Since their appearance in 1953, Unifix Cubes have become one of the most widely used manipulatives in the world. In honor of Math Awareness Month, Class Ideas is taking a fresh look at the time-honored cube and its place in today's math classrooms. This issue is chockfull of Unifix information and resources, including an article with practical tips for introducing Unifix Cubes into math activities, downloadable activity pages from Didax's new grade-level series Mathematics with Unifix Cubes, and links to other Unifix activities on the Web. Last but not least, we're offering a fantastic special on selected Unifix resources from Didax, including our new Unifix Graphing Base for simple graphing activities. This is one time when it's definitely hip to be square--or rather cuboid!
On their own, Unifix Cubes will not teach very much at all. In fact, they are no more than a catalyst--a supporting player in the learning operation. It was Maria Montessori who said the hand is the chief teacher of the student. Taking that idea a little further, it is the senses that provide the data from which the student will learn. A teacher helps facilitate that learning.
For students to get the most out of using Unifix Cubes in the classroom, it is important to introduce them in appropriate ways and establish some simple rules for their use. Some practical tips for using the cubes and suggestions for introductory activities follow.
Managing and Caring for the Cubes
Allow easy access at all times. Store the cubes in plastic tubs that can be carried easily. Keep them in a dedicated space in the classroom so students can have access to them at any time. Models of solutions and creations can be displayed in easily accessible places. While school is in session, the cubes will be in classrooms, so no special storage facilities are needed. This means the manipulatives are out in classrooms, where they belong, rather than collecting dust in the storeroom.
Provide sufficient quantities. We recommend that a classroom have access to at least two containers of 1000 cubes at any one time. Students relax when they know there is sufficient material available. This also permits models to be left on display for extended periods. Some teachers place a collection of cubes in drawstring bags or plastic containers to speed up distribution in the classroom.
Limit the length of time the students use the cubes. The idea of 2000 cubes is not really extravagant because the cubes need to be in the classroom for about three weeks at a time. In a 10-week term, that means three classrooms can have exclusive use of the material for three straight weeks. After three weeks, another set of materials--pattern blocks, for example--can be rotated into the classroom for a three-week period. This system works very well. A good motto to follow: Three weeks on, six weeks off. During the six-week break, the student's brain carries out a great deal of assimilation. When the cubes return, the students are ready to go again. The same comment can be made about other materials.
Distribute take-home bags. Some schools encourage students to take home a drawstring bag containing 50 or so cubes instead of a reading book. A small card may explain an activity that the student teaches the parents. So, rather than a parent demanding, "What did you do in math class today?," a student can show the cubes and say "Look, I can do a snap-clap pattern." Don't be afraid that the students will lose the cubes. They will have developed a pride in the cubes and will take very good care of them.
Keep the containers and cubes clean. Washing in warm soapy water once or twice a year will keep the cubes looking new. Rinse the container in disinfectant and leave a light cloth with a sprinkling of disinfectant in the bottom of the tub.
Becoming Familiar with the Cubes
Even though instinctively you may feel otherwise, students need play and more play to become absolutely at ease with the Unifix Cubes. Students' discovery experiences take many forms, such as:
Loosely directed play. Ask the students to:
Make stacks of different colors.
Find all the cubes of their favorite color.
(Students will combine forces to stack the cubes into long snakes or trains.)
More controlled play. Ask the students to:
Sort the cubes into four stacks. Why did you make your stacks like that? (You will learn a lot as you listen to the students' replies.)
Make a tall stack. Is your stack the tallest/?
Grab as many cubes as you can in your left (right) hand. Who has the most cubes?
Find the container that holds the least (or the most) number of cubes from a variety of plastic containers.
Stand above paper circles and squares that have been placed on the floor and drop a handful of cubes from a height. Then ask the students to count the cubes that fall on the shapes.
Stacks. Ask students to:
Make two-block stacks with two colors.
Make three-block stacks with three colors.
Make different three-block stacks using the same colors.
More or less, same or different. Place one stack of Unifix Cubes (no more than five) in front of a group of students. Taking turns, the students throw a soft six-sided dot die. The number of dots will determine the number of cubes that will be in the student's stack. Score a point if the student has more cubes than the sample stack. If the number of dots is the same as the model, the student can build a model the same as the sample stack, and score a bonus of three points.
Each student takes a turn to say, "My stack is more (or less) than the model." No points for less!
After a few throws, change the scoring rule to earn a point for less. Later, you can introduce, "My stack is two less; I score two points." The concept of "different" may be gently introduced by encouraging the students to say, "My stack is bigger than the model by two cubes," or "I have two less than the model." Reinforce the ideas: I have a stack. It is three more (or less) than yours. Don't let the student see your stack. Make my stack.
These ideas take time and experience to develop in a young student. Relate these words and concepts to other areas of activity--for example, compare patterns of clothing, the size of drink containers, and the number of students present in class.
A note on colors: The color maroon may be confusing to some students. It can be called several names. Some teachers have suggested removing the maroon cubes in the early stages of becoming familiar with the cubes. Also, it has been noted that some students have displayed conflict with mathematical ideas because they are struggling with the names of the colors. Some teachers introduce the cubes to the students after removing the orange, brown, black, dark blue, and maroon. They claim it is initially less confusing for young students. Later on, these cubes can be reintroduced into the collection. You decide what is best for your students.
By naturally integrating Unifix Cubes into the students' learning processes, successful mathematical learning will be achieved. Unifix materials foster developmental experiences in the mathematical learning process when the students learn by doing in an environment that encourages them to think, reflect, and discuss the concepts being developed.
(This article was adapted from the book Developing Mathematics with Unifix by Dr. Paul Swan and Geoff White.)
Didax's new series Mathematics with Unifix Cubes is teeming with ideas for early number experiences using Unifix Cubes. Conservation of quantity, one-to-one correspondence, beginning addition and subtraction, patterns, measurement, and graphing data are just some of the topics covered in a fun, engaging format. Each activity is classroom-tested and keyed to the NCTM Focal Points to aid appropriate planning. Just click below to download a sample activity from each of the three books!
The Internet is a great place to find all kinds of Unifix resources, including Unifix lesson plans reviewed by teachers, other Unifix Cube activities, and blackline masters. Check out a sampling of these resources here!
With summer vacation and summer reading programs right around the corner, it's time to get serious about the written word. Watch your inbox next month for a sneak preview of Didax's newest reading resources, including reading games that are guaranteed to get your students excited about reading. We'll also be offering great discounts on many of our best-selling reading products. You won't want to miss this special issue!