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In the frame: Ship shape

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By Cherri Moseley — Primary teacher

Understanding three-dimensional shapes is almost as tricky as rocket science! But what if those shapes had powers in space?

There are very few good books out there focusing on three-dimensional shapes, but Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes by Stuart J Murphy (HarperCollins, ISBN 0064467317) is one of the best. In this action-packed intergalactic adventure, the properties of six regular 3D shapes are reinforced through the use of their faces and vertices (corners) to fight space dangers.

At this stage in children’s mathematical development they find it hard to draw 3D shapes, so it is the doing and talking about the shapes that is most important. This book will help them to remember the properties of shapes and to visualise them.


Captain Invincible and his space-dog, Comet, must use their space shapes to deal with all kinds of dangers. Each shape utilises its own particular properties to deal with anything from a meteor shower to a cloud of poisonous gas. For example, the square faces on the cube shoot out radar beams in all directions and the cone pulls in poisonous gas through its circular base and sends out clean air through its vertex. Using these shapes, will the two pals make it safely back to Earth?

Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes cover

Space shape activities

  • Take your class on a shape walk around the school, looking for examples of the 3D shapes. Photograph the shapes and make models of them back in the classroom using commercially produced sets of 3D shapes or discarded packaging. Display each model with its accompanying photograph.
  • Visit your local supermarket, and allocate one display stand and one shape to each child. Use tally marks to help count the different packaging shapes and collate the results into a chart back at school. Which is the most popular shape for packaging? Which is the least popular? Were there any shapes you could not find? Make wanted posters for the missing or rare shapes, listing the properties of each shape and what it might be needed for.
  • Use a simple Carroll or Venn diagram to sort 3D shapes according to their properties. Criteria can include shapes that roll, have circular faces, have curved faces, have two different kinds of faces, and so on. Explore sorting for two criteria and photograph the results. Print out and use them to make a ‘sorting’ book.
  • Make repeating patterns by threading 3D shape beads. In pairs, each child can make their own repeating pattern and then describe their pattern for their partner to make. Compare the resulting bead patterns – are they both the same?
  • Collect some small boxes, such as individual cereal boxes, and ask the children to estimate how many 1cm cubes will be needed to fill the box. Which box will hold the most? Which box will hold the least? Test the predictions and display the results next to the boxes. If you have sets of other small 3D shapes, for instance spheres, invite the children to predict whether each box will need more or less of that shape to fill it. Test the predictions and try to explain the results.
  • Continue the space theme by asking the children to design tickets to fly on a rocket to Planet Vij. Adult single tickets ‘cost’ 24 faces; children’s tickets cost 12 faces. Draw, stamp or stick printed shapes on the ticket to the required number of faces. Every member of the family must have a different ticket. Can the children make enough tickets to take their whole family to Planet Vij and return home, or will they be stuck there?
  • Give each child six identical squares of thin card and a roll of masking tape, and challenge them to make a cube. Follow this up by giving them four identical rectangles and two squares. Can they make a cuboid? Which 2D shapes would they need to make other 3D shapes?
  • Make a cube with six square, interlocking pieces. Open it out carefully to show the children the net and draw it quickly on squared paper. Then, using more interlocking pieces, challenge the children to find other nets that will make a cube. Encourage them not to click the pieces into a cube but to just fold and support to check. (There are 11 different configurations that work and many more that don’t!)
  • Play ‘Always, Sometimes, Never’. You will need two bags: one containing a selection of 3D shapes and the other containing the word cards always, sometimes and never. Put more copies of always and never than sometimes in the bag as sometimes is more difficult. Then pick a shape and card out of the bags and say a fact about the shape that is always, never or sometimes true, depending on the word card that is selected.

We have loads of free shape-related activity sheets online; type ‘shapes’ and ‘shape’ into our search box to access them. Subscribers can also download a ‘Blast off!’ maths space poster by clicking on ‘Advanced search and back issues’ and selecting January 2007.

  • Play games such as ‘What is my shape?’ Describe a shape by giving a single property clue and ask for guesses as to what it could be. Keep giving more clues until the shape is identified. Other games you can play include identifying and removing a particular shape from a collection in a feely bag; putting a shape into a child’s hands behind their back and asking them to identify it by feeling the faces, edges and vertices; and encouraging the children to identify a hidden shape by asking yes/no questions about it.

Linking Primary Framework objectives

Year 1 Block A Units 1-3

Describe ways of solving puzzles and problems, explaining choices and decisions orally or using pictures.

Year 1 Block A Units 1-2: Block B Unit 1; Block D Unit 1

Estimate a number of objects that can be checked by counting.

Year 1 Block B Units 1-3

Describe simple patterns and relationships involving numbers or shapes; decide whether examples satisfy given conditions.

Visualise and name common 2D shapes and 3D solids and describe their features; use them to make patterns, pictures and models.

Year 1 Block B Unit 3

Use diagrams to sort objects into groups according to a given criterion; suggest a different criterion for grouping the same objects.

Year 1 Block C Units 1-3

Answer a question by selecting and using suitable equipment, and sorting information, shapes or objects; display results using tables and pictures.

Describe ways of solving puzzles and problems, explaining choices and decisions orally or using pictures.

Use diagrams to sort objects into groups according to a given criterion; suggest a different criterion for grouping the same objects.

Year 1 Block D Units 1-3

Visualise and use everyday language to describe the position of objects.

Year 1 Block E Unit 3

Describe simple patterns and relationships involving numbers or shapes; decide whether examples satisfy given conditions.

Year 2 Block A Units 1 and 3

Estimate a number of objects.

Year 2 Block B Units 1-3

Describe patterns and relationships involving numbers or shapes, make predictions and test these with examples.

Visualise common 2D shapes and 3D solids; identify shapes from pictures of them in different positions and orientations; sort, make and describe shapes, referring to their properties.

Year Block B Unit 2

Identify reflective symmetry in patterns.

Year 2 Block C Units 1-3

Follow a line of enquiry; answer questions by choosing and using suitable equipment and selecting, organising and presenting information in lists, tables and simple diagrams.

Answer a question by collecting and recording data in lists and tables; represent the data as block graphs or pictograms to show results; use ICT to organise and present data.

Use lists, tables and diagrams to sort objects; explain choices using appropriate language, including ‘not’.

Year 2 Block D Units 1 and 2

Follow and give instructions involving position.

Year 2 Block E Unit 3

Present solutions to puzzles and problems in an organised way; explain decisions, methods and results in pictorial, spoken or written form, using mathematical language and number sentences.