Tangrams for kids:
How a traditional game might improve spatial skills and boost mathematics performance
© 2009 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Tangrams for kids: An overlooked learning tool?
tangrams can teach kids about spatial relationships. They may help kids learn geometric terms and develop stronger problem solving skills. They might even help children perform better in general mathematics.
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
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
As noted below, tangrams can also be used to teach kids to
measure area without a formula -- an approach that should help kids
develop an intuitive sense of geometry.
You stare at two shapes and ask yourself. How would they look if you
stuck them together? Rotated them? Slid them around into different
Experiments suggest that thinking about such things --
visualizing the spatial relationships between shapes in your "mind's
eye" -- can boost your visual-spatial skills. And a recent study hints
that mental rotation tasks boost mathematics ability, too.
When Yi Ling Cheng and Kelly Mix asked kids, aged 6-8, to perform
a series of tangram-like mental tasks, the practice session seemed to
prime the brain for math. Kids who spent 40 minutes solving shape
rotation puzzles performed better on a pencil-and-paper math test
immediately thereafter. Compared to tangram-like activities, crossword
puzzle warm-ups had no such effect (Cheng and Mix 2012).
So there is good reason to suspect that playing with tangrams
might change the way children think. And researchers have long argued
that tangrams can deliver important educational benefits (Bohning and
Althouse 1997; Krieger 1991; National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics
For example, playing with tangrams may help kids
- classify shapes
- develop positive feelings about geometry
- gain a stronger grasp of spatial relationships
- hone spatial rotation skills
- acquire a 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
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 be enjoyed by preschoolers.
And for another fanciful story featuring tangrams, see Grandfather Tang's Story (Dragonfly Books).
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.
References: Tangrams for kids
Bohning G and Althouse JK. 1997. Using tangrams to teach geometry to
young children. Early childhood education journal. 24(4): 239-242.
Cheng Y-L and Mix KS. 2012. Spatial training improves children's
mathematics ability. Journal of Cognition and Development. Published
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 of "Tangrams for kids" last modified 7/13