Saturday, 7 February 2015

zen and the art of cuisenaire rods....

Cuisenaire rods have a history that goes back at least to my childhood. I remember having one set — one of each colour of rod — to keep in a blue cardboard box in my desk for the year.

Now I use them to teach number concepts and measurement, and even use them as building materials to create small structures.

As a building material, cuisenaire rods are tricky. They are small, and smooth, and they don’t lock together like Legos or Lincoln Logs. They succumb to gravity very easily. As a result, they require a certain amount of precision and care — a discipline that comes built-in at no extra charge. And I think I like that.

They require sustained focus. They teach balance. They teach stillness.

Just call this post: zen and the art of cuisenaire rods.


After the initial introduction of the rods, and letting the kids play with them a while, I walk the kids through comparing sizes, and putting them in order from shortest to longest and vice versa. This is a measurement goal in the Grade One curriculum. But then I also get them to do this in three dimensions, from four sides at once: I get them to build a pyramid.

This is not an original idea or an unexpected one. Because of the staggered sizes of the rods, this is the most natural thing to build with them. And most of the six-year-olds I’ve known could build a successful pyramid fairly easily.

So then I show the kids photos of the Eiffel Tower, and ask them to build that shape — essentially, a pyramid with a tall tower on it. The addition of the tower forces the kids to create a structure that is pretty centred over the base of the pyramid, or it will easily fall.

Cuisenaire rod Eiffel Tower -- with two views from directly above.

The next challenge is to build the pyramid upside down. (Usually I omit the smallest rod — the white one — from this challenge, but some kids can manage that too.) Building the pyramid upside down requires all of the levels to be still more concentric, or the whole structure will topple.

And finally, I ask them to build an hour-glass shape — a pyramid surmounted by an upside-down pyramid. That really tests the concentricity and balance of their structures!

Built into all of these shapes is the idea of a centre around which every level and aspect must be organized. It’s an organic concept of building — ordered like the annual rings inside a tree; like the layers of an onion, like the petals on a rose, like the nacre that forms a pearl.

A building process that is almost analogous to growth.


(There’s that Zen notion again.)

Note: Here are more structures to challenge your kids to build.
The square trays used with the rods in this picture came with a Numicon set.
But I have been known to go into my local picture framer
 and ask her to cut me 4"x4" squares from her scraps of mat board.
Those will work too. See below.


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