Structuring School Opportunities


Scissors, Pens, and Writing Numerals

Practice with tools in workstations enables all children to acquire these essential skills, at their own rate, no matter what their background.


I offer these simple experiences with scissors, since they open up many opportunities, besides being such accessible practice.

paperstripsFor scissor challenges at workstation time I offer 1/2″ wide and 12″ long strips of construction paper to snip up and 4″ x 6″ black paper that highlights the cutoffs. That background quietly challenges the cutting it seems, and the opportunity to stick them down with glue sticks or tape, if so motivated, can happen the second time these are rotated into the containers arrangement.

gummedtapeA step deeper, possibly on the third rotation, could be strips of gummed art tape and little larger pieces of black construction paper. I use 6″ x 9″. Giving children the entire roll is a problem I have never solved satisfactorily, because the unroll and become impossible to handle. A provision of 24″ pieces the adult cuts off the roll, first in one color, later in two colors, is more manageable. tapeSomehow we still have to deal with the taste of the gum adhesive. Sponges work, but I think the germs may even be worse.

No matter what the activity, I also put a tape dispenser in the container for the children to post their scissor cutting papers on the wall near where the scissor activity goes. I like having one of the workstation areas near a display wall just for this purpose. That wall attracts children to the station and stimulates new ideas.


bravoFor drawing challenges at workstation time I like Pilot Bravo! bold point pens because they create a strong bold line and are slow to dry out. Having spent some time teaching a course in drawing for young children and also reading how the children of Reggio Emilia use pens to think with, I call these special pens thinking pens.




Some favorite stencils.


Next are two interdependent types of practice in drawing shapes, numerals, and letters. One task is to draw free without any cues (salt boxes). The other task is to trace with faded prompts (numeral boards). You can make other insert sheets for shapes and letters, too. The tracing offers pitons in the rock; the salt is there for free soloing.

Both kinds of materials you make; nothing comparable exists to buy. If you do this together with some other people, it costs drop and it’s more fun. The children can help, too.  I alternate salt boxes and numeral (or alphabet) boards in workstations, having one of the stations always address writing symbols.

Salt Boxes

salt3A quarter inch layer of salt provides a draw-freely space where mistakes flash away with a jiggle. I can’t say enough about how lovely it is to magically disappear a mistake.

The child puts their finger into the salt layer and decides how to move it. It is a risk, as you can see in the salt box video coming up. When combined with the writing boards on different days children progress rapidly and confidently. It’s essential not to help; children have to struggle in order to learn quickly. Like school, salt is place to make mistakes and fix them.

8″ x 10″ is next to the bottom of the stack

Since so few products come in shallow boxes anymore, I have turned to photographer presentation boxes to hold the salt and keep it contained in storage. Kraft is a natural color and gets my aesthetic vote. A sturdy rubber band can hold the salt inside any box that has a tight lid. I let the children use their fingers to draw in the salt. I guess it really doesn’t matter what they use.

Below is a video of salt boxes in April, after about 6 months of workstation experience. I don’t bring salt boxes out until the culture of workstations is firmly established, because it can be quite a mess. The first time, of course, the salt usually gets spilled everywhere. When the children find they get to sweep it up before the next thing, we all waited until the floor was safe again. After that one time, they managed any spillover by keeping it on the table.

Practical Suggestions

I offer salt boxes with the minimum amount of salt to just cover the bottom. After a few weeks of experience, usually after the salt boxes have been stored away for a month or two, I add cards showing the numerals. I attached dark blue paper to the bottom of the box because I think the contrast of dark blue and white is beautiful. I have found that double sticky tape around the edges of the blue paper bottom sticks it down so the salt can’t work its way underneath. It’s perfect when a finger plowing the salt exposes a dark blue line.

The flip cards you see I made following Mary Baratta-Lorton’s example, but I found that children don’t use either the flip or the dots. They do use the purple-green stroke order cues in the numerals — start with purple then do green. The colors came from the old dittos that schools had, some printed purple, some printed green. The purple-green chant becomes a self-sustained cue for stroke order. Of course, you can make cards any way you want, but i’ve found this to be a pretty lasting mnemonic.

Video Example of Salt Boxes

I believe the problem many educators have is understanding the way the success of these kinds of activities depend upon the children’s community, not what the adult does. If one is focused on the children’s skill development, it feels like rolling a rock uphill. Rather, I attend to the relationships the children have with each other — how the community interacts in the space. When the children are being playful with whomever is around, not just their best friends, learning will be going on as fast as it ever can be.

I offer the video, so you can see how the shared table with this one activity creates an informal group that is well-aware of each other. Andre, the boy in the striped shirt, chose to try the salt trays for the first time. You can see how familiar the other children are and how new this is for him. When I saw him decide to give it a try, I pulled out my video camera. I think you can see the risk. You can see how we adults were attentive because of that.


You may note that I am following the rules of Enterprise Talk. Enterprise Talk is essential in creating a structured space of freedom where initiative, cooperation, and perseverance thrive.

I wish we could discuss together how ZemZem tackled the numeral 8. She was clearly the protagonist here. Her efforts were for herself, not for me or anyone else. To me this is proof of the benefit of avoiding praise. ZemZem is personally powerful, not a praise junkie. Her disposition to learn is much more important than the numeral 8. That attitude is what she will be taking forward into the rest of her life.

For those of you who have read some of my other pages, this video is a representative example of how I have learned what I am sharing at this site. I videotape something so I can look at it again and again and hold conversations with others to co-construct the meaning. I can learn lots more doing this than studying some book or journal article. The short video conveys the experience of the Andre and ZemZem with more complexity than words can convey.

Documentation and Public Investment

Great spaces for children can be created everywhere when the educators document and reflect on what happens each day. If our common resources can provide early educators with a family support wage, they will naturally evolve more effective opportunities over years of study.

I am outraged that this is not the experience of all children, especially for children like these who have had fewer opportunities and less economic choices. ZemZem’s family just arrived from Somalia, and English was new for her. Andre arrived by bus with his mom, who was unable to read or tell time, from rural Arkansas two weeks before school started in September. Unfortunately, public policies for children in the United States prevent the creation of the conditions for great schools to evolve, while billionaires gloat, push rigid constraints on early childhood opportunities, and refuse to consider the commons. The ethical choice is to offer resources for them to study their own children, construct their own understandings, and cooperatively improve their skills. In order to save this planet, all children will need to experience a democratic learning community led by professional educators who deeply listen, are comfortable with uncertainty, and engage in action research.

Numeral Boards

When children are learning to print numerals, we can offer two types of challenges. The salt boxes offer a free space for the child to draw from memory and errors disappear. The numeral boards offer practice forming the shapes with the correct stroke order, which like all drawing is essentially practice in visual motor planning.

These are 1/2 sheet practice boards inserted in page protectors, cut in half, and sealed with tape. These are damp proof writing surfaces for wet-erase pens like the Vis-a-vis. Marks are easy to wipe clean with a damp cloth or paper towel. Along with the boards and the pens, I provide small, slightly damp dishcloths in a plastic bag and wash them out every day.

numeralpurplegreenOn the left is an image of the printed practice sheet as it comes out of the copy machine. On the right is a colored half page.

Numeral boards PDF provides the set for you to download and print your own.

I color code the stroke order with highlighter pens. I use purple and green, so the dotted line shows through. Regular pens obscure the dotted lines. The children use black overhead projector pens (not purple or green pens!) to trace on the plastic page protector. I like purple-green stroke order cues. I think the chant “purple-green, purple-green” is fun to say and memorable.

I have found that 10 offerings to trace is enough of a challenge without becoming too repetitive. The last numeral on the top row presents only the first stroke; the green is missing. This is repeated on the 4th numeral of the lower row. The final try provides only a place to start. It is simple to check on children’s ability to write the numerals by looking at that final bit, when they choose to try it.  Of course, the children can draw anything they want on the boards.


I insert the colored half sheets into clear heavy duty sheet protectors. with a piece of light card (one-dot or two-dot chipboard) cut to the same size. I put a different numeral facing the other way on the other side of the card. Then I cut the sheet protector in half and use transparent tape to seal the seam so moisture cannot get inside. I always mix up the numerals on one board, so a child simply has to flip it over to try another numeral. One full set of numeral boards uses 4 page protectors making 8 numeral boards with different numerals on each side. Zero and one are not included. Cheap. Simple. Better than anything you can buy.

I have tried many ways to do this, and this is the best. All I have to do is watch what a child does in the lower right corner to assess his or her skills in forming the numeral.


I use the half-sheet page-protector system to create pen paths for tracing as an introduction to the numeral boards and keep the cue sequence of purple green. These are easy to make at many levels of difficulty. Whether the children use them or color them or scribble over them is perfectly fine with me.



This game was invented by Donna Burk, Paula Symonds, and Allyn Snider, one of a set of games for kindergarten in the Box It and Bag It series available through the Math Learning Center. This is my recording sheet where the children trace the numerals. I have built all the Box It and Bag It games. Green Beans fits with this numeral writing topic.

GreenBeansDownload Green Beans PDF.
Next comes choosing your beans. The tradition, started by Donna Burk, is to buy large lima beans, spread them flat on newspaper and spray paint the top side, carefully, without underside drips. I found two coats better than one. I used green paint, so I did indeed have green beans on one side and natural white on the other. You can use any color of paint. Lavender would make a game called Lavender Beans. Alternatively, you can buy plastic counters that are red and white two-sided bean shapes by clicking the image.bean

Once I have my bean color, I run duplicates of the master on paper of the same color — green paper for me, red for the plastic ones. I put a small stack of the sheets in a large zippered plastic bag and beans into another lidded container to organize the materials in a way the children can restore. cupI include six 2-ounce portion cups and six thinking pens like the Bravo! ones at the top of the page. I put all of this in a sturdy box with a rubber band around it, adding a picture of a bean on the ends of the box.

I could just put this out in a workstations container and see what happens, but I doubt the children would invent tossing nine beans. Maintaining the distinction between independent time and group time, I don’t show them during workstations time. It’s their free time to play. so I demonstrate the game to everyone at group time. I count 9 beans into a portion cup. “I am going to count nine beans into this cup. Count with me. Ready? Count. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. How many? (pause) Nine. I did it. Cup of nine, This is fine. Cup of nine, This is fine.” (I have fun, too, you know.)

Aside: I can’t tell you how grateful I have been any time a master teacher has told me exactly what to say when leading a group. This way of leading counting, “count with me, ready, count, one, two…. how many? (pause 5 seconds and say the answer)” really works!

Once I have nine beans in the cup I demonstrate dumping out the set of nine and counting the colored ones, using that same counting convention. “Let’s count the green ones. Ready? Count. One, two, three, four. Four. How many? pause Four.” Then I trace that grayed-out numeral 4 in the bottom row, starting at the dot.

As you can imagine, the children, being freely at play during workstations, do whatever they want to do with the Green Beans game. It’s all fine with me. Usually, since everyone saw my demonstration at the same time, that way rises to the top. Some tend to gravitate after a time to filling in the sheet without tossing any beans at all, filling in the entire sheet to take home. Because the random toss follows a bell curve, children soon find that there are too many 4’s, 5’s and 6’s, and they turn over some of the beans to write other numerals. If only one or two children choose the game, I post a few of the papers nearby or bring one or two to a meeting time as a provocation for children to discuss what happens at that table.

I would never ask children to spend that huge amount of time filling in all of the boxes on the recording sheet, so I have been amazed at how many children choose to do it on their own.

Two More Ahead

  • Mathematics Materials shares the advanced materials in number, sorting and classifying, and measurement for five- and six-year-old children, bridging to first grade.
  • Planning and Rotation Scheme presents a simple system for scheduling throughout one year.
Next Mathematics Materials