Soft Start In The Intermediate Classroom

I started my career as a primary teacher.  Lately, I’ve been doing my best to reclaim many of the strategies often relegated to primary and then abandoned in the intermediate grades.  I love my upper intermediate students.  They are complex and challenging learners, who can handle complex and challenging topics and problems.  But they are also still children who require time to play, explore and make connections in order to learn well.  Strategies and routines that are often thought of as belonging to the primary grades allow for this space in learning and are equally valuable in the intermediate grades and beyond.  I am currently involved in an inquiry group exploring play-based and Reggio inspired learning in the intermediate grades.  I am seeing inspiring and invigorating things happening in the classroom as I allow for more play, take cues from my students and teach more responsively.  Soft Start is something I have started this year in the hopes of encouraging more inviting mornings for both myself and my students.  And it’s working…

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Soft Start has been the most exciting and valuable addition to my classroom morning routine.  It allows for diverse access points in a variety of curricular areas, while allowing students to engage their competencies of communication, personal and social responsibility, and critical and creative thinking. I see them using interpersonal skills, taking risks and expressing their individuality as they engage with the materials and each other.  Soft Start has also calmed my mornings, as it gives me space to deal with all of the individual and organizational needs of a grade 6 classroom first thing in the morning.  As I watch the students experiment and play, I have space to ask questions.  Almost every day, I see connections to things we are learning in the classroom and derive inspiration for next steps or new directions.

My students sit at rectangular tables in our classroom.  It is important to me that they learn to adapt to change and to work with a variety of personality types.  To practice these things, their table groups are randomized every day.  They come in, find their popsicle stick and put it in the container.  Voila! Seating plan for the day and attendance is done.  Because I choose to use this routine, I have the same Soft Start activity available at every table.  Later in the year, I may try putting out a variety of activities and having students form their table groups that way, but we aren’t there yet. I don’t have too many rules about what can and can’t be used for Soft Start other than: There has to be access for all, it has to be easy to get started and there is flexibility for students to take the activity in their own direction. I usually provide a prompt and/or question to go with the materials that are put out.  The choice of where to go with the prompt and materials , as well as whether to work alone or with others, is generally up to the student.  After 20-30 minutes of the activity we either debrief or begin a curricular activity connected to the Soft Start activity.  I also plan lessons in the following days and weeks based on my observations of the students interests and questions during Soft Start.  Many times, the Soft Start activity is an Art or Play activity that allows them to explore, in their own way, something we are learning in class.  We have a white board that is our Wonder Wall, where the students and I write questions (and sometimes answers).  Part of our Soft Start prompt is always, “What do you wonder?”

Ian Byrd’s Puzzlements are great prompts for sparking Notice/Wonder based Soft Start activities.  With some art supplies or a few loose parts, creativity, curiosity and risk taking blossoms.

IMG_0628Single Brush Stroke Dragons by Keisuke Teshima


Lego Patchwork Wall Art By Jan Vormann

How can your materials fit together?


Soft Start is a great time for students to explore ideas, make connections and develop fluency through play.  Students love the opportunity to bend the rules of formally structured material, while familiar materials or content allow more tentative students a safe starting point for risk taking and collaboration. Games shown here from Kim Sutton’s Website.  Notice the different ways the students choose to explore the templates (they also love playing the games according to the rules outlined by Kim.)



Prompt: Cover and fill.   Area, Volume, Form and Shape exploration (We do a lot of Math/Art connection, both in Soft Start and in more structured learning activities.)


My son in grade 2 and my daughter in kindergarten like to come in before or after school to test drive my Soft Start activities.  They sometimes leave “examples” for my grade 6s or make adjustments to the instructions behind my back. My students love these little connections in their day to my kids and it adds to the experience for both my students and children.

Notice the change in printing at step 4. My 6 year old son likes to contribute to out Soft Start board.


Global Math Project is an awesome week that happens annually, but the Exploding Dots website is available year round.  Even when technology is available, many students still pull out whiteboards and chips for a more tactile experience.


My students also like to be in charge of setting up.


We LOVE loose parts!

Prompt: What can you create?  What Math do you see?

Play is an essential part of learning.  Our Soft Start is one of our most valuable routines.  We love it.  I know your students will too, no matter their age.  I’d love to hear what you try.  #SoftStartForAll   Happy #MathingAround


  1. Thank you for sharing. I’ve been wanting to do a soft start with Gr 3s, but wasn’t sure what kind of activities to try (did not want to use traditional centres). I like your math- art connections and how you use iPads and math games. I so appreciate you taking the time to write and post!


  2. […] Jessannwa’s Soft Start In The Intermediate Classroom looks to the teaching of older students. No muffins and cookies here. That the students might be more advanced doesn’t change the need to think of what they have energy for, and interest in. She discusses a class setup that’s meant to provide structure in ways that don’t feel so authority-driven. And ways to turn practicing mathematics problems into optimizing game play. I will admit this is a translation of the problem which would have worked well for me. But I also know that not everybody sees a game as, in part, something to play at maximum efficiency. It depends on the game, though. They’re on Twitter as @jesannwa. […]


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