During my psychology training, one of my lecturers used to say that if you gave a child no other maths instruction bar Tangrams for one whole year, they would be more advanced mathematically than if you followed the regular maths curriculum. The simplicity of this bold statement has stuck with me ever since. Imagine if something as simple and fun as playing with Tangrams could really advance maths skills more than a year of regular instruction?! While I have not found anyone willing to try this experiment (yet!), I recently employed Tangrams in my Maths Genius club with great success.
For those who have never used them before, a Tangram is an ancient Chinese puzzle comprising seven pieces (tans) of three geometric shapes – two large, one medium and two small triangles, one square and one parallelogram. Tangrams can be used as a puzzle, where the seven pieces are arranged to make an almost-endless variety of objects, such as people, animals, letters, etc. The rules of play are that you must use all seven tans, they must lay flat, they must touch and none may overlap. At the easiest level, you can simply place the pieces onto the patterns; at the most difficult, only a silhouette of the object is shown and you have to recreate it using the Tangrams. They can also be used in a more creative way to make your own designs.
There are many benefits to playing with Tangrams. They can be used to develop problem-solving and logical thinking skills, perceptual reasoning (nonverbal thinking skills), visual-spatial awareness, creativity and many mathematical concepts such as congruency, symmetry, area, perimeter, and geometry. Most crucially, perhaps, is the change of perspective of maths being something boring to becoming a creative and fun activity, leading to a desire to tackle more advanced maths. In fact, using Tangrams is one of the primary recommendations I make to improve the mathematical and thinking skills of the children who come to see me for assessment.
It is easy to make your own Tangrams by downloading and printing one of the many Tangram templates available free online. Alternatively, inexpensive plastic and wooden Tangrams are readily available. While I have some plastic sets and many homemade ones, I am a recent convert to using Tangram apps.
An easy way to incorporate Tangrams into your child’s day is to make up a Tangram box at the kitchen table and give your child the option of solving a Tangram puzzle while eating breakfast. I also know of some excellent teachers who have a Tangram table in their classrooms where children can go to work on a puzzle if they finish their activities before their classmates.