Round Peg, Square Hole

Shape is such a complex subject, with its many definitions, similarities, differences and equations. How do we begin to teach children about shape without overwhelming them with facts and figures? We could try to ensure that it is seen in a light hearted manner; after all, the most adorable angle is the “acute” angle! As an Early Years Teacher I have always wanted to make maths fun for children of all ages.

Children are curious, determined and eager in their approach to all things new and exciting and do not have the same inhibitions towards maths that we may have as adults. For me an education involving equations, algebra, and trigonometry, certainly ensured a fear of mathematics as a subject. The important consideration here is not the titles themselves, but rather the focus upon complexity. Young children need to start their maths journey with simple, yet inspiring activities that encourage a wide range of learning styles to be supported when introducing the idea of shape to the youngest of minds.

In an age of technology it is all too easy to skip a few steps and use simple ICT programs to help broaden children’s understanding and exploration of shape. However, in my experience the most inspiring introduction to shape is actually the simplest one – the wooden block.

When I started my career the wooden block set was standard issue for any new baby. Unfortunately it has seen a decline in its popularity amongst many modern families and this is a great dis-service to such a simple yet effective tool for encouraging early shape investigations.

Even babies can explore the angles, dimensions, and complexities of the simplest of polygons. Sounds complicated! However, when you consider that a polygon is just a simple two dimensional, straight sided, shape, it becomes a little clearer. All I am actually saying is that babies use their hands and mouths to explore simple shapes.

From this point, once children expand their physical control and coordination, we begin to see children experimenting with tessellation, equilibrium and geometric design. Again, these are complex labels that make even complimentary angles seem harsh! This though, just represents children exploring patterns using identical shapes (tessellation), balancing shapes independently (equilibrium), and finally, designing (geometric), structures that use shapes such as squares, triangles or rectangles. Simple concepts, just with complex labels.

To put this into context I shall give you an example that was so intriguing and wonderfully powerful in its simplicity, it made even me re-evaluate how I judge the shape knowledge of the children at Townhouse.

Playing in Pre-School with my fellow mathematicians, I noticed one little boy investigating the dimensions of the wooden blocks in the construction area. He had thoughtfully and independently, tessellated the cuboid whilst ensuring the correct equilibrium of his geometric design. Or, he had very carefully pushed the blocks together onto the shelf to create a very unique pattern.

Hands on his hips he frowned as he stood back to peruse his creation. It took me a moment to notice that there was a small gap near the top. Picking up another cuboid he tried to push it into place. Quickly realising it would not fit, he stopped. Immediately I assumed that he would take the simplest option and look for another, smaller, shape. How wrong I was.

Never underestimate the established knowledge a child has gained from even the earliest of experiences. Instead he moved over to his design, pushed the left hand block to exactly the correct location to enable him to successfully slide his cuboid into place. The result was a complex geometrical design with a perfect tessellation and superbly balanced equilibrium and I know that now, you know what I mean by that!

Later on in the day I revisited this experience when I was tidying away a delivery. Having carefully stacked all the cartons, I smiled as I realised that I had achieved the same results with my boxes as the little boy in the Pre-school had with his wooden blocks. Here I must highlight how his was a much more rewarding experience and far more beautiful in its design and layout!

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