Geometry Fun: Introducing Shapes to Elementary Students

Shapes are not just simple geometric figures; they are the building blocks of our surroundings. They are everywhere we look, from the shapes of the buildings around us, the windows within them, the wheels on our cars, the shape of traffic signs, etc. By teaching children about the concept of shapes, we are helping them better understand and appreciate the world around them.

An individual’s grasp of geometry is developed through deliberate learning experiences, as age and growth alone do not enhance geometric reasoning skills without specific instruction. Research, as found in the van Hiele theory and the The Development of Spatial and Geometric Thinking: the Importance of Instruction, has shown that it is important for children to first name shapes based on objects they are already familiar with. For example, a child might say “This door looks kind of like that window. I’ve heard that the door is called a rectangle, so the window must also be a rectangle.” 

Next, children can begin to recognize shapes in any position or orientation. Geoboards are a helpful tool to practice this skill. This may lead some students to talk about left, right, or upside-down triangles (when the point is on the bottom). The important lesson is for them to recognize that all three are triangles. 

Students can then move on to finding attributes, such as counting the sides of a figure. Older students should also begin to recognize the various angles. Focusing on the attributes is what will help students to distinguish a hexagon (the yellow pattern block piece) with its six sides from an octagon (the shape of a stop sign) with its eight sides and recognize that yellow is not an attribute of a hexagon, even though pattern block hexagons are usually yellow. 

Encourage students to explore and identify different 3D shapes in their environment, such as cubes, spheres, and cylinders. As students learn 3D shapes, they can also identify the 2D shapes on them. For example, a circle is on the top of a cylinder and a square/rectangle is on the prism. By expanding their knowledge of shapes, children will also develop a deeper understanding of spatial relationships and geometry.

Here are some tips for teaching about shapes to your elementary students: 

Use visual aids such as anchor charts, drawing shapes on the board, wooden or plastic shapes (the larger the better for all students to easily see them), and flashcards. These allow students to view multiple shapes in one setting to learn to recognize the differences between the shapes.

Use literature to enhance lessons through a story and visuals:

  • Our ORIGO Big Books | Math Story Books | Pre K – Grade 2 provide a variety of books to reinforce concepts, like comparing, sorting and geometric skills. Also, check out these other books: 
  • The Shape of Things by Dayle Ann Dodds
  • This Is a Book of Shapes by Kenneth Kraegel
  • If You Were a Polygon by Marcie Aboff
  • If You Were a Quadrilateral by Marcie Aboff
  • Captain Invisible and the Space Shapes by Stuart J. Murphy
  • The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns
  • Shapes, Shapes, Shapes by Tana Hoban
  • A Star in My Orange: Looking for Nature’s Shapes by Dana Meachen Rau
  • Ship Shapes by Stella Blackstone
  • A Trapezoid Is Not a Dinosaur! by Suzanne Morris

Add music for a fun and auditory activity:

Incorporate hands-on activities: Have students identify and create shapes using various objects. 

  • Create shapes using playdough. One idea is to have them cut the playdough with shaped cookie cutters. They could also have a page of shape outlines laminated or in a plastic bag that allows them to form the playdough on top of the shapes. 
  • Blocks (plastic, wooden, foam, and magnetic) are great for sorting shapes or creating new ones. Students could build structures with the blocks, identifying how many of each shape they used. 

  • Pattern blocks can be used to create 2D images. Pattern cards are great to use as guides for students to follow in creating the same image. Students could also learn about symmetry when given half an image and instructed to create the other half identically to form the whole. 

  • Pipe cleaners, q-tips, and popsicle sticks are inexpensive tools that can be easily manipulated to form various shapes. They can be glued together or left as is.
  • Toothpicks and mini marshmallows provide a fun way to create 2D and 3D shapes. 
  • Geo-boards are a way for students to use rubber bands to create shapes. Word of advice: be sure to give instructions beforehand about safely using the rubber bands and not shooting them toward anyone or anything!

  • Have students draw shapes with their fingers in pans of sand, sugar, or flour. A gallon ziplock can also be filled with paint and taped onto a desk for students to draw shapes on the outside with their fingers. 
  • Use geometric solids to practice 3D shape recognition.
  • Learn how to draw 3D shapes: How to Draw 3D Shapes
  • Play shape recognition games like “I Spy,” “Shape Bingo,” or I Have, Who Has Shapes to help students practice identifying and matching shapes.
  • Compare and contrast: Have students compare different shapes by size, color, and number of sides to help them understand their unique characteristics. Use sorting activities like having students find classroom items that are shaped like a square or circle. Students could also have muffin tins labeled with a shape in each. Then they could sort out plastic, foam, wooden, or paper shapes to match each labeled shape.

Encourage exploration of real-life shape examples: Allow students to explore different shapes in their everyday environment, such as finding shapes in nature, buildings, traffic signs, food items, household items, or objects around the classroom. Go on a shape scavenger hunt around the classroom, the school, or have students complete it at home or in their own community. Students could list the examples of each shape they observed, bring in items of various shapes, or take pictures of the shapes to be shared with their classmates.

For more activity ideas, check out these resources!

Online games: 

Also, be sure to check out The Think Tank from ORIGO! These task cards include ways for students to expand their geometric thinking. Various cards focus on attributes and geometric shape while practicing core visual, spatial, and reasoning skills.

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