• Teacher Tips

10 Cuisenaire activities for Year 1 - No partner needed!

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Here are 10 of my favourite activities suitable for Year 1 using Cuisenaire rods. Teachers are facing a tough challenge ahead as schools prepare to re-open (though never closed - I know...I've been in school too) on the 1st June. Collaborative activities that give so much enjoyment won't be on the cards and we will be looking for ways to bring engagement and enjoyment to lessons in a solo capacity. As an adult I love Cuisenaire rods, just as much as children. Now is the perfect time to get children playing with them...so long as they are dunked in disinfectant at the end of the day...


Activity 1: Just play!

Start by giving children their own set of Cuisenaire rods. I normally use plastic sandwich bags but using pots or plastic cups may be more appropriate so they can be washed more easily. Ask the children to get creative and build a model. It can be anything they like! Make sure to take pictures and create a gallery!

How will learners benefit?

  • The chance to be creative!

  • Thinking skills will be challenged

  • Decision making - anything from choosing rods because of their colour to combining rods to fill gaps

  • Problem solving - they may run out of their first choice rod, altering designs because they want symmetry or pattern

How can we scaffold or challenge thinking?

  • Change the number of pieces given

  • Challenge to make an upright model if their model lies flat

  • Limit which pieces are given: Even blocks/ odd blocks


Activity 2. Make art!

You will need to show children how to make their own frames here as they can be a little tricky. This looks GREAT when everyone's pieces are put together to make a huge art piece. Maybe take a photograph and piece together on the computer to avoid touching.

Make a frame. You could leave it up to the children to decide on their frame size. It will provide a super opportunity for mathematical talk when they realise they are limited to the rods they can use if it is smaller! They may need to make decisions based on the number of rods they have - if they don't have a huge set they might need to make a smaller piece or they could have gaps.

Begin to fill the frame. You can get a sense of the children's thinking as they begin to fill the frame. Some may go for symmetry or pattern. Some may try to make a picture and fill in the space around. Whatever they go for, they will be making continuous decisions.

Along the way children are bound to try and fit pieces into spaces they won't go. This will encourage them to look for other rod combinations that will do the job. All the time they are doing this they are gaining familiarity with the rods and a sense of equivalence.

Here was my finished piece! It would look completely different if I was not given any red rods. I would have had to have made different decisions to make up the length of the green rod.

You could ask children to investigate the longest and shortest pieces that can be used within a different sized frame?

Which rods can only make one possible design?


Activity 3: Use at story time

This activity lends itself to stories involving different sized characters, for example Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Children are developing an idea of representation in this activity, as well as familiarity with the rods.

Ask children to choose three rods from their collection. They are likely to choose the orange for Daddy, the white for Baby and the yellow or dark green for Mummy.

The children hold the pieces behind their backs (yes they will need two pieces in one hand and one in the other!). As you tell the story, you want the children to show their representation of the character mentioned. Children are being encouraged to feel the length as they find the correct one behind their backs to hold up.

Limiting the size of the pieces increases the challenge of this activity. As you can see, these three rods are similar in length and so to select blindly this could be very tricky.

To scaffold, you may ask children to only use two rods perhaps to represent Daddy Bear and another the represent Goldilocks.


Activity 4: Label the rods

Coming up with a common language with your class will open the door to easier conversations about the maths that can be seen. Children can be challenged to suitably name the rods so that they all have different labels. You may need to direct them to using colours so even if they want to give the rods human names they should begin with the same letter as the colour!

Here is how I have labelled the rods - no human names in my labels unfortunately!

I used 'g' for green and 'd' for dark green. I used 't' for tan instead of brown as I already have 'b' for black and 'B' for blue. Avoid using numbers unless you are looking to calculate as children may associate only that number with that rod. The value given to these rods is solely based on what you decide the white is. If you teach the children that white is 1, they may struggle when up scaling - the white can represent 1 or 100 or 0.1 or a half if you really wanted. This step comes later.


Activity 5: Copy the pictures

This is a very simple activity. Pre-make some models using the Cuisenaire rods, take photos, print off and there you have a building challenge. If you don't have time to make some of your own you could use the ones I have created. These can be downloaded from our resource page - follow the link here.


Activity 6: Order and compare

Year 1 children need to really develop their number sense. Cuisenaire is great for ordering. The first step could be to ask the children to make a staircase starting with the shortest piece. It is important the children also have practice at starting with the largest piece. You could label the pieces in order too. Make sure to draw out children's reasoning by asking them about the decisions that they have made. By now children should have had opportunities to order numbers within 20 or 50. For those who are really struggling the Cuisenaire can help them see the order when rods are given labels.


Activity 7: Explore relationships with numbers

This is one of the BEST functions of Cuisenaire. In Year 1 children really need to understand the relationship between numbers. A great way to start is with this scaling activity as children love big impressive sounding numbers! To help them with later activities they really need to learn that the rods can have a value of anything based on the white one.

Once they have played around with the values, they can start seeing parts and wholes (like in the millions example). The children should be given lots of opportunities to put the pieces together to represent adding and finding equivalent pieces. They should be able to take parts away and talk about the difference. To take away any pressure of numbers and to solely focus on the parts, wholes and relationships that can be seen, you could use the labels you gave the pieces to represent. For example, the above could show:

white + green = purple

w + g = p

p - g = w

p - w = g

p = g + w

You can look at the symbols to be used and where the equals symbol goes and all of those other good exploratory questions. You could use questioning to lead children to notice that you can put the white and green in any order and it will still be equivalent to purple, and explore whether the same can be done when taking parts away.

You could encourage reasoning using my set of Reasoning Rainbow prompts from our resource page. Find them here. They look great displayed on lolly sticks or straws!


Activity 8: Explore number bonds within 10

By the end of Year 1 children are expected to recall number bonds to 10. This activity can still benefit those who can recall their bonds in a very abstract way as it can draw their attention to pattern and they can see commutativity in the addends.

All the children have to do is find two rods that make the same length as the first rod they are given - could be 10 if you want bonds to 10, might be a different number such as 5. The children may initially explore with the idea of equivalence, but your aim as a facilitator of this is to draw their attention to the possible systematic approach in this activity. Both pictures shown show systematic ways of building the bonds. This would be the goal. It helps them to see the relationship between the numbers. Again, asking the children what they noticed and why they made those decisions is vital in getting an understanding of their thinking.

Year 1 pupils will benefit tremendously if they can recall number bonds within 10, ready for when they bridge through 10 in Year 2. I seriously recommend setting up a way of tracking number bonds knowledge and focusing on this during intervention activities in Year 1.


Activity 9: Explore halving

This is just a nice open ended activity to focus play. Children are challenged to find the different way of finding two of the same coloured rods to equal one of a different colour. You can then draw out understanding that two equal pieces can make the whole, and when the two parts are equal we call them halves. They will find that they can't use all of the pieces in this activity, and you can use questioning to draw out why not. The children could be challenged to find three equal parts to make the whole, or four equal parts to make the whole. You really want children to become familiar with the relationships of the pieces so that when they attach a numerical value to the rod, understanding the 'why' is easy.

Did you notice that that Cuisenaire rods that have relationships are coloured similarly? You'll notice the '7' rod is black because it is a prime number. The same is true to Numicon too - check it out!


Activity 10: Add numbers along a number line

Children love playing dice games so here is one for you to try with them. Firstly - apologies for the photo, my paper was bent so the rods wouldn't lie flat! So you decide which dice to give to children (obviously the maximum is a 10 sided dice) and ensure children know that the value of the white is 1. They roll the dice, select the rod (by now they will be really familiar and do not need to work out which piece is the 6/7/8 etc.) and place it above the ruler or number line. They record the number sentence 0 + __ = ___. When they roll again they add the correct piece and record the number sentence. You may need to remind them that they already have a total that they are adding to, so they do not add from zero again.

When they have got to the end of the ruler they could be challenged to find other calculations using their rods and rulers. For example, they could find:

21 - 4 = 17

10 + 5 + 2 = 17

21 - 4 - 2 - 5 = 10

There are many more.

To encourage further exploration change the value of 1. Change to 10 or 100 perhaps but you will have to support the children in understanding the place value as the total accumulates.

Did you know that Cuisenaire rods are also weighted so that they balance? Perhaps something else to explore!

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