Tangrams for kids:
How to foster critical thinking, spatial rotation skills, and an intuitive sense of geometry
© 2009 - 2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Introducing tangrams for kids: An overlooked educational tool?
tangrams can teach kids about geometry and foster their problem solving skills. But what are tangrams?
A tangram is a Chinese puzzle consisting of 7 shapes (or “tans”):
• Two large right triangles
• One medium sized right triangle
• Two small right triangles
• One small square
• One parallelogram
Arranged correctly, the shapes can be fitted together as a large square, rectangle, or triangle. They can also be arranged in a variety of complex shapes, including fanciful ones (like the rabbit illustrated here).
There are many ways to play with tangrams. The simplest way is to let kids create their own complex shapes. But traditionally, tangrams are treated as puzzles. The player is shown a target shape (in outline, or silhouette only) and then asked to recreate that shape using the seven pieces.
As noted below, tangrams can also be used to teach kids to measure area without formulas—an approach that should help kids develop an intuitive sense of geometry.
Tangrams for kids: The educational benefits of playing with shapes
Researchers have argued that tangrams benefit kids in several ways (Bohning and Althouse 1997; Krieger 1991; National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics 2003).
For example, playing with tangrams may help kids
• develop positive feelings about geometry
• classify shapes
• develop an intuitive feeling for shapes and geometric relationships
• develop spatial rotation skills
• develop precise vocabulary for manipulating shapes (e.g., “flip,” “rotate”)
• learn the meaning of “congruent”
In addition, Tom Scovo demonstrates how tangrams can help kids calculate areas without formulas. For the details, see these
excellent activities using tangrams for kids in grades 4-6.
Also, check out the
National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics page about tangrams.
As the authors point out, kids who work together on a tangram puzzle are encouraged to describe and justify their predictions. What will happen if you rotate the triangle? What will happen if you flip the parallelogram?
Joohi Lee and her colleagues (2009) argue that children can improve their spatial skills and knowledge of geometry by explaining their tactics to each other.
You can make your own tangrams by following the
instructions on Tom Scovo’s site.
Alternatively, you can buy a more durable set of tangrams. I like Classic Tangoes
, which includes two plastic tangram sets and a deck of puzzle cards. But the corners are a bit sharp. For young children, you might prefer a set of foam tangrams, or even magnetic tangrams, like the ones that come in the pricey (but kid-friendly) Tangoes Jr.
Tangrams for kids aged 4-8
My favorite introduction to tangrams for younger kids is the book Three pigs, one wolf, seven magic shapes by Grace Maccarone. This book is a real bargain. It includes story (based on the folk tale of the three little pigs), a teaching guide, a set of tangrams to cut out, and some activities created by a math teacher. Although the publisher recommends this book for kids in grades 1-2, the book can also be enjoyed by preschoolers.
Virtual tangrams for kids
You might wonder if computer games are as educational as playing with real, physical tangrams. The National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics (NCTM) recommends both. Computer games may offer special benefits because “the computer environment is likely to encourage (kids) to think about how they need to manipulate the tangram pieces rather than approach the task mainly by trial and error.”
Read more and try out the NTCM’s
free online tangram game here.
In addition, Amazon sells inexpensive tangram software for the PC, 1,001 Tangram Puzzles
. I haven’t tested it. Neither have I tried Neves
for the Nintendo DS game system. Neves features puzzles that are inspired by tangrams. The shapes or tans are different, but the goal is the same. Arrange 7 tans so that they match the template.
Bohning G and Althouse JK. 1997. Using tangrams to teach geometry to young children. Early childhood education journal. 24(4): 239-242.
Kriegler S. 1991. The Tangram: It's More than an Ancient Puzzle. Arithmetic Teacher 38(9) 38-43.
Lee J, Lee JO, and Collins C. 2009. Enhancing children's spatial sense using tangrams. Childhood Education 86(2):92-94.
National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics. 2003. Developing geometry understandings and spatial skills through puzzlelike problems with tangrams: Tangram challenges. www.nctm.org.
Content last modified 12/12