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Math Center Organization

I love collaborating with the 5 other teacher on my first grade team.  They are warm, thoughtful, and inspiring women.  They push me to do my best every day, but also help me to relax and recharge.  Our team is very cohesive, and our methods mirror each other beautifully.  As ideal a situation as this is, sometimes it is nice to "shake things up" a bit and find outside sources of inspiration.  This is why I look forward to my monthly math meeting.  I opt to meet with a group of math specialists, kindergarten and first grade teachers from other schools in my district once a month to compare experiences, share ideas and reflect on our practice.

I always leave these meetings excited and rejuvenated, but this time I also left feeling tongue-tied!  While speaking to another first grade teacher, I felt as though I could not effectively articulate how I structure my math centers, or how I determine what to teach each group and when.  Although it was frustrating, I thought, "Why not try writing it down?"  So here I go...

Building a Library of Independent Centers

I spend a lot of time in the first six weeks of school introducing a variety of activities that will carry throughout the year.  In the last post, I outlined a few of them:  Spill a Sentence, Bean Drop, Build a Floor, Number Trains, Build a City, Spill a Counter or Flip For It!  See more about them here.  I generally teach all students these activities using the number 5 (a great idea from my friend in Milwaukee!)  This way all students learn the same activities together, as we are building a community, but I can quickly alter them in the weeks to come to meet their needs by simply changing their working number.

These games become an integral part of my math centers and remain so throughout the year, as students continue to build their number sense and their fluency with combinations.  I have found the trick to keeping things fresh is to have a balance between these routine activities, and fresh ones based on what they are learning in their math group.  Additionally, giving students the opportunity to choose which of these routine activities to do on a daily basis makes them more invested in their learning.

The other centers that I mentioned (those based on the content of their math groups) are always modeled first in their small group.  Right now I have all of my groups choosing common, routine activities, but then I also assign them centers based on content.  Here are some content-specific activities from the past month:

Triangle Group:  Working on the "counting on" strategy, subitizing, and recognizing number chunks (e.g. When given 7 cubes, they can recognize a group of 3 and a group of 4 within that pile).
Double Compare (also known as "War", but using two cards and a recording page), Addition Bingo, and Memory Match (matching equations).

Rhombus Group:  Working on adding and subtracting ten from numbers through 100, as well as pushing their understanding of number combinations with fact families.
Race-To-The-Top, Ten More & Ten Less, Domino Fact Family, Fact Family Books, and Math Journals (prompts related to adding/subtracting 10)

Trapezoid Group:  Working on the addition strategies doubles, and doubles plus one.  Additionally, we are learning to represent numbers with base ten blocks.
Roll, Write and BuildOrigo's Double TroubleDoubles BumpMath Journals (prompts related to place value and addition strategies) and some additional favorites to encourage addition strategies (Try-A-Tile Single Digit Addition/Subtraction and "Shut the Box")

Square Group:  Working on more complex puzzles to combine logic, reason and addition strategies, as well as learning to count, combine and exchange collections of coins.  
Magic Squares, Math Journals (prompts related to coins), caterpillar coin stamp (a Miss Kindergarten favorite!), Coin Grab, and some additional favorites to challenge their logical reasoning skills (SET, Metaforms, and Try-A-Tile).

Organizing Materials:
I am very comfortable admitting my obsession with organization.  I think it stems from my poor ability to remember where I put things, but this is not a therapy session.  Basically, it is fair to say I am highly organized, and it seems to greatly benefit my students and the structures I put in place during centers.
I keep all of the routine materials out for students to take independently.  Below are some photos of what this looks like in our classroom:

"Build a Floor" bags contain unifix cubes and game board.  Students use the dice at the bottom of the frame that correspond to their "working number"

Kaboom!  A class favorite!  These are kept in old Chrystal Light containers and are labeled with the group's name (shape) so they can easily determine which to use.

These bins each contain 2 colors of unifix cubes and 4 sets of dice in zip lock bags.  Students generally use these materials to play "Build a City"

Bean Drop/Spill The Beans Bins:  Students select a zip lock back from the bin marked with their group's shape.  The bags contain the correct amount of dual colored beans, and a small cup.  Recording Sheets are held in the manilla folders in each bin.  Free bin labels can be found at First Grade Garden.

Counters for games like Bump, Spill a Sentence, Race to the Top are all found in individual sized containers.  No more waiting for students to count out the needed number!

The best way I have found to keep dice on the table, quiet and all in one place!

Work Board
Finally, how do students know where to go?  Well, the work board below tells them based on their current grouping.  Our math block is 60 minutes, so each center is 30 minutes long.  I used to try three rotations of 20-minute centers, but it always felt too rushed.  Now we have 5 days of different centers.  Each group sees me at least twice a week.  I also have the luxury of having our math specialist support two groups on the days she is in our classroom.

I have a big index card organizer that is filled with work board choices.  This actually helps me remember what activities I have available (because EVERY year I forget how many I have created!) as well as reminds me to spiral back and review previously taught centers.

Here is a look at the work board.  The group names (the pattern block shape) is at the top.  They are arranged in no particular order, because I am very conscious of students comparing themselves to their peers.  The activities for each group are placed below the group name card.  We have recently been given 4 iPads per classroom as part of a technology pilot for the first grade team.  The impact these have made on my math and literacy centers will have to wait for a later post!

Now that I have most of it down, perhaps I can get a "re-do" of my last math meeting!  Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Do the dice have a plastic top? if so how do they see what they rolled?

    1. The metal dice container has a clear top. In my classroom the kids shake it once and then they can see what it lands on. This helps with the overly excessive rolling and the dice being flung around. The containers are also magnetic so they can sit anywhere that's metal. I found my containers at Michael's for $1

  2. So where did you get the hanging tool + bags? Everything looks great!

    1. I got them on They are typically used for Listening Centers, but I repurposed them for my math centers.

  3. Do you know what those metal containers are called? So that i know what i am looking for in the store

    1. Kelli, I got them on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond. They are intended to store herbs and spices, but they are so much more fun as dice holders :)