Cups 1.5-3.0

Lesson Plan
Cups 1.5-3.0


  1. Age: 1.5-2.5 (So far.)
  2. Game, Artifact, Tool, ;  Social, emotional, physical, creativity, math, cognitive, 
  3. Simple Description:  This is an accessible and fun activity.  The cups are cheap enough to be plentiful and they have a lot to teach the Kiddos.  Basically, you just buy a bunch of cups and play/make up games.  It will work whether or not you read past this paragraph, and I certainly encourage you to make up your own games that sync between you and your kid–but I’ve included descriptions of some of the things Justice and I have done in order to give you some starting points.  If you have an variation that you’d like to share, please send it to me and I’ll be happy to pass it along.


Part 1 (1.5-3.0 years):

Recommended Prerequisites:  These games are highly flexible.  Justice was about 2 when we started developing these games, but he certainly could have been younger.  

Materials:  Stackable Plastic Cups.  (Think:  “Red, Plastic, Party Cups at a college.” and you’ll have the right image in your mind.  Maybe I should have said, “You’ll have an image of the correct cups in your head.”  Some people’s heads will be reminded of some quite other images by these cups.)

The SubRoutines:

  • Creating (the game)

It’s a little bit “Meta,” but this is the key lesson.  The game is literally invented by the child in collaboration with the adult.  I think you can’t start too early with exposing a child to the MANY subroutines of collaboration toward a goal.  Watch out for a motion or a serendipitously interesting thing that the cups do and see if you can involve the Kiddo in it.  Try to repeat the interesting thing as a repetition game.

  • Nesting (the cups)

When it’s time to clean up the cups that are strewn around the room, there is a fantastic opportunity to learn a few things during the stowing-cups process.  Nesting the cups in each other was fascinating to Justice.  He was eager to find any errant cups and to make sure that they were all in their nesting state.  Tangential SubR’s:  male/female (tool), open/closed, illusion of mass, leaving things as you found them, disposing of broken cups.

  • Holding together something carried (stacks of cups)

Imagine a stack of nested cups and that you’ve never tried to carry such a thing as this before?  Factually, you just recently developed any concept or ability to carry a thing from place to place.  I got to see Justice experience this very thing!  He bent down to pick up the stack by hugging it in the middle.  When he stood up, only half of the stack went with him.  His little face was a beautiful mix of confusion and deep thought.  I helped him to place his hand at the bottom of the stack so that they would stay together, but (in hindsight) I wish I’d just left him to discover it on his own.  I find that I am constantly struggling to find a balance between helping and allowing discovery.

  • Stacking

Now that I think about it, it makes sense that he wouldn’t immediately be able to stack the cups into a little three-cup pyramid, but it really did surprise me that he couldn’t do it.  I think the part that surprised me was that there was so little room for error.  If his clumsy hands placed the cup too far to either side, when he released it, it would disappear into a nesting with the cups below it.  This was frustrating to him at first, so I looked for games that were accessible to him while he learns to stack.  These could include arranging the cups into shapes on the floor, or simple counting exercises.

  • Destruction!

Maybe the most obvious game–and initially the most fun.  You build some kind of structure by stacking the cups, then Kiddo gets to knock them down.  By hand, foot, head, etc.  Ball/pillow/etc. works as a variation.

I found this variation to be a good opportunity to work on my own path to enlightenment.  This type of activity has always been extremely goal-oriented for me–by which I mean that I would set a goal to build a stack that was 10 rows high, then 12, then progressively higher until the physics couldn’t be overcome.  While playing this game, I frequently remind myself that I need to be “in the moment”:  to let go of my goals.  If Justice wanted to smash it down when there were only three rows, it would be terrible for me to scold him–interrupting his glee to explain a concept that was only in my head and that he couldn’t possibly understand.  I wasn’t always successful at staying in the moment, but I never really cried when they were knocked down.

  • Consolation

I did, however, pretend to cry.  Ceremoniously and theatrically.  🙂  Justice initially thought it was hilarious, then he did something that changed the whole game–he came up to me, cuddled his head up to my leg and said, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”  in the sweetest voice you could imagine.  …And he does it consistently EVERY time I cry because he knocked down “my” stacked cups.  I honestly couldn’t (and can’t) tell if he’s “in” on the joke or if he really thinks he’s done something wrong.  I think he’s just playing, but I don’t quite understand what’s happening and it kind of creeps me out.  I still take this path from time-to-time, because I THINK that he’s playing the game.  It’s weird, though…  [2.5 edit:  He has started making his own small stacks now and when I knock them down (with a flourish) he will start pretending to cry.  It’s adorable and I’m relieved to know that he is actually participating in the joke and isn’t going to be scarred for life by my emotional outbursts.  🙂

  • Shapes (2d and 3d!)

Triangles abound in this game.  The circle can be seen on both ends of the cup and by moving that circle to different angles, you can see ovals.  Viewing the cup from the side creates an Isosoceles Trapezoid–and that might be an quirky odd fact for a small kid to know.  …if the Kiddo gets passionate about shapes.  If multiple colors are used, other shapes and patterns can be incorporated into the stacked cups, PopPop (my Dad) was making a nice diamond pattern using blue cups in a red cup wall that we were building for Justice to break down.  

They’re trickier than I expected them to be to build, but 3-D shapes are also possible. Think “pyramid” instead of “triangle.”

  • Rhythm

I’ve thought of composing an improvised chamber piece for two cups players across a table from each other.  I’m hoping that Justice will want to compose/perform that piece with me, but that’s a ways in the future.  For now, I am just using cups as drum sticks and idiophones on the table.  We hit the table with them, hit them with chopsticks, and play with the spinning and scraping noises.  These cups can be purchased in multiple sizes (the shot-glass size is interesting) and each size makes distinctively different sounds.

  • Attrition

It seems to be an inevitable part of the game that some cups get smashed each time we take them out.  They get stepped on, caught under a rocking chair, yada yada.  I try to get Justice involved in disposing and replacing the cups.  I take him with me to buy new ones at the store and I ask him to throw the broken cups in the trash can.  This might not be a vital subR, but I suspect it might be an important one, so I’m trying to foster it.

  • Spinning

If you’ve ever spun a glass at the table and had your Mother scold you (as I did, many times), you know what this game is about.  These plastic cups spin surprising well/long.  Spinning them (similar to spinning a coin/disc) involves some dexterity that will take some time for the Kiddo to develop, but it’s great for both fine and gross motor skills.  Once the cup is spinning (and it’s spun by the parent initially) a game can be made out of who stops the spin and when the stop happens.  Try to surprise the Kiddo and make sure that you’re not always winning.  Laughter and sound effects are helpful.



  • Preparation:  This takes some space.  The type of floor will affect the games that can be played in some cases.  Carpet is good for some things (like my old butt not hurting), and a hardwood floor is better for tall stacking.
  • Tips:
    • Have fun and don’t be shy about exploring social skills via the game.  Done with a  light heart, this will almost certainly qualify as Quality Time.
    • It’s tough sometimes because you can’t see where you’re going, but try to let the Kiddo lead as much as possible.  You have to supply the “form” that the ideas are poured into, but this is an opportunity for the Kiddo to do some real exploration.  There are no wrong answers–no established rules for what will happen.  A creative adventure shared can be a memory for a lifetime.
    • Static:  PopPop and I built a long wall that curved around itself and was about 7-8 cups high.  We began to have trouble with static electricity pulling the cups out of alignment and bringing down sections of the wall.  I would like to understand the science behind this better–as it will be a great addition to this game when the Kiddo gets older.  Maybe I’ll have my physicist friend comment as a guest in a future edit.
  • Things I’d like to do to make this article better:
    • Get experience with other Kiddos.  Diversity in both age and culture should open up new doors to the game.  
    • Incorporate the ideas from this link. I think there could be some really interesting variations to the game in these rhythmic passing games from around the world.

Differentiated Instruction

I found this section in the sample lesson plan template that I modified for use on this blog.  I am curious to see if anyone is interested enough to send me info. about how they approach these issues.  [Comments, please?]  In general, at this age, I would say that I’m working hard to help Justice develop a wide set of learning styles.  I want him to be as flexible as possible in this regard.  If I saw one of these developing over the others, I would make an effort to “shore up” the other learning styles by creating games that forced him to use them.  I would be curious to see what happens in that scenario–I can think of several possible outcomes and I genuinely don’t know which one to expect.  I’ll have to come back to this when he’s a bit older.  I’ll probably be omitting this from future lessons until that happens…

  1. Visual Learners
  2. Auditory Learners
  3. Kinesthetic Learners

Bonus Links:

Competitive Stacking

Pyramid Stacking


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