Several years ago I went to a home school conference and a vendor was selling something called “School in a Box.” It was a tiny plastic box filled with trinkets- you know, the kind your kids collect from school parties and the dentist’s treasure box- and came with a pamphlet outlining all the ways you could use the trinkets to teach math.
I bought it on site and it’s been a great thing to pull out when worksheets and books are feeling tedious. I also realized it could easily be made by parents who have a collection of those little choking hazards built up around the house.
Making one of these boxes and containing those little toys not only reduces clutter around your house and playroom, but it makes them more exciting because you pull them out only periodically. All you need are a few trinkets and a compartmented box with a lid. You can find the box at craft or even hardware stores. I bought mine from the dollar section at Target.
If you don’t already have these little toys laying around, make a trip to the party store. They have mini party-favor toys in bins for about 10-25 cents each. You can also use coins, buttons, erasers, dominos, dice, bouncy balls, bobby pins, or a myriad of other tiny items found around the house. Clean out the junk drawer in your kitchen!
Once you have your box assembled, here are some ideas for how to use it:
1. Free play. If your child hasn’t seen these toys in a while, she may be excited just to go through the box and play with them. Let imagination take over.
2. Create patterns.
3. Sort. See how many different ways you child can think of to sort the toys.
4. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. A great way to show your child the math facts he’s been practicing in a tangible way.
5. Number stories. “Seven animals were having a tea party in the jungle. Two animals decided to go swimming. How many are still at the tea party?” You and your child can take turns making up the story and giving answers.
6. Creative writing. Use the items in the box to prompt creative storytelling. I recently did this with my 6-year-old daughter. She told me the story, and I wrote it down for her. Then she read it to me. You can have your child do more or less with the reading and writing depending on her age.
7. For toddlers (who are old enough not to choke on the pieces), simply have them count toys.
8. Toddlers can also work on identifying shapes and colors and building vocabulary by describing the toys to you. “Orange horse. Purple ball. Blue dog.” “This is a square. This is a circle.” “Mouse. Dinosaur. Airplane.” Or you can prompt them with specific questions such as “What color is the horse?”
9. Skip counting. Lay toys in a line and have your child count 2-4-6-8, skipping the odd numbers, or 5-10-15-20 while touching every 5th toy.
10. Ordinal numbers. Have your child point to the second, third or 10th toy, etc.
11. Spelling. “How do you spell dog?” “How do you spell dolphin?” They can say or even write the answer.
12. Phonics. What letter do you hear at the beginning of “ball?” What letter do you hear at the end of “button?”
13. Color & number sight words. Write “blue, green, red, etc.” on a piece of paper and have a child correctly match an item from the box to the word. You can also write “one, two, five, etc.” on a paper and have your child put the correct number of toys on each word.
14. Ascending and descending order. Have your child arrange the items by size from smallest to biggest and biggest to smallest.
15. 3-D shapes. Use the box to teach the words sphere, cube, pyramid, box, and cone.
16. Position words. Lay the toys in various positions on a table. “Is the dog above the button or below the button?” You can teach above, under, left, right, beside, below, on top of, next to, etc.
17. More or less. “How many more buttons are in my pile than yours?” “How many fewer toys are blue than green?” (or for younger children, “are there more blue toys or more green toys?”)
These are just a handful of ways you can use a box like this. What else can you think of?