Before I start to document, I want to admit that I have not done as much around math play as I have wanted. When I started to realize this, months ago, I felt guilty and upset with myself. I had been so motivated and driven to really explore what math play could look like in a junior classroom. Not only that, but after I decided what it could look like, I was eager to move my thinking into:
- What are students truly learning and creating through math play?
- What makes effective math play?
- How can play develop math dialogue and thinking within math conversations and tasks?
Upon further reflection, I realized that I should not feel guilty or upset. Letting the math play just be — play and mathematics — is an even better place to start.
Just about this time, this tweet from the awesome @Mathgarden (with mention of other amazing math leaders on Twitter), which seemed to give me new focus. Let the play and the math be enough.
I had a lot of ideas for what student math play could look like, but realized the new school year was fast approaching, and I knew I needed something more concrete to start. Thanks to Sarah VanDerWerf and her idea of a math table, I started there. I immediately created a space for students to explore and play with math.
I randomly began to leave out math tools for students to play with. No direction.
At first, students hesitated. I don’t have a quantitative reason why they hesitated, but I can assume that perhaps they did not have much experience with free math exploration.
After time, students began to play. I noticed they would go to the table as soon as they came in. It was a great way to start the day for many of my students. I also observed that if one student went over, it was only a matter of seconds before a small group would begin and dive into the play.
I started with select pattern blocks and small mirrors.
I used magnetic shapes next — oddly, I did not take any photos. This is where my students started becoming comfortable with math play — their confidence and play began to expand. I knew I had a winner when students were asking me to stay in for recess to continue their exploration.
I then discovered the great @Trianglemancsd and his amazing wooden creations. My students adored — and continue to adore — our tiny turtles and our spiralling pentagons.
At first, my students had no idea what to do with the turtles. They sat alone and untouched for about a day. A few of my bound and determined students finally dove in.
My first student written tweet was the result:
Here are some other tessellations my students played with:
Next, I pulled out the pentagons. I thought students would go right for it, but there was still hesitation. Again, once one started started to develop some designs, more followed suit.
What I Have Learned Through Student Play:
- That play is different for each student. I can confidently say every student has manipulated these toys at least once throughout the year;
- Students have more persistence with problem solving. Again, I can’t say there is a direct correlation, but since I have put out the play table from the ‘get go’ of the year, I can say that students ‘attack’ problems in math with a little more ease and confidence;
- Collaboration happens naturally, and even if a student starts solo, another student is always entering and at least asking questions about the designs on the table (and, I admit, there might not be the most math-specific talk here, but there is definitely “What are you going to do next?”, “What about these that you left here?”, “Can I try something?”)
What I Need To Do Next:
…and these are crucial for the happiness of math to continue:
- More time for play. Students need more time, I need to provide more time for them to play, and give them more things to try and play with (how can I add numbers and number sense into my play table?);
- Silently Observe: I need to watch more, and take notice. I need to step back and listen to the conversations around the math toys;
- I need to start having students reflect on their play. This can happen a number of ways: Have reflection cards (or a Google Form ready for when students have something to say about their play), or talk to another student, or bring the conjectures and ideas they came up with into math tasks (“Remember when you were playing at the math table? What did you do there that might connect here?”);
- More creative tools for students to explore and work with;
- Me asking more questions. To start, as and after they play;
- What are you thinking as you create?
- What do you notice as you create (would be powerful to ask another student this question about someone else’s creation)?
- What is your plan now?
- What will this mean for future math play?
In short, I need to spend more time on math and play. I need to be more cogniscent of my students and their play, and that it is being fostered as much as possible. Math is play, after all!