For Your Classroom: Shapes

I had a small provocation set out all summer. It was a box of pattern blocks and the books Color Farm and Color Zoo. It took months for Cam to pick up the books, but she finally did and she has also begun to engage with the pattern blocks. I’m surprised it took so long as she’s played with the Mighty Mind for awhile now and is good at making most of the pictures. She is also very much a puzzle fan.

Shapes are something many kids learn to identify early. We point them out in our house, in books, on their clothes. Shapes are everywhere, so it makes sense that children would learn them. Shapes are an early math concept and with such an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in the media lately I thought I would share how we have approached shapes and a few other shape resources.

Shapes: Ages 1-4

Books

Of course we always read books. There are a lot of shape books out there. I chose these particular titles because they are more engaging for toddlers and young children. Some even base a plot around shapes.

Color Zoo & Color Farm by Lois Ehlert: I love these books by Lois Ehlert. I think it’s an engaging way to show children how you can use simple shapes to create pictures. I think they go along well with a material like pattern blocks or shape cutouts. There isn’t a story here exactly but your child could make one up using the various animals included. Beware, if you have very young children and end up with a paper copy of this (as opposed to the board book), tears of the pages may happen!

Mouse Shapes by Ellen Stoll Walsh: This one does have a plot. Three mice are running away from a cat when they stumble upon a pile of shapes. They use the shapes to create a little world for an imaginary mouse. This does a good job of demonstrating how to use shapes to make pictures.

Shapes, Shapes, Shapes by Tana Hoban: I remember loving Tana Hoban’s books growing up. The large pictures with colors to highlight whatever concept she was illustrating were just so pleasing. Shapes, Shapes, Shapes shows children shapes in everyday life. You could use this as a jumping off point for the shape search activity below.

Away We Go! by Chieu Anh Urban: This one is a shape book for the transportation fans and for younger audiences. As with Color Zoo and Color Farm it features die cut shapes on the pages, a feature kids seem to like to use to turn the pages. :)

Websites

I know there has been a lot of upset over using television or video with kids. However, I think it’s fine to include a variety of media when teaching children. The most important part is to watch with your child and discuss what they have seen to help them to process and internalize it. The research backs this up as the most effective method for watching videos with an educational intent.

Sesame Street: Shapes I loved Sesame Street as a kid. Didn’t everyone? The Sesame Street website has several topics you can select where they have aggregated a number of video clips from episodes of the show (as opposed to having to watch through the entire episode) that pertain to the topic.

Songs & Poems

Poems About Shapes I couldn’t think of any traditional finger plays or nursery rhymes that were specifically about shapes, but I did find this huge list of poems, finger plays, and songs about shapes. Toddlers are especially fond of singing, or at least mine is, so bonus points there!

Barney’s “We Like the Shapes” A cute little song about squares, circles, and triangles and the number of sides they have. I know these kids songs can seem really hokey, but most kids really enjoy them.

Toys

On the simplest level you can cut out a variety of shapes and sizes of shapes from colored paper or craft foam. This was probably the place we talked about shapes the most, aside from pointing them out in our house and around the neighborhood. Just as a side note, I don’t get a commission from you buying any of these things. In fact I don’t necessarily endorse any one brand. We’ve had good luck with some and been happy with the quality but not with others. But there isn’t really a rhyme or reason to which and quality seems to vary between products within a brand.

Shape ToysPattern Blocks This is a material that should have longevity. Kids like to rearrange them to form pictures, patterns, and geometric designs for years. You might even discover that you like them. They make a good quiet time activity for those non-nappers. You can also use them to study symmetry later on, just throw in a mirror to build against.

Shape sorter There are a lot of shape sorters out there. You can pick one based on what you can afford, your aesthetic preferences, even sustainability. Cam has not be interested in the larger one we had, however when she was about 16-18 months I bought a sorter that had only three shapes. This seemed to be about her speed at that age. If you are so inclined, here is a DIY version. 

Peg puzzle These can double as something to trace when they are a bit older, rather like the Montessori geometric cabinet. Again we started with a small four-shape peg puzzle and moved up to one with 7 or 8 pieces.

Poch Poch These are essentially pattern blocks, but they have a little hole for a tiny nail to go through and a hammer to bang the nail into a cork board. You actually hit (no pun intended) a lot of skills with this one, especially fine motor control and spacial sense. My daughter at three is just getting the hang of it, but really it’s designed for the fours and fives or even older. Keep your eye out in thrift shops for this one, it does turn up occasionally.

Colorforms Admittedly, these last two are brand name items, but they are pretty good so I don’t feel too bad suggesting something specific. Colorforms are rather like pattern blocks but with curves and lots of colors. They have made various sets over the years, but the basic idea is they are made from a clingy plastic and come with a board that you place them on. They are kind of tiny so they aren’t great for little ones, but you could, in theory, use them in the car depending on your child. I found our set in the thrift shop for a couple dollars.

DIY & Activities

If you don’t want to buy more toys (I totally understand!) the following are a few ideas for making some games that you can then play with your child to reinforce the concept of shapes.

Popsicle stick shape puzzle The basic idea here is that you paint popsicle sticks in matching colors for the sides of shapes, so four green popsicle sticks for the square. Your child then matches the color and creates the shape. The blog simply shows a picture of what they have done, no instructions, but it’s basic enough I think it’s easy to recreate. (Source: ABeeC Preschool Blog)

Memory game with shapes I think we’ve all played memory before. Here is a DIY version that uses shapes instead of pictures. (Source: Dandee Designs)

Shape sort Shape sorting/matching. If you make the memory game above, you could reuse the cards/chips and an egg carton to create this game. (Source: Mess for Less)

Stamps & stencils Both of these also give children the opportunity to practice their fine motor skills. Most kids can handle stamps, but they can get messy and they aren’t always super accurate. As for stencils, this is a hard skill but you could also have your child run their finger around the stencil to feel the shape.

Shape Search Walk around your house or neighborhood with your child. As you go, look for shapes in the everyday objects around the house. You can pick them up and place them in piles, you could keep a list of the objects grouped by shape, you could take photographs or draw little pictures. The purpose is to begin seeing and identifying shapes all around. You could even turn this into a car game where you call out the object and shape. You can use the Tana Hoban book Shapes, Shapes, Shapes as a starting point for this activity. This blog has a creative idea, using painter’s tape to create large outlines of various shapes on the carpet. As you collect items from around your house you place them within the corresponding outline.

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