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?

Like building blocks, 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 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 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 positions?

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 2003).

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 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.

Getting started

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. 

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 Junior

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 was a real bargain, but it's out of print. 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 recommended this book for kids in grades 1-2, the book can be enjoyed by preschoolers.

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 PBS's free online tangram game here.

In addition, Amazon sells inexpensive tangram software for the PC, 1001 Tangram Puzzles [Download]

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 online DOI:10.1080/15248372.2012.725186.

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