In first and second grade, I recommend starting to introduce math stations in the second week of school. You’ll need the first week or so to begin to get to know your students and teach basic procedures as well as to do some review of familiar math concepts. Things children already know how to do from previous school experience will make up the base of your early math stations and provide a safe ground for students’ independent work. Don’t worry if you’re reading this later in the year. You can start math stations at any time. Of course, it’s best to start early in the year so procedures will be firmly in place and allow you to meet with small groups all year long. But if it’s December or even April and you’re reading this, you can start tomorrow.
If you teach kindergarten, you may take a slightly different approach during the first three to four weeks of school. Instead of introducing math stations, I like to start with having children do exploration stations, in which they explore a different type of math manipulative each day. One day you might show the class connecting cubes and discuss what they may and may not do with them.
Then let all students work with a partner using connecting cubes. On another day, repeat the procedure with teddy bear counters. Have half the students work with teddy bear counters and half work with connecting cubes (unless you have enough teddy bear counters for the whole class to use), then flip-flop. Add a new material each day (buttons, pattern blocks, wooden cubes, etc.), and by the end of a week or two there will be plenty of materials for students to explore with a partner. This isn’t quite math stations, but it’s a start. Exploration stations can be used for investigation of materials for the first few weeks and will be replaced by math stations as you introduce them. You might also take this approach with first graders in the first week or two of school.
While children are working at exploration stations, carefully watch what they do with the materials. Ask your students what they notice. Within a short time, you will probably see them begin to make patterns with materials. This is a signal to move the materials into a more structured type of work, which will become their first math stations.
For example, in kindergarten you may notice kids sorting buttons into piles after just a few days. At this point, talk with them about ways to sort (by color, number of holes, size, fancy/not fancy) and add sorting cards with word and picture clues. They might use plastic desktop sorting circles to structure their sorts as this becomes math station 1.
As you introduce math stations (beginning in week two for first and second grade, and about week four or five for kindergarten), launch only one new station a day. This way you can be clear and explicit so students will remember exactly what you expect. Here’s a process you might use when introducing stations to your class:
Introducing a New Station
1. Gather all materials for the new station and place them in a labeled container. (Be sure you have taught with these materials first.)
2. Show the materials to the whole class and discuss what students can do at this station. (If you’ve taught well, students will usually give great suggestions.)
3. Make an “I Can” list together if you think children will benefit from this support to help them remember what to do with the materials to deepen their mathematical understanding.
During the first weeks of school when introducing the idea of math stations, you will be circulating, observing, and giving assistance to students while students investigate with materials at stations. (Small-group math instruction should begin
after your initial investment of time teaching routines for the first four to six weeks of school, so you know your students and they know your expectations.)
At some point in these early weeks of school, you might brainstorm with the class what math stations time should look like, sound like, and feel like. This helps both the teacher and the students clarify the expectations at stations, which increases the likelihood that they will run more effectively and not just be busywork. If you choose to brainstorm
these expectations, list students’ ideas on a chart, using language they understand. Here’s an example from a second-grade classroom:
Display the chart in a prominent place in your classroom so students can view it as a reminder of what they should do during math stations time. You might want to take digital photos of students working on tasks at stations and post these pictures around the chart as a border, adding more over time. If you teach kindergarten or first grade, you might post these photos beside the corresponding print describing what the photos show. This visual reminder can help students remember the behavior they will exhibit while they work on their own.
Another option is for the class to come up with three or four agreements or rules for stations time. Again, use photos for support. In a kindergarten class, the chart could be made when introducing exploration stations