This is the text of the pamphlet that came with physical Thinking Sticks. Some things won't apply if you make your own at home. If you don't have sticks, you could use something else—blank dice, cards, poker chips—something you can write on and choose from randomly. There are several word-lists linked at the bottom of the main Thinking Sticks page.


Sandra Dodd’s Thought Manipulatives

*an intro to learning through play*

One of the worst legacies of school is that graduates have learned to totally separate math from history, and music from science. Even if we can occasionally make a crossover (Roman numerals, or the physics of how a violin string works), we don’t HAVE to if we don’t want to, because we’ve already taken the tests and graduated.

Unschooling’s challenge is to combine and recombine and cross-pollinate everything. When a person’s mind is neatly organized, though, that can be hard to do.

This is a game to mess up your mind a little bit.

On the theory that once a connection has been made in your brain the trail will remain for future short-cutting, messing up your mind can be a good thing. If you have interstates and boulevards, they’ll still be there if you add a lot of small streets and side paths. And the level-ground analogy is insufficient. You can travel up, down, past and future.


Choose two sticks.
Throw them down.

Throw out ideas of how those things are related, or what other subject forms an intersection. Once at a conference I threw down “water” and “burial customs” and people came up with the Ganges River in India, regulations concerning depth of burials and water tables, above-ground graves in New Orleans, and within a couple of days others had added a Zoroastrian region in Iran which features huge underground conduits for getting water into the desert built by people who set their dead in the air on platforms, and the naval custom of burial at sea.

When children are playing with you and you have to explain what some of the abstract concepts are, it’s an exercise in exposition for the parent and a mind-enlarging vocabulary moment for the child.

While you’re scanning your mind for the intersection of “shoes” and “Japan,” you might stop right at removal of shoes when entering a Japanese house. Not bad, but the NEXT time you throw those, don’t use the same answer again. What else is there? Why do they do that? Where are tatami mats common and why? What customs follow sports from one country to another? What realities of shoe (and sock) production go with that custom? If your kids know all about this, why do they know? If they don’t, do you have any photos of Japanese houses in your home? Remembering where they are will be a scan of your resources—what books, magazines or other sources do you have at hand? It can turn into a big explore, if not right that moment, sometime in the next day or week or year or lifetime.


— Let a concept, thing, place or person be “it” (either one of the sticks, or anything else from your life) and draw sticks one at a time to connect to “it.”

—Use three sticks at a time.

—Use single sticks; sing songs about the topic.


The sets are very similar but no sets are identical. The original set, mostly on recycled popsicle sticks is still the property of Sandra Dodd. The second set is with Pam Sorooshian, and her family has added sticks. If you’d like to add sticks, I recommend those sticks with the riddles or brand names on them, over bought crafts sticks Your kids will enjoy the sticks more if they can look back years later and say “This one came from the ice cream truck; it was a Mickey-Mouse ice cream thing” or whatever. That will really personalize your set.


If you throw two and can’t think of anything, throw two more, or turn those two over. There’s no scorekeeping, and the biggest win you can have is that the game doesn’t end, but that the questions stay in your mind to continue to gather “answers” (connections) forever. Thinking is winning.


If one of the sticks has something that will be disturbing or difficult for your family to discuss, throw the stick away. No problem. Break it in two and chuck it in the fireplace dramatically if you want. Bury it in the yard. Put it in a public trash can. Stick it in your compost pile and see how long it takes to become unrecognizable. Think of other ways to ceremoniously dispose of a popsicle stick that represents something traumatic to you.


Don’t make this a pressure situation, especially for a young person. If anyone’s not having fun, that’s the end of the game. (You can play solitaire, though!)


Some people have picked up a single stick, looked at both sides, and said, “This is too bad—since they’re on the same stick we can’t think of them at the same time.” By that point it’s too late, though, they already HAVE thought of them at the same time and thought of a connection. So if you wish your set hadn’t had “hats” on the back side of “history,” go with that thought! Maybe play a whole game with the two sides of single sticks. That’s no flaw; that’s opportunity.


When I was in second grade, each of us had twenty popsicle sticks (okay, “crafts sticks,” but they weren’t called that in those days, and yes I know popsicle is a trademark, but we’re not talking about “frozen confections” here, we’re talking about sticks in my desk in 1960). Those were our “math manipulatives” (a term which probably hadn’t yet been coined). I have fond memories of those sticks and the games we played with them. Counting these sticks would be fun for younger kids. There are brain teasers which involve making and changing patterns with match sticks. They could be done with these. The puzzles are in books at your house probably, but you might not be able to get your hands on them immediately. This gives you an excuse to use the sticks again later when you do find them. You can also play around with factoring, division/multiplication, ratios, patterns—all KINDS of concepts can be explored with an odd set of colored sticks. (That or M&M’s, but you’ve got sticks now and maybe you don’t have M&M’s.)


The sticks can be used as flashcards! For the beginningest “reading readiness” exercise, younger children could line them up with the words right side up, and separate long words from short words, or singles from doubles. How about alphabetical order? Ignore the backs of the sticks and line them up alphabetically. Turn a few over and “file” the new word in the right place. There will be some letters unrepresented. Maybe if you want to make more sticks that would be a basis for other words. Do too many start with “C” and “P” and none with “N” or “U”? That might lead you to browse a dictionary, or to play hangman a while to play with remembering which letters are more common than others.


If, in the course of playing, you think, “I could have printed these better than she did,” then you might be inspired to have a block lettering demonstration or contest at your house. Maybe you CAN write better! As I practiced to fit “AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEERING” on a single stick, it occurred to me that just perhaps I was the first person on this planet to have done so. What have you and your kids done that nobody else has ever done? LOTS of things—keep an eye out for those.

People have “firsts” all the time. Even very small children use combinations of words that have never, ever been used. You will have ideas playing this game that have never been expressed before. New combinations of ideas and words are the essence of writing. Listen for original word strings around your house.


“You don’t know where that stick’s been.” They were shipped to my house in Albuquerque from Oriental Trading Company in Nebraska.* The box says “Made in China.” What kind of wood are they? How were they cut? Were they punched out of thin sheets? Sliced from a block with rounded ends? I really don’t know, but it’s fun to examine them and try to guess. Sometimes there’s a knot or a bent stick where the wood was hard and it shifted while being cut or smoothed. How were they stained? I don’t know, but they were. And somehow sorted and packed—somewhere in China there’s a big machine, I guess, for sorting, stacking, wrapping and packing colored popsicle sticks. Then they have to be shipped—by boat, train and truck, no doubt. These sticks have been somewhere, have been something, and now they’re something and somewhere else again. What will happen to them later? Do you have one in the compost pile already?

*Some subsequent sets of blank sticks have not passed through Nebraska, but the serious manufacturing speculations remain.
And some of the sticks have been painted, when fewer stained-colors were available.

Thanks for your interest in these ideas!

Comments about this set of thought manipulatives are welcome. Please write the author/creator: Sandra Dodd, 2905 Tahiti Ct. NE, Albuquerque NM 87112, or e-mail [email protected]

For more information on unschooling, go to

For more connections: