Creative Corner — Trash to Treasure

Tara Rison*** New Monthly Feature Column ***

Creative Corner

September – Trash to Treasure
by Tara Rison.

Trash to Treasure:
Transform Ordinary, Household Items Into Creative Math Games

Earlier this week I watched in amazement as Gracen, my four year old daughter, dumped out all of her hair accessories and began to sort them. She very carefully inspected each one before deciding in which “pile” it belonged. I must admit I was very proud. Not only did she sort the accessories correctly, but she had tackled this project all by herself. Needless to say, she was proud, as well.

This observation got me to thinking about how I could use every day, household items to create math manipulatives and games for my children. I quickly realized that the options were endless. Here are some of my new ideas, along with some tried and true activities I used as a preschool teacher.

  • Counting – Make a “Piggy Bank” counting game.

    First, print out 10 piggy bank shapes. Click here for an example.

    Next color, cut out, and laminate the banks. Use a permanent marker to put a number on each bank. You may want to start with numbers 1-5 and work up to 10.

    Put about 60 pennies in a zip-loc bag or small storage container.

    Show your child how to spread out the piggy banks on the floor or a table.

    Model how to pick up a penny, put it on a bank, and count aloud. This is called one-to-one correspondence. The child is learning that the number he is saying corresponds to the penny he puts on the bank. The goal is for the child to place the correct number of pennies on each piggy bank.

    *You can make many different versions of this game. For example, you could use pumpkin shapes and pumpkin seeds, Christmas trees and mini craft pom poms (as ornaments), a fishbowl and gold fish crackers, a bear cave with Teddy Graham crackers, etc. Be creative and use your child’s personal interests as a guide.

  • Sorting – Sorting by color, size, and shape is a preschool skill.

    Once your child has learned to sort by one attribute have them sort by two. You can use a variety of small items to practice this skill. Some good choices include dried pasta, buttons, old keys, nuts and bolts, mini erasers, etc. Egg cartons, muffin tins, and ice trays make great sorting trays.

    *You can also dye dried pasta so that your child can sort by shape and color. For directions on dying pasta check out this page.

    *Check with a local hardware store for keys that have been cut incorrectly. Most will give them to you for free. Kids love sorting keys!!!

    *Mini erasers can be found at craft or dollar stores. They normally have seasonal erasers, as well.

  • Geometry – Cut shapes out of old sponges.

    Use them to sponge paint. Discuss the names and attributes of each shape.

  • Patterning – Give your child a cup of Fruit Loops or Apple Jacks.

    First, have her sort the cereal by color. Then have her create a pattern with the cereal. For example: orange – orange –green – orange-orange –green. Lastly, have her string her pattern on a piece of yarn to make a necklace.

    *When stringing with yarn, it is helpful to tape up one end of the yarn (like the tip of a shoe string). This makes it easier to thread.

  • Measurement – Fill a storage container with sand, rice, water, potting soil, oatmeal, etc.

    These are great mediums for sensory exploration. Add measuring spoons and cups, ladles, bowls, cups, sifters, and cylinders. Allow your child lots of time to experiment with filling and emptying, measuring, and scooping.

Using these types of games and hands-on activities are a fun and effective way to teach your child basic math skills. So, look around your house for items that interest your child and think of a way to incorporate those items into a game or activity. Be creative and remember to think like a child! If you get stuck use the internet for ideas. There are lots of wonderful sites full of resources.

If you create something that your child absolutely loves, email me a description and I will post it on my Preschool Monthly Resource Page for other parents, teachers, and child care providers to try. We are always looking for original ideas. If you want to send pictures we would love to see them, as well.

Join me next month for some “Ooey, Gooey Science Projects”.

Read inch by inch,
Tara, Founder
The Itty-Bitty Bookworm


  1. says

    These are great ideas! And as a math teacher I love them even more!
    One comment though… don’t let your little ones play with potting soil. Neither should you either unless you’re wearing gloves. It has nasty chemicals added in.
    Just my FYI!

  2. says

    i love those! we’ve been seizing learning opportunities with our children since preschool, here, is soooo expensive (well, the reputable, christian ones).

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