Can math play be a part of trauma-informed care?

Need more information on trauma-informed teaching? Check out Alex Shevrin Venet’s resource round up blog.

They were wooden blocks, and they were smooth. My fingers slid over the edges, so precise, and met at the corner of the cube. The teacher was talking, that I was aware, but my attention was on the soothing beauty of these 3D figures in front of my grade 2 self.

Wait, what? You want me to play with these, and notice how many faces, edges, vertices? Which blocks roll versus which don’t? And I can do this on my own — without someone telling me how to do it? I can take my time, and build and bask in this moment of play?

This brought a small corner of my mouth upwards. I reached, grasped, and filled out that worksheet with fervour as I manipulated various 3D figures. 

In this lesson, math came alive to me.

Even now, years later, I remember this moment and this feeling, and my experiences with the 3D blocks that led to geometry. For a moment, I was not thinking about the chaos of my home trauma. Usually I would catch myself wondering what would be for lunch, who would be home, and what mental state the adults in my life would be in, but  this time I was fully immersed in the learning.

I was leading my own discovery. Sure, a boring worksheet accompanied this glorious work with these beautiful 3D wooden figures, and, yes, I had the lovely red checkmarks and smiley face sticker later, but it was this — this play, this exploration that brought me a moment of joy.

Bright yellow background with a white cube block in centre.

Photo by Tandem X Visuals on Unsplash

As I examined the 3D figures, I wanted to know more. How many of these 3D figures were out there? Who built them? What happens if I looked at them in a different way? At an angle, my head tilted?

So I did. I sat on that orange carpet and shuffled around my figures. I stacked, I unstacked. I tilted my head, I looked from up high. 

This stuck with me. This moment of me leading my own learning. A rare moment of peace, and a moment of understanding. I realized that math can be beautiful, and I am capable of learning it.

Trauma-informed play based research

In much of the trauma-informed education readings and research I have done, one area comes up a bit short: The concept of academics and play as potentially healing. (NB: there is plenty out there around play-based therapy). Play, even in academic settings, means imagination, potential collaboration, and development of social and emotional skills.

In the above example, I highlighted a moment where mathematical play opened a place in my mind not only for an inner-reflection, but also for an ability to conceptually understand some simple geometrical figure concepts, provided by the concrete 3D figures, and the space to manipulate, wonder, and make connections.

As noted by Guirguis & Longley (2021), “…play without over scaffolding is important to gather what and how a child is feeling and/or thinking” (p. 27). If this is true, how can educators create vulnerable and safe places for play? Additionally I find a lot of play based research is focused on the early years: How can play be part of trauma-informed practices in a classroom, as a way to self-discovery and healing, for all ages?

Kinkead-Clark also suggests that “…play serves as a means to demonstrate leadership qualities and share stories about themselves. This highlights the necessity of play as not only benefiting children physically, but socioemotionally and cognitively as well.” (Kinkead-Clark, 2019, p. 187). The parallels between how children play and how they become  aware of who they are —how they make sense of their world — cannot be ignored. 

Using math play in a classroom to promote safety, exploration, and empowerment

Though I have encouraged math play in my classroom for a few years (Thanks to Sara Van Der Werf”s wonderful work), I only recently realized the power of the play table beyond the content of mathematics .

Of course, the content of mathematics — providing the space for students to be able to conceptually determine patterns, beauty, and connection between all forms of mathematics is always an educator’s goal. Since we know that trauma can impact the learning process in our brain (Cole et al., 2005), we need to spend more time providing space for learning to be willing to let the reluctant in. I began to make some links between math play and students trusting themselves.  This year in my Grade 6 classroom,  a student immersed in the play table was then taking on leadership by gathering input from their peers. The math table was a powerful mix of self-soothing, problem-solving, and relationship building. As I watched this student’s shoulders relax as they played at the math table, I was also witnessing a potential place of recovery and healing.

Math play table set-up

This school year in my Grade 6 classroom, the math play table in my classroom sits on the side of the room, with various math toys out for students to explore. They build, define, determine, and create. At the beginning of the year, I don’t provide specific tasks or instructions. Students go to the table when they feel the need to. The first few days of the school year, I noticed hesitancy in student’s using the math play table. Students seemed to visit only during transition times. 

A few weeks after the play table was introduced, I noticed one student go over  on a particularly quiet day for them — shoulder shrugs instead of verbal responses to questions. Pattern blocks and dodecahedron templates were scattered on the table. I watched this student muddle with the pattern blocks, and later they showed me an image of symmetry in the dodecahedron template (similar to the top right image just below). 

On left, Truchet blocks by Christopher Danielson. See references for purchase. On right, 3D printed Dodecahedron and standard pattern blocks.

On left, tessellating turtles, again, from Christopher Danielson. On right, Cuisenaire blocks in square templates.

They were smiling now, at themselves, and whether coincidental or not, during the math lesson, they were now participating in small groups and participating in a math task. In this case, the math play table  had served as a safe place to collect thoughts, fidget, create, and put their mind in the safe state they needed to be able to fully engage in a lesson.

To be honest, I had forgotten about the student pattern block design, and they had left it out on the table. That afternoon, another student came to the math play table, pulled out a second dodecahedron template, and started to build.  The second student used the first student’s as a guide, referencing the first design as they built. The difference was this second student was quick to call out for assistance from their peers.  The initial student came over, hovering just out of the distance. The first student quietly gave suggestions here and there, just loud enough for the second group of students to hear. There was natural collaboration and discussion  as the math play table as the second group of students asked the first builder for their strategies.The math table now transformed from independent regulation to collective problem solving. 

After a few weeks, I decided it was time for me to push the math table content and purpose a bit further.  What could I provide so these students could internalize their experiences at the table and apply them to their metacognition of learning? Of who they were in relation to their peers? Of their relationship with play, learning, and consolidation?

Consolidation

At first, I wasn’t sure how to make the connections. I let the math table be its own entity for a while. I observed without interacting. I simply listened and thought and reflected.

In time,I decided I wanted more students to move naturally to the math table, to see how many engaged. I put out different math toys, and noticed that over days and weeks different students moved toward the math table. They noticed patterns, and built on each others’ work. For example, in the photo above of the Cuisenaire rods (bottom right), one student began the pattern but initially left it incomplete. They said, “ugh, I need to come back around to this. Can I keep it out and come back to it?”

A while later, another student, who had been watching, came over and started to add to the pattern. The original student watched with interest as their peer filled the shape with the Cuisenaire rods. They were excited, and immediately wanted to know what their thought process was. Now a conversation was happening:one student was building on another’s ideas. Relationships were developing, by asking questions, seeking strategies, and truly listening. 

One of the beautiful aspects of the math play table is that it takes away the awkwardness of face to face conversations —Students have something communal and tangible to focus on. The math pieces invite conversation, manipulation, and direct attention. 

Now that more students had experienced the table, I asked them to notice and name what math they had used. We recorded our results.

“Wow, I actually used a lot of math. I had to transform the shapes, understand the growing pattern rule, and then explain so someone else could finish it.”

“It didn’t really feel like math until we started talking about it. It was just playing.” 

Students were so engrossed in their play — their natural state — they almost don’t notice and name their learning until we bring their observations to light. Now they were noticing their strengths and what they could bring to math with them. They were discovering how they reacted to challenges, how they advocated (some sought out others immediately, others stayed with their own thoughts), and how they could name mathematical strands they had to use. 

Closing the loop: Trauma-informed practice at the math table

How do math play tables and trauma-informed practices intersect? I witnessed  safety, collaboration, and joy at the math table. These are all aspects of trauma-informed practices which I strive to provide in my classroom. Students saw their own ability to learn through the play, and, in turn, through conversation.This could help them begin to understand their strengths and needs as human beings and learners. 

When I think back to my grade 2 experience with 3D blocks, I was immersed. I came to my own mathematical thinking and felt empowered, and, for a bit of time, put aside the chaos and insecurities of my family realities. I was slowly coming to an awareness of myself as a whole human being, capable of learning.

As trauma-informed educators, we need to use and scaffold play in subject areas to create safety and trust in our classrooms. Play, after all, isa state of joy, and a connection to conceptual understanding. 

References:

Cole, S. F., O’Brien, J. G., Gadd, M. G., Ristuccia, J., Wallace, D. L., & Gregory, M. (2005). Helping traumatized children learn: Supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, partnership between the Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School.

Guirguis, R. V., & Longley, J. M. (2021). Play and Trauma in Young Children during a Pandemic. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 49(1), 24–27.

Kinkead-Clark, Z. (2019). Exploring children’s play in early years learning environments; what are the factors that shape children’s play in the classroom?. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 17(3), 177–189.

Van Der Werf, S. (2017, May 29). You need a play table in your math classroom! [web blog]. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.saravanderwerf.com/you-need-a-play-table-in-your-math-classroom/.


Christopher Danielson designs and creates some magnificent math play toys. Check out the website here to purchase

3 responses to “Can math play be a part of trauma-informed care?

  1. I have been doing activities like this for years in my classroom. Lately (like last 8-10 years) I have noticed that the kids LOVE tesselating. They beg for it. They clearly find it soothing. Reading your post helped me understand even more the benefits to this practice. It’s funny to see 3, 4 even 6 students hard at work patterning. I am afraid I’m ignorant and I don’t understand the “trauma” part? Also is this related or connected to a “soft start,” in the classroom? Enjoyed your post and actually found it quite informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a great post/article. Ever since I first read it, I’ve been wondering if there are ways I can incorporate more play into my high school English classrooms. I know that the trauma in the classroom is real; how can I invite play in an attempt to calm nervous systems? hmmm… will keep thinking & let you know.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you. Your post is fascinating. Play and wonder are amazing way to entice students to become learners, fully involved in the learning process.

    Liked by 1 person

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