Ban the “Bears”! We Can Do Better in Preschool!

bears copyBy Karen N. Nemeth, Ed.M., author and founder of Language Castle and

Pamela Brillante, Ed.D., author and assistant professor of special education

You know those colorful, plastic “bears”? We’re sure you do because they are in nearly every preschool classroom in the U.S. We think that’s a problem and we are about to tell you why. Be prepared to experience a flood of emotions about this topic – and then keep an open mind to see if you agree.

  1. You use the word “bears” to refer to them, but they have nothing in common with actual bears – at a time when we are trying to build children’s rich, interesting … and accurate…vocabulary!
  2. They are only found in school. You might plan activities and assessments for sorting and counting with the “bears”, but let’s think about this a minute. While you can assess students in these activities and you can see and document progress, is this true learning? Any skill or knowledge you think children are learning when using them is not likely to be generalized because children never encounter anything like those “bears” in their homes or communities. If children can’t use that skill or knowledge across other settings and in other situations, has the skill really been learned? Why use a learning material that is so isolated to school alone?
  3. The “bears” don’t do anything. They can’t be molded, connected, or stacked. They can’t stand for anything or represent anything. They don’t inspire creativity or imagination. Maybe teachers and kids like them because they are just too easy, and we will concede they are cute, but is that enough to justify using them?
  4. The “bears” come in four colors and a couple of sizes. You can’t change the colors or the sizes; you can’t make it easier for some children to discriminate between the sizes. There’s no real texture, no sensory experience to speak of. They all look exactly the same so there’s nothing interesting enough to describe or discuss. They don’t support science, technology, engineering, art or literacy. Their value to math learning is extremely slim. Is that really enough to qualify as hands-on learning?
  5. The “bears” don’t really support true math learning because counting them or sorting them has no inherent meaning. Having three friends and only two crackers is a meaningful counting experience. Having three bears, or four bears, or two bears… well, who cares? What difference does it really make? Sorting those bears into piles of reds, greens, and blues seems like it’s some kind of learning experience, but what for? On the other hand, sorting the empty paint cups and full paint cups will make a difference in your ability to make a painting.

We think those “bears” are like the plastic-wrapped, cream-filled-sponge-cake snacks of the education world. Sure, kids like them, but they like junk food too and we don’t put that on the lunch menu. For children who are dual language learners, those “bears” offer no real vocabulary or content to learn and may be truly confusing since they have no obvious value. For children with cognitive or learning disabilities, the “bears” are a poor choice because they offer no context, no generalizability for any small bit of learning that might occur.

So what can you use in place of those “bears”?

  1. Small items that have interesting vocabulary associated with them such as different kinds of nuts and bolts or small colorful blocks that can be used to count and sort and build and create. With some of these items you are also adding unique fine motor experiences, so you have an added bonus.
  2. Some items need to be sorted and counted all the time in real life, so sort and count them! Use items that children are accustomed to using such as socks, silverware, coins, crayons and markers. Think of how much fun you can have sorting ugly colorful socks, and you get to work on finding matching pairs at the same time. Then you can add a home/school collaboration by having the student sort the family socks on laundry day as developmentally appropriate “homework”.
  3. Connecting blocks with bristles, pegs or snaps, or empty food containers, or photos of friends and family members that have been glued to small pieces of cardboard can also be counted and sorted… and the pretend play and conversation can keep going.
  4. Items that are countable and sortable but also have interesting properties such as small stones, seeds, cookie cutters, pipe cleaners, or squares of different fabrics support varied sensory experiences and greater vocabulary.
  5. Sorting and counting can be a valuable part of participating in the classroom community with activities like setting the table for lunch, or helping to put away the art supplies. Having parents add specific, meaningful and developmentally appropriate “cleaning up” activities at home will build necessary skills and make you their favorite teacher ever!

Children’s learning time is just so valuable. We hate to see it being used for the least possible benefit. In the same few minutes a child is quietly sorting plastic junk into piles for unknown reasons, just think about how much more could be learned if he was classifying the building blocks to see if he had enough large blocks to make the base of his tower, or if she was counting the number of animals that fit in the barn to see if she needs to build a bigger barn. What if the children sorted the pretend foods in the kitchen area, or prioritized their favorite books in the library area? Would you hear more talking and more sophisticated vocabulary? Would you hear children recalling these activities in different areas of the classroom, on subsequent days and at home with their families? Have you ever heard a preschool conversation start with “Hey! Remember yesterday when I was putting those plastic things into piles again?”

Isn’t it really the purpose of high quality early childhood education to provide engaging, meaningful, content-rich experiences that all children can use in real life and in getting ready for school? All children, especially those who are dual language learners or who have disabilities, need the best experiences we can provide for them. We really can do better!


  • Betty Bardige says:

    I like your focus on authentic learning and authentic materials that prompt genuine questioning, content knowledge exploration, imginative pretend play, and engaged, language-building conversation.
    Do you know Ellen Wolpert’s work? Several years ago, as the director of the Washington Beech Preschool, she took your ideas one step further. The school’s curriculum was built around teaching children to question prevailing stereotypes related to who can be in a family, who can do what, whose lives and what work matter, etc. Ellen collected pictures from around the world showing children, women, and men at work and play — eating, sleeping, fixing hair, building and creating, taking care of children or animals, protesting, celebrating, and taking actions in their communities. She deliberately chose a preponderance of pictures that showed people of color in authentic, positive roles or ran counter to stereotypes that children might encounter. She used these pictures to create sorting and matching games and puzzles. Children played with them by talking about the similarities and differences that they observed in the pictures.

  • Bonnie Ruiz says:

    I never really thought about how using the counting bears is not educationally accurate for preschoolers. I can remember using the counting bears when I was in school and you know all I can remember doing with them is counting them and sorting colors. I really like the idea of using socks instead of the counting bears as when children get older it is something that is done everyday in life.

  • Sandy Sheard says:

    Great article! I came across it just in time for a workshop that I am doing on preschool math, and it will add a meaningful new dimension.

  • Mary Vermette says:

    You make some very interesting points and I agree that there are better manipulatives that can be used in place of plastic bears. However if a school already has them, I don’t think there is a problem if they continue to use them as one of many different items they use for various math activities. Children will struggle to generalize any math skill taught using only one kind of manipulative.

    • Karen Nemeth says:

      You make a good point, Mary! My goal is to reduce dependence on those bears and to make teachers think about other choices. I know we can’t make them all go away! Thanks for your input.

  • Mechelle Sonnier says:

    I don’t know about other classrooms, by my pre kindergarten classroom loves them, and I love what the do with them, they add and subtract with them, and they do this with out any prompting from me, they sort them, and use them to create rainbows, and shapes, the create patterns with them, as well as build houses for them, I have seen children argue over them just like any other material in the classroom, keep an open mind any time children go and use materials in the classroom to add and subtract, and make patterns with self initiation belongs in the classroom as a part of the learning process

    • Mary says:

      I want to add my voice for keeping bears in the pre-k classroom! I encourage children to use them when at the “table toys” center. Bears can ride on Lego cars/trains or inhabit the magnetic tile houses the children build. Sometimes we act out scenarios with our bear families – e.g., “Goldlilocks”.

      • Monica Pena says:

        I agree with you. I have mixed feelings on this. I agree that bears can give children limited ways to sort but the children in my experience love using bears to do stories. I would not go to the extreme of banning bears. They can help those children still trying to identify colors or even makings simple patterns. I would say provide with a
        variety of items ti ise as manipulatives like cereal, lids, pompom balls, etc… (by the way there is more than bears like trains, dinosaurs, fruits and all have the same concept as the bears and would have to get rid of them all) just saying

  • Susan White says:

    This article brought back great memories of when I taught kindergarten and used ‘real-life’ manipulatives that the children helped collect…Check out Math Their Way junk boxes. 🙂

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