Tangrams – The Easy Way to Develop Mathematical & Thinking Skills


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.

On The Merits of Fort-Building

When I was expecting my first child, I spent much of the pregnancy reading baby books. My particular obsession was how to Get the Baby into a Routine and Sleep Through the Night. On my quest, I read Gina Ford, The Baby Whisperer and What To Expect When You're Expecting, to name a few. However, not one of them gave me even the slightest notion of what it really means to be a parent. If I knew then what I know now, I would quickly skim the books, then read the following poem by SARK each day.

How to Really Love a Child by SARK
How to Really Love a Child by SARK

I first came across this poem when heavily pregnant with my second child, suffering through severe pelvic girdle pain while engaged in daily power struggles with my two-year-old who had just learned the words “no” and “why”! It had a profound impact on me at the time. The lines “Say yes as often as possible” and “Say no when necessary” magically reduced the power struggles. The “put them in water” line is my if-all-else-fails option.

It now hangs in my kitchen and, whenever I am in need of parenting inspiration (i.e. every day), I try to remember the central message. My favourite line is “Remember how small they really are!” – It helps me to remember that this time is so precious.

I'm off to build a fort!

Forget Chocolate – Try This Novel Advent Calendar

James Wojcik

Every year, around this time, I look longingly at all the beautiful Advent Calendars in the shops. I know my daughter would ADORE one but I really don't like the idea of giving her chocolate every day (I am trying to ensure she doesn't end up a chocoholic, like me!).

Well, this year, my dilemma is over. I just came across a fantastic idea over on Read Aloud's Facebook page. They suggest wrapping 25 children's books and placing them under the Christmas tree, along with a special blanket. Every night, before bed, the children select one book to unwrap and then read together, snuggled up under the special blanket.

I will definitely be adopting this suggestion in lieu of an Advent calendar, with an extra special one for Christmas morning. I suspect it will become an annual tradition. I think my kids will love it even more than chocolate – especially seeing as the baby can't eat yet. Best of all, it gives me a great excuse to indulge my book-buying habit, guilt-free!

Read aloud to increase your child’s IQ

Room on the Broom

If you do only one thing to unlock your child's potential, read aloud.

This simple, inexpensive activity leads to the huge benefits with minimal parental effort. For the price of a library card, you can have access to almost any book you want.

Why should you focus specially on reading to your child?

At the most fundamental level, reading to your child lets them know you want to spend time with them. This boosts self-esteem and the positive atmosphere created will help to develop a love of reading in your child. A favourite childhood memory of mine is my dad reading to me at bedtime (while he surreptiously tried to skip pages!).

When children see their parents reading, this becomes part of their idea of ‘what adults do'. This goes a long way towards your child becoming a life-long reader, which is the ultimate goal of all reading instruction.

Reading aloud has a significant positive impact on developing literacy skills: e.g. reading is a skill that develops over time – the more you read, the better you get at it; running your finger under the words while your child watches improves word reading skills; good literature helps the child to develop a memory bank on which they can draw for their own writing.

Here comes the science bit – a study by Hart & Risely in 1995 highlighted the vast differences in both the quantity and quality of words heard by children, depending on their economic circumstances. They reported that children of professional parents hear 32-million more words by age four than children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The study also illustrated the differences in the variety of words heard by the different groups of children. These differences in the quantity and quality of words heard lead to significant differences in children's vocabulary at age three and later language ability. The good news is that reading aloud can be used to help ensure your children ‘meet the quota'. In addition, the vocabulary in a book is likely to be more diverse than the spoken vocabulary of most people.

Reading aloud allows the child to be be exposed to language that is beyond their current reading ability, improving vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure and general knowledge. Vocabulary is closely related to academic success and it is a key area on IQ tests. Therefore, reading aloud can boost your child's IQ.

I highly recommend “The Read Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease. In this book, the author synthesises the research on why you should read aloud, along with some dos and don'ts. See http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/30-read-aloud-DOs.pdf for some read-aloud tips.

Ideally, children will have 1000 hours of being read to under their belt by the time they start school. If your child is already in school, don't worry, just start today. (The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago – the second best time is now.)

I recently joined an online challenge to read 1000 books to my toddler in a year. Within a fortnight of beginning, I noticed a HUGE improvement in both her language skills and her interest in learning to read. And best of all, she really loves this special time.