Tangrams are most likely the oldest and most enduring of all geometric puzzles. Having originated centuries ago in China, tangrams are a set of seven flat shapes, called tans, that are used to form shapes or pictures, usually when given only an outline or a silhouette. A complete set consists of 2 large triangles, a medium triangle, 2 small triangles, a square and a parallelogram, and these 7 pieces can be formed into a huge variety of arrangements.
The math connection for tangrams lies in the visual-spatial opportunities that are generated when students are using them. Visuals come into mathematics in areas such as patterning, graphing, geometry, and measurement, just to name a few. It is easy to disregard the development of visual-spatial skills, but Howard Gardner’s research and writings concerning Multiple Intelligences reveal just how powerful and important these skills are.
In addition to creating pictures and shapes from an outline, it is also good to just be creative yourself with the tans. I recently did just that with three grade 3 classes, asking them to create a bird. I offered no hints or suggestions as to how they might do that; rather, the students just took their sets of tangrams and set to work.
I won’t bother to attach any pictures of tangrams to make – a quick Internet search using your favourite search engine will produce a plethora of such images! Some of the images will show the actual arrangement of the individual tans, and for younger children even recreating those with the “recipe” can still be challenging. Older children (and adults!) can be challenged by the outline or silhouette versions of the patterns.
Sets of patterns are available commercially, but can also be easily cut from a square. Download instructions for cutting a set here.
Taking time to play with tangrams is a fun way to help develop visual-spatial skills in your students (or your own children).
PS: Thank you to all of the parents who came to my session at the SD#60 Parent Conference this past Saturday! I enjoyed our time together to talk about math, and I trust you went away with some new ideas for interacting with your children about numbers. I sent you all away with a set of tangrams cut out of fun foam, so here is the promised information about them!