I've been teaching for about 18 years now, and my classroom has changed dramatically over that time. Basically I've slowly been bringing items from my house into my room. It started with basic school supplies, like a stapler that works instead of the school ones that jam with every other staple. Then I moved on to bringing in books, steadily bringing in book after book into my room. (Strangely enough, the shelves at home are still always full. Go figure!)
As my children at home have gotten older, I've started bringing more and more toys into the classroom. And they are so wonderful and useful that I've even started buying toys! No matter what I am teaching, toys work wonderfully. Here are some examples...
Stuffed toys: Role play and retellingStuffed toys are easy to acquire, and lend themselves to many uses. At the bare minimum, stuffed toys are great to have for students to access freely through the day. Even in sixth grade I have some kids who deal with Monday by getting a favorite stuffed animal to sit with them during class. How awesome is that?
But stuffed animals have other uses, too. When modeling a literature circle or a classroom routine, stuffed animals are great for playing the negative roles. I never have students play these parts, as I don't want to encourage the negative behavior. But stuffed animals are great for this because they grab student attention and are so cute.
Stuffed animals are also helpful for retelling. They don't mind being tasked with multiple roles, and using a stuffed animal can help a student work out "who did what to whom".
I first started buying K'Nex for my own two boys. They offer an interesting building system that provides different affordances than Lego. They are also (fairly) inexpensive to purchase with the 40% off any item coupons that Michaels and A.C. Moore occasionally offer.
After I saw how much my own kids like K'Nex, I found the education sets that K'Nex offers. They are great! Topics like Bridges, Force and Motion, and Simple Machines are fun to teach with the K'Nex sets. Kids like having the chance to follow the directions or create their own items.
For our current Force and Motion unit, kids are using both the stuffed animals and K'Nex vehicles to investigate the importance of seatbelts.
MarbleworksI first brought Marbleworks into the classroom to be something to occupy my oldest son before and after school. Back when I first started teaching in elementary school, my oldest son was a kindergartener, and keeping him entertained in the hour I spent working before and after school was an important consideration!
Slowly Marbleworks became an indoor recess toy, and then I saw its value for learning activities. Marbleworks is great for introducing inquiry and testable questions--just give kids a timer and say, "What could you do with this?"
Right now, Marbleworks is a toy that kids can use in science as we work on forces and motion. Where does the marble have the most potential energy? What could we do to increase the amount of time it takes the marble to get to the bottom?
I also like to use Marbleworks to bring out cooperation and teamwork in kids. This is such an engaging toy that kids can usually work together well to put together a great set. Sometimes, when groups of friends aren't getting along, I'll actually assign them to play Marbleworks, on the condition that they cooperate. Then we can talk about their experiences: "What worked well? What can you use in other situations?"
These are just a few of the toys that I have in my classroom. No matter what I bring in, I seem to be able to find a relevant use for it! My classroom certainly is neat and clutter-free, but kids do find it engaging. What toys are your favorites for the classroom?