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Engage Creative Children in Math Class with Tessellations

by Emily Grosvenor

For math teachers and at-home educators looking to bring some creativity into the classroom, tessellations offer a lot of fun activities and possibilities. For some students, they might be just the right lesson to get students thinking about the practical applications and design possibilities of math.

I should know. I was one of those students. By the time I was in 4th grade, I had decided I was “bad at math.” Looking bath, I wasn’t really all that terrible at it, it just didn’t come as easily to me as other subjects. I struggled to do the timed multiplication and division worksheets in math class, and when I didn’t immediately get it, when I wasn’t the fastest, or the most confident, I was sure it wasn’t for me.

Here’s something I knew I was good at: Drawing.

So when a fourth grade gifted teacher introduced us to tessellations, I didn’t make a direct connection to math application. I didn’t even associate tessellations with math. All I knew was that it was fun to make interlocking patterns and to imagine them spreading in every direction across a plane.

Later, based on this life-long love of pattern from that class, I would write my children’s picture book, Tessalation!, to offer the world a story to use in the classroom, a story about a little girl named Tessa who hides in the patterns of nature.

In the months since, I’ve watched lots of children make their own tessellations. I’ve seen preschoolers identify tessellations out in the world (cutest thing ever, three-year-old’s saying: tessellation!), and I’ve seen the abundance of creativity that happens when school-age children make their own.  A tessellation is a great way to make math fun for kids.

How to introduce elementary school children to tessellations

I’ve written before about how to start talking about patterns and tessellations with children as young as pre-schoolers. But school-age children are capable of having even more fun with pattern by making them themselves. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s a perfect way to harness children’s natural creative drive in a math learning setting.

Here’s how I introduce tessellations during my school visits to school-age children.

  1. Read Tessalation! I’ve had success reading the book to younger children, but it is written for ages 5-8, with a rhyming meter created to mimic the feeling of locking pieces and patterns. I generally read it through once and ask the students to talk about the relationship between what is happening on the left side of the page compared to the right. Here’s an :

2.   Talk about what a tessellation is. Most children can identify what a pattern is, so this step is intended to get them thinking about a specific type of pattern – the interlocking, repeated pattern with no spaces in between. Here are some examples you can point to if you’re looking to illustrate what a tessellation is by showing them objects they have already encountered.

  1. A beehive:hexagon1Or even a chain-link fence:chain-link-fenceA hounds tooth coat:houndstooth
    1. Experiment. Talk about which shapes tessellate. There are three regular polygons that tessellate, square, triangle, and hexagon. You can look back through the book and see which of the tessellations are based on a square, which are based on a triangle, and which started as a hexagon.
    1. DIY Tessellation. Children between the ages of 6-10 are at the perfect age to begin experimenting with making their own tessellations. You can use triangles, squares, or hexagons, but I find, for the sake of saving time and making it easy for all levels, a square works the best. Here’s how to do it.
    2. Step 1: Cut out a square.tessellationtutorial1
    3. Step 2: Cut a shape into the right side of the square. The shape can look like anything, but don’t cut away too much.tessellationtutorial2
    4. Step 3: Take that shape, and add it to the left side of the square.tessellationtutorial3
    5. Step 4: Cut a shape into the bottom of the square.tessellationtutorial5
    6. Step 5: Take that same shape and place it at the top of the square.tessellationtutorial6
    7. Step 6: You now have the shape you are going to tile, or tessellate. Flip it over and tape it so the pieces stay in place. Now take a blank sheet of paper and trace the shape in the middle of it.tessellationtutorial7
    8. Step 7: Move the shape to the right, left, up or down, and tile the original shape into a tessellation.tessellationtutorial8

      Continue to trace the shape. Once the children have the entire page filled, they can decorate the tessellation as they wish. You can share the tessellations you make at the World Tessellation Day Facebook page.

      Don’t have time to do a full DIY tessellation lesson? If you head to my website, you’ll find  four tessellation coloring pages, both simple and challenging made from the pages of Tessalation!. They are free and downloadable PDF’s.

      Do you have a special way you are bringing creativity into your classroom? Share in the comments, we would love to hear from you!

One Reply to “Engage Creative Children in Math Class with Tessellations”

  1. I love this idea. I have always loved the look of tessellations but didn\’t know how to explain it to children. Great idea!!

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