Cuisenaire rods

I vividly remember these ‘mathematics learning aids for students’ at primary school.  This would have been at the very start of the 70s when Cuisenaire rods were at the height of their popularity.

Until quite recently I’d assumed they were called ‘quizinaire’ having never seen the word written down and only rarely spoken.  They were always simply ‘the coloured rods’ which lived in the bright red plastic drawers at the front of the classroom.

The ten rods measured 1cm to 10cm with each increment represented by a different colour:

White 1cm
Red 2 cm
Light green 3cm
Pink 4cm
Yellow 5cm
Dark green 6cm
Black 7cm
Brown 8cm
Blue 9cm
Orange 10cm

The rods were the invention of Belgian primary school teacher Georges Cuisenaire in the early 50s.  Cuisenaire found that pupils who had difficulty with maths taught by traditional methods learned quickly when they manipulated the rods.  Child centred learning emphasised learning by play and Cuisenaire rods were a central part of the new ethos.

Magpie maths

In truth, my magpie instinct was more drawn to the colour element than the gradations in size.  I linked each numerical height with its colour so strongly that yellow was 5 and orange was 10.  The conflation held its own secret fascination.

I deduced that what the shorter rods lacked in height they made up for in brightness of hue as if each rod were granted an equality in power, balancing height with intensity of colour.  But why was red two and pink four and not the other way round?  Could there be a hidden significance to the order?

I might like to think all of this was some kind of synaesthesia but it was more likely an early manifestation of OCD or an autistic tendency.  Colours and car registration letters, numbers on front doors, the colours of clothes worn by particular people on particular days of the week quickly followed.

Unfortunately my appreciation of the rods failed to translate into lasting mathematical ability.  I obtained an ‘unclassified’ in my O level, the lowest possible grade (not proud of it in a “I’m hopeless at maths!” kind of way, just saying).

Tables or rods?

Child centred learning was central at my primary school.
Certainly in our earlier years, the emphasis was more on discovery not instruction, peer group learning rather than whole class teaching.

I even remember one teacher, straight out of training college, asking her class – did we want to do sums or painting?  Painting always won out so maths was neglected until at the age of ten I had a crash course in learning my times tables.  The class chanted them and my mother made me say them out loud or would suddenly demand over morning’s Golden Nuggets “What are twelve fours?”

But perhaps it was too little too late.

Seeing and doing

Still available but far less popular today, Cuisenaire rods now come in plastic which seems unimaginable as the woody feel and smell of them was very much a part of their appeal.  Rod No 4, the pink one, is now, for some reason, purple.

The most enjoyable thing to do with the set was – and still is – to build a pyramid.

Starting with the orange 10s, use four rods of each colour to form an overlapping square, working your way up through the blues, browns and blacks until you end up with a tight square of four white 1s on top.

Like this:

Cuisenaire company

Growing up with Lego
Moving house


I recently rediscovered my PlayPlax set, looking as bright and modern as it did nearly 50 years ago, minus only two squares of the original forty-eight.

PlayPlax (rather pedantically, I thought it should be PlayPacks as a child) was invented by Patrick Rylands in 1966 whilst studying at the Royal College of Art.

Ryland’s ‘spatial construction game’ consists of 48 brightly coloured plastic squares in red, blue, green, yellow and transparent.  An incision on each side allows them to be fixed together to form myriad, interlocking abstract shapes or architectural structures.  The Montreal Convention Centre is a real PlayPlax building.

Rylands became chief designer at Ambi Toys and PlayPlax a staple of children’s play during the late 60s through to the 80s with over a million packs sold.

Plastic fantastic

I used to spend many happy hours with PlayPlax, sometimes simply revelling in the bright colours.

The structures I made were part abstract imaginary, part versions of real-life buildings rendered bright, open, transparent and looking even more fantastic if the sun cast stained plastic reflections over the bedroom carpet.

I thought of my buildings as kinds of churches.  They bore no resemblance to a traditional spire and steeple church yet felt inspirational, hallowed in a very modern kind of way.  They would probably be urban art galleries now.

Six years ago, the original PlayPlax was reissued, no doubt with baby boomers in mind, using the same dyes and even manufactured in the same factory as back in the 60s.

I am sure I have seen a circular/cylindrical version in the intervening years but it’s the squares which have stood the test of time.

PlayPlax company
PlayPlax on Retrowow
Guardian interview with Patrick Rylands

Cuisenaire rods
Growing up with Lego
Moving house

Growing up with Lego

Moving house
in May has meant my childhood belongings, stranded in an unboarded loft for over a quarter of a century, are now accessible at last.   

As Christmas approaches and the thoughts of many turn to giving or receiving toys, it feels a like a good time to begin posting on the toys I played with as I rediscover them nearly fifty years on. 


Last week’s big find was my Lego set, stored in my father’s old toolbox.  I wondered just how old this actual set might be…

Happily, along with the familiar bricks was some helpful publicity heralding the new set available in autumn 1970.  I was six in April 1970.  That sounds about right.

Unmechanically minded

lego-bricksI was never the most dextrous of children and not at all mechanically minded but Lego I liked.

My best friend was much more on trend as he had Fischertechnik, a German product founded in 1965 which seems to have reached US and European saturation by 1970.

Fischertechnik was much more about engineering and motorization.  But I never formed a vision of what a Fishertechniik world might look like, there was no aesthetic grand design that I could see.  You needed to have a basic interest in mechanics to engage with it.

Lost in Legoland


The appeal of Lego was less the construction aspect per se, more my nascent town planner’s instinct to create my very own Trumpton in the brightest of bright primary colours (blue pitched roofs, trucks in chequered yellow and black, platform lawns in radiant green and red pretty much everywhere else) then populate it somewhat bizarrely with plastic farmyard animals and my few Matchbox cars.  Lego supplied trees but not, at least in 1970, people.

This tended to be a Sunday morning activity.  While my parents had their lie-in, the early quiet was an ideal time to assume the uninterrupted role of creator of worlds in brilliant plastic (or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene to be precise).

One interesting aspect of Lego is that you can’t smash it up, taking the equivalent of a wrecking ball to your creation.  You have to pick it apart.  As a child who hated throwing hammers at fairground crockery stalls, possibly that lack of destructiveness and a certain meticulous quality appealed.

“Playing is learning made enjoyable” 


Clearly I couldn’t articulate this at the time, but the feel of Lego wasn’t quite British – was it too well designed? – but nor was it US.  Lego had its own particular aesthetic which perhaps owed something to a European/Nordic, well I might say Icelandic but lego-logoactually Danish, sensibility.   Even that vertical striped logo suggests an idealistic amalgam of Euro flags.

There is something inherently progressive about children’s play products emanating from Europe, as if they must possess a nobler aim than simply to entertain.  There is no deliberate play at cuteness.  Those colourful Cuisenere counting blocks, or ‘rods’ as they were known also come to mind; mine will doubtless turn up at some point.

Amongst my collection there are yellow signs bearing the legend ‘Shell’, a blatantly corporate insertion which wouldn’t make it through contemporary radar (you can just make out an upside-down sign in the top picture).


Look and learn

lego-childrenThe publicity is fascinating.  Boldly colourful pictures of clean-cut børn and Startrite graphics strongly evoke the times lego-textwhilst the text [right] provides glimpses into then current ideas on children’s learning and the wider world.

Here we have the dizzying pace of modern change tempered by a note of paternalistic reassurance and a hint at progressive ideals of child centred learning – by 1970 the child had needs which ‘demanded’ to be met.

Yet the internationalism of ‘boys and girls throughout the whole world,’ reeks not of global corporatism but of Children’s Hour wide-eyed wonder.

A boy’s world

In the publicity material, eight out of ten children shown are boys and in the packaging there are typically two boys to every girl.   lego-boys

At times Lego seem at pains to avoid the generic ‘children’, preferring instead ‘boys and girls’ as if to emphasise that the product is as much for girls as it is boys.  Nevertheless the third person singular is always a ‘he.’

Future planning

Having languished unused for twenty-five years, it seems criminal to simply close the lid on that toolbox for another twenty-five.

Toys are meant for children to play with.  I had a slightly self-conscious try myself and found the bricks, smaller now, still slot together in exactly the same satisfying way they did forty-five years ago.  But those grand designs aren’t in my head anymore, nor the nimblenesss in my fingers.

So I’ll be taking the box and its contents to a charity shop.  Who knows where it will end up for another generation to enjoy?


Lego in the 60s
British Lego Ltd. Wrexham, N. Wales
 – a personal pilgrimage

Cuisenaire rods
Moving house