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How (and Why) to Introduce Tesselations to Preschoolers

by Emily Grosvenor

posted by Emily Grosvenor

When I wrote my math picture book Tessalation!, I had a specific reader in mind: My son, who was 6 at the time. I was sure he was just the right age for learning to identify what a tessellation is (a tiled interlocking pattern with no spaces in between).

But something happened when we finally had the book in our hands. It was my other son, 3, who began pointing out tessellations wherever we went. He sees them everywhere — in the chain-linked fences, on the floors of restaurants, or even, once, on a stranger’s leggings. 

Really, I shouldn’t have been surprised. As early as pre-school, children can recognize patterns. Building with blocks, decorating a dollhouse, figuring out how nesting dolls fit together, doing simple puzzles — these are all ways children have their first experiences in organizing space. Building spatial relationships is part and parcel to this age group.

Preschoolers and spatial recognition 

The more children have a chance to play with space, the richer ideas they will form. And preschool is the best time to cultivate spatial reasoning in children because they naturally gravitate towards activities that build those relationships.

Spatial reasoning is a necessary component of human survival, but in a practical sense, it also primes children for success in a number of other important pursuits. Lessons learned about how to organize space can boost success in building later skills such as map reading, design, construction, or simply moving an object through the world, like a bike or a car.

What’s more, some educators posit that introducing spatial relationships to children at a young age will help predict success in science and technology later on.

How I introduce tessellations to preschoolers 

I wrote Tessalation! specifically to teach children about tessellations, a concept that has held my imagination since I was a child.

The book tells the story of a little girl, Tessa, who hides in the patterns of nature, and consists of 16 pages, 8 of them story pages and 8 full-color tessellation pages.

In the months since its publication I’ve talked to math teachers who have used it in the classroom, parents who read it to their children, and have tested out some ways of talking to preschoolers specifically about tessellations.

Here’s how I do it: 

1. Read Tessalation! When I read the book at events and to children’s groups, I am struck by how mesmerized the children are by the patterns and how easily they recognize what a tessellation is. As we read, I invite them to look for Tessa hidden in the patterns.

2. Talk about what a tessellation is

After we read the book, I ask them what their favorite tessellated page was. Then we take a closer look at that page to discuss what a tessellation is. What do they notice about the pattern?

3. Make the connection to their lives

Once we’ve established what a tessellation is, I invite them to tell me about patterns they have seen in their lives. Not all of these are tessellations of course, but it’s fun to discover just how much the children are paying attention to their surroundings.

4. Invite them to play I absolutely adore the Tiling Turtles created by math educator Christopher Danielson, so I always bring them when I speak with young people. These laser-cut wood turtles feel good in the hand and are immediately recognizable to children, but they are also challenging enough to use that children won’t get bored with them quickly. With this age group, I generally speak about what the child is doing as he or she discovers how the pieces fit together. I’ve seen children as young as 2 have a great time with the turtles.

5. Spot the tessellation

Once children know what a tessellation is, they will find them everywhere. Teachers can send home the request with their pupils to keep their eyes open for tessellations in the wild. In this way, it becomes a lesson to support, with fun, in the family home. With older children, we can get into making our own, but identifying and playing are the first steps to introducing the concept.

I hope you find this information useful as you look for ways to incorporate spatial learning in your classrooms!

Emily Grosvenor is the author of Tessalation!, a children’s math picture book about pattern, nature and wonder, which was successfully Kickstarted by a group of creative math educators in March, 2016. A magazine writer by profession, she lives with her family in Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @emilygrosvenor.

2 Replies to “How (and Why) to Introduce Tesselations to Preschoolers”

  1. I would like to read this book to my pre-k students. There are so many ways to extend this concept; art, tessalation walk, make our own tessalations with pattern block pieces, etc.

  2. Your book is special. I think adding a book to support the concepts of math makes it so engaging!

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