Structuring School Opportunities

Independent Activities

Materials for Workstations

Beautiful materials bring joy to engaging problems, designing, exploring number, sorting and classifying, and measuring.

In trying to organize all this in a comprehensible way, I separate the two halves teaching.
One half is all the preparation and how it is scheduled. I call that Materials: what we do before the children arrive.
The other half is how we act when the children are there. I call that Facilitation: what we do while the children are present.

I start with the materials. It took me years to buy or make the unique materials for workstations in mathematics and design. Since they were held in storage until the proper time, behind-the-scenes organization was a necessity. (I mentioned before that this is a lot of work.)

Let us begin by looking through the kinds of materials I am talking about. As you scroll through these next several pages, I think you can imagine how fun it would be to play with these materials with friends, especially without pressure or instruction. I trust you can see also the richness of what children can learn through play like this. We’ll address what the teacher does later. For now we look at the materials to collect over time.


Workstations provides exquisite materials sequenced over time, changing them week by week, keeping ones that seem engaging for an additional week, or with exceptionally rich ones, going for three weeks. After their brief presence back they go into storage where they lie unused for a month or two months, before bringing them back. It has always been interesting to me how much more sophisticated their play is when they revisit an old, familiar material. Gradually the children move from whatever crazy idea they have the first time, to discovering new possibilities the next time, and gradually moving them toward mathematical explorations.

Here are examples of materials that I have found engaging in many years of watching children move through a year of workstations. Warning. It’s a long scroll!

I separate them into these categories. These are the first ones to appear.

Problems to Solve — building perseverance
Design Materials — creating beauty, representations, and order
School Tools — pencil control, symbol writing, scissors

Four or five months later these get mixed in.

Number — playing with sets and visualizing base ten
Sorting and Classifying — making sense of a weird diversity of stuff
Measuring — connecting heaviness and distance

Problems to Solve

blueribbonPuzzles self-correct; no help from adult’s is needed. When it’s complete, it has an elegance when complete. It’s even better when the completion beautiful, too. We want to provide the experience of sticking at a struggle — even when it seems daunting — including giving up and coming back — until it’s done. The blue ribbon ideal: achievement is marked by three things together — completion, elegance, and beauty. Those three qualities determine my choices of problem solving materials for preschool children.

One of the most wonderful things I ever learned was that perseverance can be defined by the amount of time a learner spends at a task. It’s not the comparative difficulty of one puzzle over the other that matters, it is the time of struggle. Popping in pieces one after another is a problem — the level of difficulty is below that desirable zone of extended ordeal when something is not working. Puzzles are right when we see time of trouble just right for a child. A matched puzzle is frustrating, at least for a bit. It’s also NOT for the adult to help solve. If it is too hard, it remains incomplete for another day. You can tell a problem is still in the desirable zone if the child comes back to it another day. A second encounter stretches the time of anguish even further, which is lovely to see. Finally succeeding after a really difficult challenge is the most satisfying result. When that satisfaction is reached and the completed material looks elegant and beautiful, the material-to-child-match is optimal.

Here is Elijah in the zone of extended ordeal.


I like the video because no adult was interfering. You note that he did ask for help, and I said, “I’m watching you.” That’s my job. I try to figure out what he’s doing and going to do and try to document. Connecting to Children is a system of study located under the Teaching College menu item. In Module 4, participants investigate perseverance with the assignment to not help. All agree not helping was hard at first, but ended up making the most difference to the child. They win and they glow.

I think most people would agree that Elijah succeeded in finding a reasonable solution to his problem without the help of an adult, and that his interest in this puzzle looks undiminished. What do you think would be a way for him to encounter the octagon filling the circle hole again?

I am inviting you to collect materials of beauty which provide times of troublesomeness for a range of children. Not only must materials for workstations be selected to be in the frustration zone but also be elegant and beautiful. As we all well know, most puzzles we can buy are ugly, cartoonish, painted primary colors, and disrespectful of children’s intelligence and power.

If you already have a selection of good puzzles, you have a decision to make. If children are free to use the materials in free play, they will be less interested in choosing them in workstations time. To keep the workstation contents attractive, it is important to make them special. For example, if you like to have floor puzzles or frame puzzles as an activity in regular area play time, then don’t use them for workstations. The goal is for the children to look forward to using the unique materials, which, like presents, happen to be anticipated surprises found in the workstation boxes this day.

Here are examples of what I would acquire and treasure. Most have a source link available by clicking the image. If you find the link doesn’t function anymore, would you please email me?


wooden leaf puzzle
wooden phases of the moon puzzle


unpainted wooden nesting dolls
Grimm’s wooden heart box
Grimm’s ammonite snail puzzle, remove, build, restore
Margerite-legespiel by Jean Claude Constantin, remove and replace
Floor, remove and replace the middle seven pentagons
Floor, also by Constantin, remove and replace the middle seven pentagons
Grimm's small stepped pyramid
Grimm’s small stepped pyramid, lengths 1 to 5 units
Lauri crepe puzzles
Lauri crepe puzzles


Insta-Learn Boards
Insta-Learn Boards, a long-term favorite


cut up cereal box puzzle
home-made cut up cereal box puzzle, any cardboard will do


best puzzle I have ever encountered for children
best puzzle I have ever encountered for children
stays in the box, so it never has to be completed

Which reminds me… presenting puzzles in large zipper bags allows children to put them away without necessarily completing them.


Montessori, too, of course...
Montessori, too, of course…


My favorite Judy wood puzzle on Ebay. I have watched at least a hundred different children work at this one. The perseverance flow of success and struggle is my ideal.
My favorite Judy wood puzzle on Ebay. I have watched at least a hundred different children work at this one. The perseverance flow of success and struggle is my ideal.

Topics Ahead

  • Design Materials continues with a selection of the best materials I have found for intellectually aesthetic arrangements.
  • Writing Materials adds pencil control, scissors, and writing numeral practice.
  • 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 Design Materials