Brain bins are what I call morning tubs in my first-grade classroom. They include open-ended materials that my students use to explore, create, build, and- dare I say it, play with during the first 8-10 minutes of our day. Brain bins are our morning work every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. (On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we complete another open-ended morning work activity called See Think Wonder Write.) To put it simply, brain bin time is an easy, low-management time in our weekly routine that sets a happy tone for our day. It helps my students wake up, warm-up, and shouts, “Good morning! Get ready to THINK today!”
Rationale and Research for Brain Bins
For some, the word play or the concept of first-graders building with blocks and assembling puzzles can be looked down upon as a “waste of instructional time.” I imagine statements such as, “Think of the literacy instruction that could be done in those ten minutes a day,” or, “My students are struggling too much to play. I need them to work on _____ right when they get into the room,” being whispered. Let me first start by saying, I get it. I, too, have students in my classroom who are struggling to read. I, too, feel the enormous pressure of test scores, data, and intervention needs. I, too, have read the research about increasing independent reading time as much as humanely possible during the school day.
But I also know what research says about child development. Over my years as an educator, I’ve come to deeply know the works of Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and so many others as well as I now know the benchmark cutoff scores for our diagnostic testing. I know that without time for unstructured inquiry, imaginative play, and an opportunity for students to develop social competency, we are doing our children a long-term disservice. I know that regardless of the high pressures of state-testing and the ever-increasing demands of educators, my students are more than a score.
I also know that my students come to me as six-year-olds. While we pour over Lexile Levels, DRA scores, and national percentiles, our six-year-olds are silently begging us to let them be kids. I know that the levels in creative thinking among students in our country has continued to decline since the 1990s (Kim, 2011). I know that in 2010, an IBM global study of more than 1500 CEOs cited creativity as the most sought after quality in an employee. I know without time to explore, create, build, and play, I fail to provide my students with what a whole child needs to succeed. Brain bins are a small way that I am responding to these issues within my classroom – and my students LOVE it! It is for this reason, that I am sharing this blog post with you. I hope you enjoy it!
The image that I created below does a great job at summarizing the skills that brain bins can foster in just a short amount of time during your morning:
Brain Bin Management and Storage
Now that we’ve chatted about what brain bins, or morning tubs, are, let’s quickly talk about how I manage them, organize them, and of course, what I put into them!
(The remaining part of this post includes some Amazon Affiliate links for your convenience, so that you can find and reference the materials and supplies I refer to. This just means that my blog receives a tiny compensation if you click on these links- at absolutely no extra charge to you!)
The picture below shows the back wall of my classroom. I’ve used the IKEA Trofast Storage System to house my brain bins and word work centers. My brain bins are numbered 1-6 and the materials are kept inside of the orange tubs. You can also keep it simple and use these durable storage contains found here that I use to store materials that are not currently being used.
When students come into our classroom in the morning, they check the whiteboard to see which brain bin tub their table gets to use that day. This year I only have five tables in my classroom, so our sixth orange tub is left empty. At the end of the day, I simply put the bottom label on #1 and rotate them all down. (I used magnets to attach them to the whiteboard.) I only switch the materials in my brain bins every six weeks or so. This allows my students to go to each brain bin station roughly six times. (They do not get bored, and the point of this rotation system is to encourage students to use the materials in new, innovative, and creative ways each time they get the tub out!)
Students work quietly at their tables while our school’s morning announcements play for about 8-10 minutes. I use the Class Dojo Noise Level Meter during brain bin times and because my students might CRY at the thought of losing the privilege of brain bins, they are so great about adjusting their volume if they get a little excited. At the end of our morning announcement time, students clean up, put their bins away, and grab their math binders to start our day. Easy and fun!
I love that my students of all levels get to begin our day on a HAPPY note. I love that my struggling students are not immediately entering my classroom with anxiety over a review page that they cannot complete independently. This is the same feeling I have when we complete our See Think Wonder Write routine on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can read all about this integrated learning routine HERE.
Favorite Brain Bins
Now, let’s get to the fun part! WHAT do I put into my brain bins? Let me start by saying that it doesn’t have to be expensive or daunting. Truly! Throw Popsicle sticks into a bin and see what kids can do! Put q-tips, construction paper, and glue sticks into a tub and watch creations unfold. Get creative! After all, that is our goal. I’ll share a lengthy list at the end of this post, as well as links to other bloggers who use morning tubs, but let me first share some of my classroom’s FAVORITE brain bins to date!
Dado Squares – These 3-inch interlocking squares can be assembled in all kinds of ways. They received multiple toy awards, including the Preferred Choice Award and the National Parenting Seal of Approval. I love how easy they are to store in a small space, and my students love how many ways they can use them! This set increases fine motor skills and promotes reasoning skills as students work to built structures that stand and are balanced.
Magformers – Magformers are a little pricey, but they are SO fun! They scream “creativity” with elementary students (and even adults!). My students love building structures and designing everything from robots to houses to towers. I only keep a small amount in my tub (because of the price) but this encourages collaboration, which is exactly what my goal is!
Bristle Blocks – Bristle Blocks are an awesome sensory building material that allows students to connect the pieces in tons of ways. Their unique shapes promotes all kinds of 3D building and creativity.
Foam Peg Blocks – I actually took these from my toddler’s bedroom and put them into our brain bins this month. (Shh!) My kids LOVE them! They interlock and can be used to create and build all kinds of imaginative pieces. I also love that they are foam, which means they are super quiet!
iSpy Bingo – Don’t forget about adding cooperative GAMES to your brain bins! My students love this original iSpy Bingo game. I love that it promotes teamwork and socialization. Bonus- It works on visual processing skills, too, especially visual memory and visual figure-ground skills. (You can read more about how to enhance visual processing skills in your students in this blog post.)
You can also read a blog post I devoted specifically to brain-boosting games in the classroom. This blog post features a list of child-friendly games that enhance critical thinking skills. All of the games featured would work perfectly as brain bins.
Squigz– These suction cup builders are a favorite. The second time I put these into our brain bins this year, my students cheered. I also like that they don’t get messy because they stick right to the table. My students have amazed me with the elaborate structures they’ve created with these little suction toys!
Pattern Blocks- Pattern blocks are probably a material you already have in your classroom. Students LOVE to use them to make designs, pictures, patterns, and my students have even created games to go along with the shapes! Encourage students to identify the shapes as they play for added geometry practice.
Clip Connect Pieces or “Snowflake Blocks” as we call them- These little connectors are a hit, especially in the winter. My students have had fun making all kinds of snowflake designs using the pieces. Students have also explored some pretty complex patterns using all of the colors with this set.
Brain Building Planks by KEVA – These are so challenging and a great critical-thinking booster! Students work together to recreate the structures and models that are represented on the cards. There are varying levels of difficulty. The planks are shown in various ways to help students re-create the structure. They must learn to “see” the design from a birds eye view and a side-view. This morning tub really helps encourages “out of the box” thinking and problem-solving skills.
Legos – I purchased the Classic Medium Box of Legos for my classroom brain bin and it was just enough for students to be able to build, but also work together while creating. My students love when the Legos appear in the brain bins, and I love the engineering skills and problem-solving strategies that I get to observe!
Play Dough – I know, it can be “scary” to put play-dough out as a morning tub. However, I love play dough for morning tubs because of the sensory calming feel it can give to my high-energy students. It also helps students with poor handwriting skills develop hand muscles and dexterity in their fingers. When play dough is offered in my brain bins, my students know to grab a quick cleaning wipe during the clean-up process. Then, we’re good to go!
Other Brain Bin Ideas
I hope the items above gave you a good jumping-off place for ideas and materials that can be added to your morning tubs. In addition to the above materials, here are some other creative ideas to use in your brain bins:
- seasonal books
- coloring books
- math cubes
- dice and paper – Let them create games!
- iSpy books
- Highlights Magazines
- a tub of fairy tale books to reread and enjoy
- stickers and writing paper
- Brain Flakes
- classic games such as checkers and tic-tac-toe
- puzzles! (Do you know how many students today have never done puzzles?!)
- toothpicks (What can you create?)
- classic wooden blocks
- kinetic sand
Quick Shopping Links
Below are quick affiliate links from Amazon for all of the materials I mentioned above! I hope this helps get you started in a convenient and easy-to-access way:
Additional Morning Tub Bloggers:
Share Brain Bins With Others
If you loved the concept of using brain bins in your classroom- even if it used as your indoor recess routine- feel free to pin the image below to your Pinterest board to share with your colleagues, or pin them to refer back to later! Thank you so much for hanging out with me during this blog post. Be sure to follow me over on Instagram @missdecarbo for additional teaching ideas, and check out my curriculum shop for K-2 classroom resources!