Written by Debbie Markland

As some of us head “back to the classroom” during COVID19, we have all had to shift a few ways we teach.  Some of us may be teachers teaching virtually, some of us are parents  who may have decided to homeschool for the first time, some of us may be teachers returning to the classroom. Whichever way it may be, we thought it would be helpful to share some activities that use the same materials in several different ways, as I think we will all be limiting shared materials. 

If you are trying to physically distance while in the classroom, you could keep a set of pipecleaners and beads at each child’s station or in his/her bucket/bin.  Here is a list of some ways to use the pipe cleaner and beads!  And bonus… fine motor work the entire time!


We also want to remind you that before you do an activity with any materials- let children explore with them as they wish first!


  1. Numeral Recognition
  • Have a stack of number cards ready.
  • Flip over a card and then put the correct number of beads on a pipe cleaner.


2. Subitizing

Subitizing is the ability to instantly recognize the amount of objects in a set without actually counting them. This mathematical skill helps save time, develop more complex number and counting skills, as well as improve one’s ability to deal with more complex number problems in math beyond preschool.

  • Have a stack of the subitizing cards or a die or dice (depending on subitizing ability) ready.
  • Flip over a card and then put the correct number of beads on a pipe cleaner.


3. Color Match

  • Just as it sounds. Have your child match the color beads to the same color pipe cleaner.



  • Perhaps start with modeling a pattern with colors and then have the child copy.


  • Start a pattern and then have them extend it.


  • Have them make a pattern and others copy.


  • Make a pattern with a mistake and ask if they can find the mistake.


  • Use pattern cards, like these, and see if your child can model the pattern.
  • If ready to name the patterns as AB, or ABC, or AABB, etc., give them a named pattern and have them create.

5. Numeral Formation

  • Have a stack of number cards ready.
  • Flip over a card and then make the numeral with the pipe cleaners.  You may need to cut the pipe cleaners a variety of lengths to make this easier.
  • As an addition, then have the learner find the correct number of beads to match the numeral.


  • If manipulating the pipe cleaners is hard for your child, have them line the beads on top of the numeral you have already printed.

6. Form a Shape

  • Draw some shapes on a handful of index cards, such as a circle, square, rectangle, triangle, oval and rhombus.
  • Have students use the pipe cleaners to build the shape.  Again, you may want to have pipe cleaners of various sizes (waiting to see if your child sees the need for a shorter piece may be insightful as well). 
  • You could also encourage using the beads as the corners. 
  • Discuss the number of sides, number of corners and straight and curved lines as you are doing this activity.
  • As added fun- fill the inside of the shape with beads.


7. Which pipe cleaner has more beads? Less/ fewer beads?

  • Have your child (or maybe you for the first round) put some beads on 2 pipe cleaners.
  • Discuss which pipe cleaner has more.  Which one has less?  How many more does pipe cleaner A have than pipe cleaner B?  How many less does pipe cleaner A have than pipe cleaner B?

8. Make them the same!

  • This would be great to do on its own or in combination with Activity # 7.  
  • Give your child two pipe cleaners with a different amount of beads on each one.
  • Use this as a great number sense conversation.
  • How many are on pipe cleaner A?  Pipe cleaner B?  How could you make them equal (a fair share)?

9. Greater Than, Less Than

  • Create two small piles of beads (each pile less than 10, and of course depending on your child’s number ability/ knowledge)
  • Count each pile.  Place the correct numeral card with each pile.
  • Have the child then decide which pile is bigger or has more beads.
  • Use the “old alligator trick.”  Make an alligator mouth and then have the child pose the mouth so it is eating the bigger number.  

 You could also use number cards, subitizing cards or 2 dice to start. Then count out the number of beads to match the cards and then add the < or >. Don’t forget about the =!


10. Rekenrek

If you have not used a rekenrek before, check out this video by Erikson Math Collaborative to help you understand the concept behind it.

  • Have students build their own rekenrek by placing two sets of five beads on two pipe cleaners  (like the photo below).
  • After you give students some exploring time with the device, use the handmade rekenrek to pose questions to your child to help them develop number sense. (Use only the red ones (just two sets of 5) if just starting).
  • This is a superb tool to teach the idea of subitizing.
  • Some examples of questions posed by a teacher might be:

Teacher:  I have ten beads on this pipe cleaner.  If I pull 5 to one side, do I still have ten on the pipe cleaner?

Teacher:  If I have a set of three red beads (push the set of white ones aside and show three beads), how many more do I need to make a set of 5?