Ahoy, me Hearties! It’s the Pirate Captain’s Cuisenaire Rod Challenge!

In my role as Principal, every day I take the opportunity to step away from the office admin duties to enjoy spending time in various classes and sharing in all the learning taking place.  This week, I had the pleasure of teaching a couple of short numeracy sessions with the Year 2 class.

I chose to review and apply their understanding of number bonds/number facts to 10 and 20, using the Cuisenaire Rods. Fitting in with their’ Sea Faring’ class topic, my activities were presented in the context of the children being sailors working for a notorious Pirate Captain (who was known for expecting a hardworking crew, but who also liked to have fun along the way).  I have to say… the Captain was extremely pleased with all of the Year 2 sailors – their key number skills were impressive and fortunately no one was made to scrub the poop deck or walk the plank and feed the fish!

Take a look at some photos of the mathematical adventure we had together as we weighed anchor and hoisted the mizzen! I think the Year 2s will agree that playing and learning at the same time is fun for everyone!

Day 1:

On the first day, the crew arrived into class to find a letter from the Captain requesting them to help create masts for her new fleet of pirate ships.  Joining the Cuisenaire Rods together, each mast had to measure exactly 20 cm and no two masts could be the same!

Just to give you a quick understanding of Cuisenaire Rods, they are coloured sticks that come in various lengths that can be assigned different numeric values or units of measure.  Cuisenaire Rods are an amazing resource.  They give children visual confirmation of their hands-on investigations of math concepts.  They help them transition from concrete to abstract representation of math concepts.


Shiver me timbers! There are so many combinations that make 20.  Here are just a few of the masts the Year 2 sailors discovered: The Captain really liked hearing all the mathematical language and thinking that the sailors shared as they presented and explained each newly built mast – “I know 10 lots of 2 is 20!”, “6 and 4 is 10 and then I doubled it!” and “4 times 5 = 20 so that’s 4 yellow sticks!” etc.


Day 2:

On the second morning, blow me down if the Captain wasn’t back again with another task! She had recently acquired some pieces of eight and was eager to splash out on some new pirate must-haves.  There was everything a pirate would ever want… ships, treasure chests, swords, skulls and crossbones, anchors, loyal pirates, even her very own desert island!

Following a picture plan, each item had to be carefully created with the Cuisenaire Rods.

After this, the sailors needed to calculate how much each one would cost the Captain to buy – adding up the value of all the rods used, with each single brick costing 1 cent.  Therefore, for example, a yellow rod being 5 cubes long would cost 5 cents and an orange rod being 10 cubes long costing 10 cents.

So once again like the day before, heave ho, the avid sailors got busy building.  When they had completed an item, a photo was taken of it, as it was understood that they may want to break it up to help calculate the total cost.  Some sailors simply tried counting each brick, one by one – it worked, but they sometimes found that they lost count or got muddled and had to start again.  Others attempted to write and add up really long number sentences … 2 + 3 + 4 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 7 + 10 + 8 + 3  etc.  These were tricky and, like the counting, the sailors found that mistakes were easy to make.  The children were encouraged to think back to the mast task the day before and apply the skills they had of making sticks of 10 and 20.  Making this connection, soon everyone began rearranging their item rods into sticks of 10 or sometimes 20, discovering that this counting strategy was a much quicker way to find the total cost, with less chance of making errors. Aye, Aye, Captain.

Once again at the end of the session, the Captain was really impressed (and she had a stash of must-haves and fond memories of their adventure together to boot). The sailors were awarded a ‘Star of the Week’ in our Celebration Assembly for their amazing individual and entire crew efforts.

I often see fun, engaging Maths sessions in action when I visit Mr. Toby, teaching his Year 2 class, so I knew I had big boots to fill to keep this crew of young sailors learning and shipshape!  I’m sure the old Seadog will be very pleased with how his Year 2s applied their well-practiced and excellent knowledge of number bonds and number facts so well to these activities!

There are so many ways this activity could have continued or could be extended.  Perhaps some ideas will be explored in our Raft Building, Sea Faring Summer Camp? Sailors from 7 – 13 years old are welcome to board!  It certainly will be an activity I will always have on hand, should I escape the office again and find myself taking a class. Maybe next year, when the children are in Year 3, the Captain will return again! Yo, ho, ho – doing Maths can be fun!


If you are a teacher who has come across our post, please feel welcome to try out our investigations.  Send us photos of what your class creates.  You can find the teachers resource that had the picture cards here.  I love being inspired by other teachers’ amazing ideas and hope sharing this blog, inspires someone else.

If there was to have been a day 3, it would have been great to create our own pirate must-haves. There must be other pirate must-haves, we haven’t explored yet?  It would be wonderful to allow the sailors the opportunity to bring their own creative ideas to the Captain.  What about a pirate flag?  How about making our own pirate ships designs – that would be fun.  Comparing and ordering the cost of the different designs the crew came up with would be interesting.  What if there was a limited budget?  What would be more important, more sails… more cannons… a bigger hull?  If the Captain had a dollar to spend,  I wonder what a pirate hat at this price would look like? Imagine making each item much bigger and finding the totals then!  Creating and counting up in 10 and 20s would definitely seen as a useful totally strategy, or perhaps groups of 10 times tables!

They are many possibilities to extend this linking it to money.  We could count out coins to match the cost of the pirate must-haves.  How about making a domino game, matching the must-have with coin totals?  Counting beyond 100 and writing the total in cents was okay, but it was tricky to know how to write 117 cents in dollars and cents – $1.17.  We could use the photos we took to make a sale flyer, just like the one we see every month in the IGA supermarket or create an online catalogue or video an advertisement.

We could record our designs on squared paper and display them or make a class book.  How about creating some designs on cards?  Some coloured in, some just an outline – and laminating them so that children in younger class could match the rods on top.

For older children, I imagine you could do all the same activities above, simply changing the value each of the Cuisenaire Rods, e.g. a single cube could be worth 10, 100, 0.5.  How could the investigation be linked to fractions?  Or scale?  What would the value be if we made each must-have 5, 10 or 100 times bigger?  What if the captain wanted 3, 8, 10 or 20 times the number of must-haves – the children would have to apply their multiplication skills. The possible ways to adapt these two lessons to different age groups seems endless!


Parents may like to get their own tub of Cuisenaire Rods to play with at home or to use to help with homework. They really are a  simple resource that is so versatile.


Speak Your Mind

%d bloggers like this: