Today, we’re going to talk about how to use games and toys in your classroom for increased critical thinking and problem-solving skills! When my first graders graduate college and attend their first job interviews, they will most likely not be asked to state the definition of matter. We would be surprised to find them completing a timed addition test, and I can bet they will not need to alphabetize a list of sight words. However, they will need to be creative. They will need to think critically and independently. They will be required to problem solve, collaborate, and communicate effectively with others. The truth is, if we want our students to become BIG thinkers, we need to make thinking a priority. In addition, we need to intentionally add experiences for problem-solving and critical thinking into the classroom. So how do we, as primary teachers, foster a classroom environment that encourages creative, critical thinking skills? I’m glad you asked!
What Are Brain Booster Buckets?
I recently wrote a blog post about how to use games within the classroom to teach logical thinking. In the post, I shared how much I love to use strategy games because they are fun for children and promote essential critical thinking skills. (You can read the post by clicking HERE.) I have always added these strategy games to my math centers. (You can find my Spring Strategy Games in my store by clicking here.) I love them so much, that I started to think of other times I could add more games into our room. I teamed up with Oriental Trading and asked them if I could review some of their educational games and activities in order to see how they relate to critical thinking and problem solving skills. Then, I created “Brain Booster Buckets” to use in our classroom. I simply filled buckets with various games, activities, and toys that students can explore and utilize. There is a TON of research that confirms how important PLAY is to learning. These Brain Booster Buckets allow my students time to play, while intentionally focusing on problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking skills – all of which are essential for life-long learning. I’m so excited to share some of the items I’m placing into these Brain Booster Buckets with you today. Your students will have SO much fun and build their thinking skills at the same time!
Carving Out Time for Brain Booster Buckets
Although I am still on a maternity leave, I’m always creating and thinking of the changes I want to make when I get back to my classroom! In my room, we “book shop” for new books for our Daily 5 reading bins every Friday afternoon. It takes the entire class about 25 minutes to book shop. This happens at the end of the day. While some groups are book shopping, I’ve always had my other students working on something we needed to finish throughout the week, or I show a quick content-related video that ties into our social studies and science concepts for the week. I decided this book shopping time would be the PERFECT time to use Brain Booster Buckets in my classroom! Students can play with the critical thinking games and toys while other students book shop. Then, they can switch.
Other times of the day for Brain Booster Buckets might include:
- Morning Tubs
- Morning Work (I use my See Think Wonder Write resource for morning work Tuesday through Thursday. Brain Booster Buckets would be perfect to use on Monday and Friday mornings for “morning work.” Read more about See Think Wonder Write by clicking HERE.)
- Integrate a Critical Thinking Center into your literacy block
- Small Group Warm Ups for math
- Classroom Reward Days
- Fast Finisher Activities
- Indoor Recess Buckets
Managing Brain Booster Buckets
There are several different ways you can manage Brain Booster Buckets in your classroom. If you are setting them around the room and using them as “critical thinking centers,” you’ll want to create a rotation plan for your students. Each rotation can be 5 to 10 minutes, and you could implement as many or as few rotations as you’d like. For example, your students may get to go to just two Brain Booster Buckets every Friday. Or, maybe they just go to one bucket, or rotate through all of them. Truly, the choice is up to you, and may vary from year to year depending upon your class. As for rules, you’ll want to model how to take care of the pieces in the Brain Booster Buckets without showing the students how to solve the puzzles and complete the challenges. (Remember, the entire idea of this is for students to use critical thinking skills. If we hold their hand and complete the problem solving puzzles and toys for them, it defeats our purpose and doesn’t help grow their brains!)
I suggest putting puzzles and toys that have multiple pieces in zip locked bags within each center. It may even help to label all of the pieces of a puzzle with a letter or number, and label the bag to match. This way, when it’s time to clean up, students can simply match the pieces to the correct bag, and nothing gets lost.
What Can I Put Inside of a Friday Brain Booster Bucket?
You can put ANY toy or game that encourages critical thinking! Oriental Trading has some AMAZING materials, and because they have so many options all in ONE place, they are my go-to store for Brain Booster Bucket materials! Their toys and games are also the perfect size for a classroom bin or bucket – not too big, and just the right size for little hands. In each of the photographs below, I’ll share what I’ve placed into each bucket, tips and tricks for using it in your classroom, and why the game and toy is so powerful and helpful to your students. I’ve also included links to each educational toy or game, so that you can quickly and easily find it if you are interested.
These puzzle balls are so fun but oh so challenging! Each puzzle ball comes apart in pieces. Your students will have to re-assemble the puzzles and put them together. These puzzle balls are the perfect activity to stretch your students’ hand and eye coordination, visual discrepancy skills, and of course problem solving skills! It takes a lot of focus to get these little puzzle balls together, which I think is an excellent learning center and target skill for all of our students! Each pack comes with an assortment of a dozen puzzle balls in four different designs. It’s a cheap but challenging Brain Booster Bucket idea that your students will be able to use again and again!
These puzzle balls were mind-boggling to me and it took me a little longer than I thought it would to piece them together. For this reason, I would make sure you have a completed puzzle available for students to refer to and look at while they re-assemble each puzzle. When I did it this way, it was much easier to complete! Remember to place each separate puzzle ball in it’s own zip-locked bag for easy storage, clean up, and management.
Fast Food Mini Magic Cubes
These mini magic cubes are a fun little visual twist on the traditional rubix cube! Instead of each side being a different color, each side shows fun pictures of various foods. These mini magic cubes are the perfect size for little hands and you receive a dozen cubes in each pack. Why are these mini magic cubes much more than just toys in the classroom? They promote concentration, logical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and a big lesson in determination! When your students are done with the Brain Booster Bucket, have them mix up the cube and throw it back in the bin so it is ready for the next student to use.
Glitter Cube Mind Teasers
These little Glitter Cube Mind Teaser games require a lot of thinking and concentration! There are a variety of different puzzles within each package of 24. (Due to the size and the persistence required to complete the puzzles, I would recommend them for second grade and up. I would fear kindergarten and first graders would get frustrated too quickly.) I also think these little glitter cube mind teasers would make great prizes for classroom rewards, or could be used as a “calm down activity” in your classroom.
Forehead Guessing Game
This Forehead Guessing Game is similar to Hedbanz, which you all know I LOVE! Why do I love using this game as a critical thinking center? It develops your students’ oral language skills, vivid vocabulary skills, and critical thinking skills. Students will have to describe the object or picture to their partner (who cannot see the picture) without telling them what the word is. The player tries to get his or her partner to guess what the picture is on their forehead. Students will need to think quickly and pull in a great deal of real life connections, background knowledge and schema, and descriptive adjectives. It’s a fast-paced game that truly works to increase communication and language skills!
Peg Game Assortment
Strategy, strategy, strategy! If you liked my Strategy Games post and packet for the classroom (find it here), then you will love adding these mini wooden Peg Games to your classroom Brain Booster Buckets! Students will work in partners to play, which also promotes cooperative and collaborative learning skills.
This Starburst wooden peg game is SO FUN! Students have to use their pegs to connect one line to the other. They can’t place a peg into the game board unless it connects to the line their partner previously put a peg on. Whew! Talk about boosting thinking skills! I played this with my husband and it was a great challenge in logical thinking. Your kids will have a blast!
The Tricky Triangle Game is a favorite critical thinking game of mine, so I was so happy to see it included in the pack! You can read more about how I use The Tricky Triangle Game and why it is beneficial for your students in a blog post I wrote HERE.
Believe it or not, there is strategy involved in games like Tic Tac Toe! Students have to plan their future moves in order to win the game, and it is a great lesson to teach students the importance of what it means to think!
The pegs, dice, and wooden boards in this pack are on the smaller side, so be sure to place each in a zip-locked bag for storage and clean-up convenience! I know your students will have so much fun with these games and enjoy the challenges they come with!
Increase the Challenge with Sand Timers
When your students have played all of your Brain Booster Buckets, don’t switch out the activities too quickly. It’s simply time to boost the challenge and increase the difficulty! How? Use these 3 minute sand timers to add a new twist to your Brain Booster Buckets. Throw a sand timer into each bucket, and have your students work against the clock! Your students will love seeing how much of the Puzzle Ball they can complete before the time runs out. Let them work on thinking faster and smarter by seeing how far they can get with the Tricky Triangle Game, how many words they can complete in the Forehead Guessing Game, and how many sides of the Mini Magic Cubes they can piece together before time is up!
A Little Reward for your BIG Thinkers!
When I saw these little brain erasers, I knew I had to share them with you! They make the perfect reward for positive classroom behaviors and prizes. They would also be great to pass out once your students have completed all of the Brain Booster Buckets in your room! Since I am super big on teaching my students all about the power of using their brain, I will be giving these brain erasers out after we complete my Concrete Comprehension Schema Unit during reading time! It is the perfect accessory for teaching students that schema is everything they already have stored in their brains!
I hope you loved these brain boosting ideas and it helped you to think of toys and games to add to your own Brain Booster Buckers. A big thank you to Oriental Trading for sharing all of their thinking-based games and toys with us! You can find more of their activities here. Remember, you don’t have to complete these brain boosters on Friday! Friday is when they will fit nicely into my own schedule, but you can certainly use these games, toys, and ideas for morning tubs, indoor recess, or in a variety of other settings. The important thing is to intentionally add fun problem-solving experiences into your classroom in order to increase critical thinking skills and show students that while it takes practice, growing their brains and becoming BIG thinkers is FUN!
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Oriental Trading sent me the items described and shown in this blog post, in exchange for my personal opinions and review. I never endorse anything I would not personally use in my classroom. I’m happy to be able to share products and resources that I absolutely love with you!