When Sara Van Der Werf first wrote about her play table a couple years ago, I loved the idea, but at the same time I was hesitant to do this in my own classroom. If you haven’t heard of the idea of a play table before, I recommend you go read Sara’s post that I’ve linked above. In short, Sara has a table in her classroom where she keeps a mathy toy out for students to play with, but her post includes a lot more specifics of how she has this set up.
There were a couple reasons I was hesitant.
1) Time. Sara mentioned that the main times when students play with the things on the table are during downtime in class, between classes, and before/after school. We don’t have super long passing times, so I didn’t envision students having time to play between classes. Because I teach all middle schoolers whose main way of getting to school is the bus, I couldn’t really picture any students playing after school and with breakfast served at school in the morning, I wasn’t sure if mornings would be an option for them either. I plan things for my students to be doing from the time they walk into my room to the time the bell rings. I wasn’t sure how this would work into that and couldn’t picture what it would look like with middle schoolers to have them play with this during downtime in class. This sort of ties into my next hesitation.
2) Behavior. With middle schoolers, I wasn’t sure how having a play table would go behavior-wise. If some students finished their work and started playing during class, would this be a distraction for other? (Would it be any more of a distraction than some of the other stuff that happens in class?) Would the play table prevent students from getting to work right away at the start of class with whatever task I had on the board for them? These unknowns were part of the reason it took me a while to set this up in my classroom.
3) Space. The other reason I didn’t start a play table immediately after reading Sara’s post was space. I didn’t have a table for this, and I didn’t know where in my room I would put it.
Fast-forward a year. I now have bigger class sizes than ever before. I had to get more student desks over the summer to have enough seats for everyone. Bigger class sizes also means more potential behavior issues, but I added a play table to my classroom this year.
Another teacher had an extra table at the beginning of the year, and I snagged it up. At the time, I was still on the fence about adding a play table. Around that time, was Math on a Stick -a math playground at Minnesota’s State Fair headed up by the amazing Christopher Danielson. I volunteered at Math on a Stick three different times right before school started. You can read about my experience this summer here. Watching the awesomeness at Math on a Stick convinced me that I needed a small piece of this in my classroom.
Here are a couple things I’ve noticed/learned so far with the play table.
- One good thing about waiting a year to start my own play table was it gave me time to build up a collection of mathy toys. After seeing Sara’s, I started picking up different things when I saw them on sale on Amazon, at garage sales, or at Goodwill. It’s nice now that I have several, that I’m not in a panic to try to find something new for my students when I’m ready to switch up the toy.
- I’ve followed Sara’s advice and only have one type of “toy” out at a time.
- On average, I’m switching what I put out every two weeks. I’ve noticed that the first week a new toy is out, I have the “regular” students play with it -the ones that always come check it out, regardless of what’s out. The second week, I see students who may not play with this stuff as much at the play table. I also see more creativity the second week.
- Before school and right after lunch are when 95% of the “play” happens, which means only about two classes are using the play table, but I am ok with that.
- I haves some students who come to my room early on Monday just to see the new toy for the week, and I now have a group of students who will come to my room 15+ minutes early after lunch to play.
Here are the things I’ve put out so far this year.
Hexagons: Unfortunately, these hexagons are no longer available at Target. I keep waiting for Target to bring them back. I was fortunate enough to have a friend give me some of theirs. This was the very first thing I put out, and I think it took almost a week before a student *finally* became curious enough to start playing with them. Once one student did, it didn’t take long for several others to start playing too.
As Sara mentioned, one downside to these is that they take more time to break apart. Like Sara suggests, at least once a day I take apart what students have made so that other students can create.
Pattern Blocks: I think I only had these out for a week, and I wish I had kept them out there for two. They’ll show up again later this year.
Brain Flakes: This was one of the toys that got many students hooked on the Play Table. After putting this out, I started seeing a lot more students playing.
Hashtag Blocks: Run! These are currently in my Target’s dollar section for the holidays. They originally had them for back to school, and I checked Target a lot for them during that time. There are also Plus Plus Blocks, which are similar, but a lot more expensive.
One downside to these is that they do take a bit more time to break apart than some of the other things I’ve had out.
Magformers: These have definitely been the favorite so far this year. They are also the most expensive, but worth it. Every once in a while Amazon has them as their Daily Deal. It was a fun day when students realized these stick to the whiteboards!
Mosaic Mysteries and Magic Mosaic: I think the Mosaic Mysteries is a Discovery Toy. I’m not sure what Magic Mosaic is. I’ve picked up one of each of these at thrift stores. At first I wasn’t sure how this would go over because I only have two of the hexagon boards, but I found that students will play with the trapezoid pieces without the board itself.
I am SO glad I decided to add this to my classroom this year. It has become one of the highlights of my day to see what my students create.
It’s fun to hear the math that comes up as students are playing. I often hear students talk about making patterns. When the hashtag blocks were out I heard one student ask another, “Oh, you’re making a giant pineapple?” The student replied, “No, I’m making it to scale with this carrot.” (We haven’t talked about scale at all this year.)
If you are like I was and have seen things about a play table on Twitter or in the MTBoS community, I can’t encourage you enough to start one of your own!
If you have a play table and have other ideas of things I could put out, please share!