“Math has a lot of negative stereotypes, but it can actually be fun and incredibly empowering.” -Danica McKeller
I’ve gotten so much joy from watching my twins (age 4 years, 8 months) explore math concepts. This is in part because my own early math foundation was admittedly weak and I learned at a young age to be fearful and resistant- as I grew older, math was something I dreaded that I memorized for exams and then forgot. It wasn’t until I was pursuing my Ph.D and taking statistics that I discovered that I actually enjoyed math- it helped me read and understand research and was an essential tool for designing studies to test my own hypotheses. I was motivated to learn the concepts and excel not for the grade, but for my own purposes.
I’d like my children’s early experience with math to be different than mine was. Ultimately I want them to understand that math is a tool- a way for them to do the things they want to do, learn more about their world, and increase their independence. And when they are exploring math concepts, I want them to have materials that engage their senses and encourage hands-on manipulation so that they really understand the foundations, which is something I still struggle with that never allowed basic operations to become automatic for me.
Although we are not Montessori homeschoolers, I am drawn to Montessori math manipulatives and have been using some of them with the twins. They are wonderfully tactile and beautifully demonstrate concepts from concrete to more abstract. One of the materials that I have been coveting is the Montessori bead bars. I really like the idea of representing quantities in such a systematic and hands-on way. Instead of buying a whole set of these manipulatives, I thought I’d make some first to see if the children are interested in them, and then go from there.
To begin, I decided to make a few “bead stairs,” which are representations of the quantities 1-9. I also made enough representations of ten so that we could practice making teen numbers, which Will has been asking about constantly.
For supplies, I ordered these round wooden beads and purchased some stiff wire and jewelry-making tools (round-nose pliers and wire cutters) from a local craft store. Making the bars was easy- thread your desired number of beads on the wire, make a loop with your pliers, snip the other end with your cutters (leaving a little length for your loop), and make your final loop, trapping the beads in the middle.
I used liquid watercolors to dye the bars after I had made them. I just found it to be easier that way rather than trying to count out and dye all the individual beads and then let them dry before threading them. I simply put some watercolors in a small cup, dunked my bead chains in, and swirled them around to be sure they were evenly coated. When the colors were as dark as I desired (it took less than a minute for the darker colors), I blotted them with paper towels and left them to dry.
I strayed a bit from the traditional Montessori color scheme for my bead chains, my biggest deviation being that the ten bars are usually gold. I wanted to work with the colors I had, and I’m actually really happy with how they turned out. Somehow, they feel like “us.” And the kids like them- the combination of the smooth wood and the vibrant color makes them almost impossible not to touch.
We’ve already put these into use and I’m happy to report no color has transferred from the beads to our hands. Since these aren’t coated, you wouldn’t want to dunk them in water or they might bleed, but I don’t foresee that being a major issue.
I’m really quite pleased with how these came out, and I’m excited to work them into our math explorations.