to the houses.  I told him you call that residential.  A black sedan faced the arrows, waiting for a gate bar to lift.

I had pushed him, tried to get him thinking.  Turns out, he had been.  Plenty.  I knew of the power of play and that yes, to kids that is work.  But to see it played out was a lesson for the teacher.  The distraction in his eyes at the math table had been the possibilities he was entertaining for the building blocks.  He ended up designing, arranging, organizing a piece of a town, imagining someone behind the wheel in the car.  We impose curriculum on young kids when, given the chance, they can suppose, experiment, piece life apart and back together.

This post calls for pictures, but I was too tired to make another trip downstairs for the camera.  The next morning, I was bummed to learn Daddy had taken it for his Samba class.  Of course my son’s model suburban clearing was soon to be swept away in the ever-busy playroom, and with it, my chance to capture a xerox for the blog and family keepsake.  My requests for a reconstruction of the car-signs scene seemed to fall on deaf ears.  When I wondered why our boy wouldn’t rebuild it for me, Dad joked, “Pay him.”

We have shied from bribing – and its similitude, rewarding – in our parenting.

Desperate, I made my pitch.  “Tennyson, Mommy will give you TWENTY-FIVE cents if you recreate the signs and the gate in front of the car for her.”  Whether his was an otherworldly detachment from Mammon, an immature grasp of the value of twenty-five whole cents, or a dismissal of Mom’s stingy bargaining, it was no dice.  He had moved on to his next undertaking, one of his beloved assembly projects, a lego duplo ATM.

Had the quaint display been nothing more than the object of a mother’s pride?  Or bona fide architectural craftsmanship?  Without the photos, it remains to be seen but the point is the value I saw in the cogs and spokes that turned my boy’s head during “play”.  And I could do worse than a child who manufactures ATMs.