Math Tools for Visual/Tactile Learners
For many students, being able to see and handle concrete objects helps the brain absorb and retain abstract concepts. That's why math manipulatives -- small, usually identical items that students can use to practice counting -- are standard equipment in today's elementary school classrooms. But the design of Cuisenaire Rods makes them much more useful than other types of manipulatives.
- Sturdy wood or plastic rods will last through multiple children
- Helpful for learning number facts and tricky math concepts
- Can be used Pre-K through 4th grade and beyond
- No "teacher training" needed
- Company website offers online lesson plans
- Numerous independently-written teacher guides available
- Can also be used for art, language, more
- Company's companion website for homeschoolers needs updating
How Math Manipulatives Work
Typically math manipulatives are coins, buttons, or little plastic figures. You can even find books and lesson plans that use M&Ms and other foodstuffs to teach math. These can be used when explaining counting, but as soon as you need to group individual pieces together things get complicated.
In contrast, Cuisenaire Rods are rectangular solids which come in graduated lengths. They were developed in 1931 by Belgian primary school teacher Georges Cuisenaire. Noticing how easily children learned musical patterns, Cuisenaire designed his rods to represent specific mathematical intervals, like the keys on a piano.
Each color represents a particular number: white for one, red for two, up through orange ten-rods. They are sized in centimeter units, so the white "one rod" is one centimeter long, the red "two rod" is two centimeters long, "threes" are light-green rods three centimeters long, and so on. All the rods are one square centimeter thick, making it easy to line them up in "trains," place them side-by-side to create "steps," or even stack them one on top of the other.
Gives Kids an Intuitive Feel for Relative Values
As soon as you use the graduated rods the advantage is clear. Line up two white one-rods next to a single red two-rod and it's obvious that they are equivalent. In fact, without even knowing the numerical equivalent, young kids can develop an intuitive feel for the relative size of the rods, simply from playing with them:
- As a preschooler my younger son liked to use his older brother's Cuisenaire Rods to design pictures, road and houses. And while he played, he started to to learn the relationship between the different sizes and colors (and something about angles as well).
- My first grader meanwhile was using the rods with his Miquon Math workbooks, which are designed to work with Cuisenaire Rods. Printed outlines of the rods show students how to line up the rods in different combinations. The rods make it possible to teach addition, subtraction, multiplication and division all at the same time. Instead of simply memorizing a formula, kids can see for themselves that three two-rods end-to-end are "the same" as a six-rod, and four twos are "the same" as one eight. Even fractions -- that bane of elementary math teachers everywhere -- can be easily demonstrated using equivalent lines or "trains" of rods.
Because the rods come in centimeter units, it's also easy to make the leap from colors to numerals. Simply place a metric ruler up against a line or train of rods and find the matching number. From there, it's easy to learn number facts just through play and practice.
Although either type of rod probably works just as well, I have a preference for the feel of the wooden rods. For one or two children I recommend getting the 148-rod kit, so there are more than enough to play with. They're also available in jumbo size, which could be used with younger children.
Just be careful to keep them separate from any other building blocks you may have, so the rods are available when you need them to learn math! We store ours loose in a clear plastic box where they are visible and attractive during playtime, and easy to clean up and put away.
- Color-coded wood or plastic rectangular solid rods in graduated lengths
- Come in trays holding 74 or 148 rods and classroom-sized tubs
- Available in 56-piece jumbo size
- Includes activity guide
The Bottom Line
Cuisenaire Rods are a proven learning tool used for over 80 years that can make tricky math concepts easy to teach and easy to learn.