Teaching with Toys

The writing workshop is one of my favorite times of the day.  It's sometimes a real challenge to teach writing to children who are only six years old, but when they finally let go and just put it all out there, it's so courageously fun.  Their transformation from the beginning of the year to the end is amazing.  What was once pretty unreadable in August becomes a small work of art and suddenly every child in the room is the next Mo Willems!  :)

I subscribe to the teaching philosophy of a few (Georgia Heard, Katie Wood Ray, Carol Avery), but mostly to the work of Lucy Calkins and the staff at Teachers College.  I think their work is smart and it's the foundation from which I build most of my lessons.  One thing I know staff developers tend to caution us about, though, is becoming too "gimmicky" with kids, but on this point I feel differently.  Writing is hard work.  And these kids are six.

So bring on the toys!

I have no problem with that.  Over the years, I've learned a lot about making meaningful and lasting connections with kids.  It's about being personal, relevant, and fun... about taking something fairly abstract (like writing) and helping them see how each new concept is like something they already know.  One way I do this is by using toys during some of my writing workshop lessons, especially when I'm introducing a new strategy or idea for the first time.  I'm sure you do that, too.  When it's time for you to teach a new concept like elaboration, don't you take some time to think, "Hmm, how am I going to help these little people understand what this even means?"  (And I'm guessing your district doesn't always give you the best ideas, so you have to be creative and really know what works for you and your kids.)

I wanted to share some toy-writing-lessons to give you an idea of what can be done.  These are just my ideas, though... there are dozens of different ideas you can come up with and, once you get started, you'll probably never look at the toy aisle the same way again.

One Idea
Start the lesson with a plain Mrs. Potato Head (no body parts added). Talk about how plain and uninteresting she is without her missing parts.  Add one body part and ask, "How does she look now?"  Talk about how the body parts are like the details in our stories.  Without them, our stories are plain and uninteresting, but the more we add, the more interesting and clear our stories become... just like Mrs. Potato Head.  Sometimes, when we leave details out of stories, the reader can't get a picture of what we're trying to share.  Say, "Remember when Mrs. Potato Head didn't have body parts?  It wasn't clear what she was supposed to look like, was it?  That's just like our stories.  The details we choose help the reader see what we want them to see." 

One Idea
Use any set of stacking rings to illustrate the idea that things must go together in a certain order to "make sense."  Play around with the rings and purposely arrange them out of the logical order.  Ask the children, "Does this look right?  Does this make sense?"  Discuss how this toy has an order that makes sense just like our stories do and when we have parts that are out of order, our stories don't make sense either.  A few times during the lesson, arrange the rings incorrectly and ask for volunteers to "fix up" the rings.  Talk about how when we rearrange confusing parts of our stories we are helping it to make sense, just like when we rearrange the toy.  (That last part hints at revising which they can learn more about when they're ready.)

One Idea
Who doesn't love a Slinky?  It's a great toy to use for showing children how writers stretch out the sounds in words they don't know how to spell.  Pull the Slinky slowly while stretching out the sounds in words that aren't on your word wall... the children already know how to spell those words (or at least have it as a spelling resource).  After you stretch it out, snap the Slinky back together while you snap the word back as a whole.  Encourage the children to stretch an imaginary Slinky while you're holding the toy.  Do this several times, allowing different volunteers to stretch the Slinky, too.

For greater engagement during this activity, provide a small Slinky to each child (or pairs of children).  You can usually find inexpensive packs of these at discount stores.

One Idea
This is a great lesson to do at the beginning of the year because it's about creating writing identities and realizing that our lives are important enough to write about and share with others.  You'll need one jar of Play-Doh (or other soft clay).  Show the children the dough and say, "This looks like a big bunch of nothing.  What is this?  What can you do with this?"  Accept their responses and ask, "Have you ever sat down to work with clay without knowing exactly what you might make?  Have you ever been surprised by what you made?"  Again, invite discussion.  (During your questions and discussions, fiddle with the dough, all the while crafting something simple you can share with them at the end of the conversation, such as a snake or a ring.)  When the children are finished responding, show them what you made and remark, "Wow, this whole time we were talking, I've been working with this plain lump of clay and, little by little, I uncovered a treasure hiding inside.  I wasn't sure what I would make, but I like the way it turned out."  Talk about how writers do the same thing with paper and pencil. Show them how ordinary a piece of paper is until it has been "played with" ... with WORDS ... that inside this paper, a treasure is also hiding ... their story.  I tell my students, "Sometimes, we don't know exactly how our stories will sound or even how they will end until we start playing with words on the paper.  Writing is about unlocking our personal treasures!"

A Few Ideas
These cheap popping toys are easy to find in discount stores.  They're usually sold as favors in the party supplies section.  Most children will already know how these work, but just in case you don't... you simply flip them inside-out and they "POP" back into place with a snappy little popping sound.  Kids love them!  You can use them to talk about any quality of writing that will make a piece of writing "POP," such as interesting leads, vivid word choice, or colorfully detailed illustrations. If your students are emerging writers, you might want to consider making only one analogy to the poppers, but for 1st and 2nd grade writers, this lesson can lead to a growing anchor chart titled:  Things That Make Our Stories POP!  As you teach these writing moves throughout your lessons, you can add them little by little to chart, eventually creating a resource of several techniques the children can try out in their own writing.

One Idea
I have actually used three different toys over the years to teach the concept of revision, so if you have Tinker Toys, building blocks, or puzzles, know that any of them will help your children make a connection to the idea of revising.  Begin the lesson with a puzzle board in which you've taken out all the pieces and share, "I love puzzles.  I know there are many pieces to a puzzle and it's my job to figure out where each piece goes so the puzzle looks right."  Start putting the puzzle together in front of the children.  After a few pieces are correctly in place,  put one piece in the wrong spot, determined to make it fit because that's where you want it.  (Be dramatic... kids will remember this.)  Sigh, "I really want this piece right here.  I'm trying and trying, but it just doesn't seem to fit with the others.  Maybe it would work better in a different place."  Once you've assembled the puzzle correctly, make the connection to writing.  "You know, putting this puzzle together reminds me of writing stories.  Sometimes, I really want to put certain words in a certain part of my story, but when I reread my story, it doesn't sound right.  It's kind of like the words don't really fit in that spot."  Talk about how writers have to be willing to rethink and move parts of their stories to other places so the whole story will sound right.  Teach, "When writers do this, it's called revising."  

One Idea
I love when we finally get to the part of the year when I feel like the kids are ready to elaborate in their writing.  I sing this cheesy song I made up that goes to the tune of "Summer Nights" from the musical Grease. I have to teach them the tune because they're too young to know the movie, but here it is in case you're the singing-kind of teacher, like me:

Tell me more, tell me more,
I don't think I can wait,
Tell me more, tell me more,
Will you e - lab - or - ate?

Uh-huh, uh-huh,
Let's e - lab - or - ate,
Uh-huh, uh-huh,
Let's elaborate!

I don't think I'll get a songwriting award for that, but it's effective and easy to remember (although I recommend writing it on a chart). Earlier in the year, I give the children a black pipe cleaner and three plastic beads:  one green, one yellow, and one red... they're the colors of a traffic light on purpose.  The beads are a visual and tactile reminder that every narrative has three parts; a beginning (green for "go"), a middle (yellow), and an end (red for "stop").  When I'm ready to teach the concept of elaboration, we go back to our traffic light analogy and I talk about how the yellow light tells the driver to slow down. I connect this to writing by giving the children additional yellow beads to add to their pencil charm.  It's a very visual reminder that by slowing down and elaborating in the middle of our stories, our stories become LONGER and more interesting.

One Idea
For this lesson you'll need many marbles in a clear, plastic cup.  The goal of this lesson is to teach children how to maintain focus and avoid those "bed-to-bed" stories children sometimes write in which they tell everything they did from the moment the sun came up until it set.  Tell the children you have a great idea for a story today and that you'll pull out a marble each time you have another idea to add to the story.  As you continue to brainstorm ideas out loud for your story, pull a marble out of the cup with one hand and place it in the other hand.  Keep sharing new ideas and putting more marbles in your other hand. Exaggerate the brainstorming of multiple (and/or unrelated) ideas until the marbles literally start spilling out of your hand.  Talk about how it was very hard to handle all those marbles at once and how it can be hard for a writer to handle so many ideas in one story, too. Explain, "Sometimes we have so many ideas in our stories, the story becomes HUGE and hard to handle."  Teach how much easier it is to limit yourself to just one main idea and share how that helps a writer maintain focus.  For example, instead of writing about your whole entire day at the beach, maybe you just write a really focused story on searching for shells.  (I think older writers can handle more than one idea in their stories, but I still encourage them to limit it to no more than three.  That depends on your students and your expectations.)

I have more ideas like these in my writing pack, First Grade Writing Units of Study.  You'll find ideas for more toys to use in writing workshop, such as:

• magnets to teach about leads
• trains to teach about story structure
• dominoes to teach about spacing
• a magnifying glass to teach how interesting a small moment can be
• a red rubber ball to teach about capital letters and periods
• bubbles to teach about paragraphs
• a yo-yo to teach about circular endings (one type of ending)
• and multiple uses for Legos

Don't hesitate to ask your students' parents for toy donations and look for inexpensive alternatives to costly toys (such as buying a cardboard puzzle instead of pricey Tinker Toys).  Keep the toys on display after using them in your lesson so the children can see them and you can refer to them when conferring.  

Okay... so that was a really long post, but hopefully you found an idea or two you can use during your writing workshop.  What about you? Have you used toys in your teaching... and how?

Do share.

Happy teaching!  :)


  1. What a fantastic post, Andrea! I love all of your creative ways to really illustrate these strategies! Thank you for sharing these, I'm saving them all!
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  2. Wow. So many great ideas. Can't wait to use them and share them with my colleagues.

  3. This is awesome! Is it on Ponterest?

  4. What an awesome post!! I do writer's workshop with my kiddos and am so glad I ran into your unbelievably great ideas that are definitely going into my toolbox. Thanks a bunch for sharing.😄

  5. I'm saving this post for future reference. I love these ideas and I have many of these toys at home already!
    Teaching Ever After

  6. Fantastic ideas! I love these. You inspired me with a couple more for sequence/order since I don't have the stacking rings. I thought I could use one of those slider puzzles or a block puzzle.
    Slider puzzle: http://www.pavingexpert.com/images/odds/slide_puzzle.jpg
    Block puzzle: http://www.thefairtradestore.com.au/store/components/com_virtuemart/shop_image/product/Block-Puzzle-Jungle3.jpg

  7. Wow this is a fantastic post! Amazing idea. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Wow! This is so fun! I teach 3rd grade, but I think several of these ideas will work for them too!


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