Posted by Mathagogy on Jun 7, 2013

Simon Gregg, Toulouse, France

Cuisenaire rods, invented by the Belgian teacher Georges Cuisenaire in 1931, are one of the great manipulatives we use in the classroom so that children can see and handle numbers as objects, and explore the properties of numbers physically and visually. There are two examples of their use in this video: using the rods to represent the factors of a number, and using them to investigate a particular case of the difference of two squares.

Here’s a fascinating video of Caleb Gattegno using Cuisenaire rods with young children. The nrich Cuisenaire environment is a easy way to try things out online, and to record what has been done with physical Cuisenaire rods. The nrich site has a lot of other activities that use the rods too.

See my blog post for a more open-ended way that I’ve used the rods to explore visual patterns.


  1. Emma
    10 June 2013

    Despite being a secondary teacher I found this incredibly interesting. Particularly the lovely, simple, visual representation of the difference of two squares. It’s sad that these and other tangible resources, which are clearly powerful tools to develop understanding, are absent from many secondary maths classrooms. Thanks for the inspiration Simon!

  2. Michael Kelly
    15 July 2013

    I think the beauty of primary maths teaching is here. It is a joy to work with the essential : the idea the experience and the generalisation. This is elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

  3. Julie
    22 July 2013

    I have had these rods for a few years knowing they were mathematical, but not having a good way to use them. Thank you for this video.

  4. Oliver Wilkinson
    27 September 2014

    We were told my daughter was assessed as being around 18 months ahead of her reading age by the end of Reception year, but her Maths (although average) could be improved. She’s 5, and yesterday I asked her “what is 6 + 1?”, she had to use her fingers and still got the answer wrong. When I asked “what’s 10 + 1?” she said she’d not got enough fingers! I am not in any way convinced by the teaching methods in UK classrooms – either for literacy or numeracy – and this simple test just reinforced that view. I asked an Ed Psych friend a while back for some tips on home learning. He advocated a departure from the school approach, in favour of far more effective (and fun) methods. These proved helpful with the reading, and at the time he’d simply said “get yourself some Cuisenaire Rods and play with them together”. I did buy a set from EBay but must confess they’ve sat in the toy-box since. So I decided to find a YouTube video, and came across some fantastic 1961 footage of Dr. Caleb Gattegno (doing what I thought was seriously impressive mathematics) with a group of 1st grade Canadian school-children My daughter started watching with me, but halfway through was already champing at the bit to find the rods; “I’ve got some of those!”. We started by making a ‘staircase’ and following other tasks in the video. Within an hour, she was informing Mummy (who is 27) that she can make her age with three 9’s, or two 10’s and a 7. WIth a little coaxing she was also grasping the concept of Primary Numbers, which with the C Rods is as simple as seeing if you can make up a number perfectly (eg. 9, which is blue) with other rods of a single colour – but not white which is 1. She soon worked out that three (green) 3’s fit the bill and went on to make nine 3’s for 27. We’ve then started memorising the colour/number combinations, so we can call out “seven” and the other has to answer immediately “black” as a fun game, to build on what we’ve been doing. Looking at the clock I think we’ve spent about 1hr 15 mins in total and she’s honestly come further forwards than in the last 6-8 months at school. Why oh WHY did these teaching methods go out of fashion? Bless you Emile-Georges Cuisenaire and Caleb Gattegno! And, with some intrigue, I know see he was employing some revolutionary, or at least highly alternative, methods of learning English and other languages, so there’s more to explore. If I could bear the financial ruin it almost tempts you to start home educating!

  5. Simon Gregg
    7 October 2014

    Oliver, that’s really interesting, and I’m so pleased you had such a positive experience with your daughter! Thank you for taking the time to share it with us.

    Isn’t it great how the rods hand over so much power to children to visualise and represent, to play and to explore!

    I guess, you could always do a little home educating along with the day job. And there’s plenty more reasons to get the rods out again. Here’s a few lessons I’ve used them for:

  6. James Briggs
    15 March 2015

    I had trouble in math because it was based on memorization. Teachers like to train students rather then to teach a student. they like it because it is less work and is cheaper. When I got to college I became friends with the head of the Math Department. He who told me that I was talented in math. It was too late for me but not for my daughter. Instead of memorization the Cuisenaire Rods teach concepts. Once your child really learns numbers all of math becomes easy. The rods are especially important for teaching girls. Girls need a positive learning environment. Math is not taught like other subjects. What happens is the teacher puts the problem on the board and the students complete to come up with the right answer the fastest. The teacher jokes about the who ever gives the answers right or wrong. So the anyone who answers is made to seem like a fool. Most boys find this fun. Most girls don’t. I worked with my daughter before she want to school with the Cuisenaire Rods and she is a math genius. She works for one of the most advanced computer engineering firms in the country. She is head of an international engineering society. Don’t worry she is still a female and is happily married Every child is a genius but they need a learning environment that works for them. Boy and girls both like to understand what they are doing and love to get attention from an individual non pressure learning environment. The Cuisenaire rods really work. Please give them a try.

  7. Siobhan
    31 March 2015

    We have three children educated in the state school system in France. One child in CE1 (grade 2, I think in the British system) is by his teachers’ assessment in “grande difficulté”. He stumbles with basic arithmetic and still counts on his fingers etc. However I, perhaps naturally as his parent, can only see his immense potential, originality and creativity. He’s bilingual, musical, literate and despite having problems following his maths lessons at school, is great at geometry which they have barely touched on at school (we do IXL online). I find the French curriculum incredibly slow and frankly, the teaching methods and organisation in the French classroom appalling. I now find myself in the position of having to double up and tutor at home in order to compensate.

    I do have a set of cuisenaire rods and the children have been playing with them freely for a year or so now. I find them incredible, but I’m overwhelmed by their potential and despite having all the original Gattengo workbooks, I’m finding it hard to start the literal work.

    Given that my child is 8 and a half years’ old, I feel that if I start at the beginning we’ll never catch up. And when do we find the time to do all the very measured, step by step discovery that is required? I’m not sure I’m presenting the material properly or if I’m trying to go too fast. I want to do everything at once and find it hard to step back and be patient.

    In the meantime he still has to go to school (tortured by worksheets, bad marks and insults) and is not that keen to do extra “work” at home. I’m finding it hard to conceal my anxiety and frustration. I wish I could sign him up (and his brothers, why not) for a Cuisenaire holiday camp to get them off to a good start so I could build on what they’d learnt. I’m not sure I’m up to the job of doing it all on my own. Any advice? (Other than moving back to the UK, we’re seriously considering it… and unfortunately we can’t afford the fees at the Toulouse International or we’d be there in a shot!)

  8. Simon Gregg
    23 April 2015

    That’s interesting to read Siobhan. My son went through French primaire, so I’ve got some experience of what the system can be like. It can be very much a “deficit model” of learning. Marks out of 20 in the weekly contrôle…

    What a good idea a Cuisenaire Camp would be! They are a great tool the Cuisenaire rods.

    It’s wonderful that you’re up for supplementing what happens at school.

    Here are some of the things we’ve been doing with them at IST this year with the 8-9 year olds:
    Maybe scroll down and look at older posts first.
    And while you’re at it, it might help to look at all our maths posts:

  9. Linda
    24 August 2015

    I initially discovered these rods for an activity for children with dyscalculia on the Ronit Bird website. I was researching how else I could use them and if it was worth investing in a set. I’m going to purchase a set now!

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