Cuisenaire Rods are a versatile collection of rectangular rods of 10 colors, each color corresponding to a different length..
The shortest rod, the white, is 1 centimeter long; the longest, the orange, is 10 centimeters long. One set of rods contains 74 rods: 4 each of the orange (σ), blue (e), brown (n), black (k), dark green (d), and yellow (y); 6 purple (p); 10 light green (g); 12 red (r); and 22 white (w). One special aspect of the rods is that, when they are arranged in order of length in a pattern commonly called a “staircase,” each rod differs from the next by 1 centimeter, the length of the shortest rod, the white.
“Older students who have no previous experience with Cuisenaire Rods may explore by comparing and ordering the lengths of the rods and then recording the results on grid paper to visualize the inherent “structure” of the design.”
Unlike Color Tiles, which provide a discrete model of numbers, Cuisenaire Rods, because of their different, related lengths, provide a continuous model. Thus, they allow you to assign a value to one rod and then assign values to the other rods by using the relationships among the rods.
Real World Adaptations
Cuisenaire Rods can be used to develop a wide variety of mathematical ideas at many different levels of complexity. Initially, however, students use the rods to explore spatial relationships by making flat designs that lie on a table or by making three-dimensional designs by stacking the rods. The intent of students’ designs, whether to cover a certain amount of a table top or to fill a box, will lead students to discover how some combinations of rods are equal in length to other, single rods. Students’ designs can also provide a context for investigating symmetry. Older students who have no previous experience with Cuisenaire Rods may explore by comparing and ordering the lengths of the rods and then recording the results on grid paper to visualize the inherent “structure” of the design. In all their early work with the rods, students have a context in which to develop their communication skills through the use of grade-appropriate arithmetic and geometric vocabulary.
Though students need to explore freely, some may appreciate specific challenges, such as being asked to make designs with certain types of symmetry, or certain characteristics, such as different colors representing different fractional parts.