Math Games for Young Mathematicians: Pattern Block Puzzles

This post is part of the Math Games for Young Mathematicians series. Check out these previous posts for more on how to use math games to support early math skills:

Today, we’re going to dive into how you can use pattern block puzzles to build math skills.

The Math

When it comes to foundational math skills, counting tends to take centerstage. Don’t get me wrong – early number concepts are important. However, this focus tends to overshadow other foundational math skills, such as understanding shapes and building spatial awareness. Let’s take a look at some of the early math skills you can find within the shapes category:

How to Play

Pattern blocks are blocks made up of the following shapes and colors:

They are commonly found in preschool classrooms, typically in bins or buckets. Pattern block puzzles start with an outline, such as the giraffe examples below (taken from Young Mathematicians). You solve the puzzle by filling in the outline with a combination of pattern blocks.

You can find many pattern block puzzles online, but I like these by Young Mathematicians because they break their puzzle outlines into three levels: color puzzles, internal outline puzzles, and full outline puzzles.

Color Puzzles are a great starting place because children can use the colors to guide them in determining which block goes where. The Internal Outline Puzzles take away the color hints, but leave the individual block outlines. The Full Outline Puzzles are the ultimate challenge. They require children to think critically about what shapes can fit in each space without any guidance other than the outline itself.

Connecting the Math

Don’t let the simplicity of pattern block puzzles deceive you – there is a lot of math going on behind the scenes.

Before we even get into shapes, pattern block puzzles are great for building resilience and problem solving strategies. Trial and error is the primary strategy children will use. As children try to fit different pieces together in a variety of ways, they develop persistence and the skill of learning from mistakes.

Children build spatial reasoning skills as they explore how they can physically rotate and flip shapes to fit them into specific spaces. In the giraffe example above, children have to use two triangles in different orientations to fill in the giraffe body. This develops the ability to think about shapes flexibly as children recognize that although the triangles may look different, they are both triangles.

Color block puzzles and internal outline puzzles focus children’s attention on the attributes of each shape. Children use the number of sides, the length of each side, and the angle of each corner to guide their trial and error process.

As children move on to the more challenging full outline puzzles, their trial and error process focuses on composing and decomposing shapes as they combine blocks to create new shapes. By taking apart and putting together shapes, children also build an understanding of part-whole relationships as they see that a whole shape, such as a hexagon, can be separated into multiple parts, such as 6 triangles or 2 trapezoids.

Bring out the Math

First of all, embrace the struggle! Your child will most likely struggle with these puzzles at first – and that’s ok. Trial and error and learning from mistakes are skills in themselves. Start simple with the color puzzles, be patient, and provide consistent praise: Great job placing the shape within the lines! I love how you tried to turn that shape to fit the space.

Build your child’s understanding of shape attributes by asking general shape questions throughout:

  • How many triangles/squares/hexagons did you use?
  • Which shapes have 4 sides? What do you notice about the length of the sides?
  • Which shapes have 4 corners? What do you notice about the size of the corners?
  • What is the difference between a triangle and a square?

Support your child’s problem solving process by modeling and asking questions:

  • Think out loud to model your thinking: To fill this spot, I need a shape that has three sides. Which block has three sides?
  • Ask, How many sides are you looking for? Which shape has that many sides?
  • Ask, Could you rotate or flip the shape to make it fit?

Deepen your child’s spatial awareness by asking them to reflect on their own process:

  • Ask, Can you build that shape a different way with other shapes?
  • Ask, Why did you choose this shape?
  • Ask, Why didn’t that block work? What will you try next?

Take Action

  • If you don’t have a set of pattern blocks , get your hands on some!
    • Buy a set – you can get them anywhere, but this set from Kohl’s is on sale!
    • Print these and cut them to make your own “blocks” (taken from Jessica’s Corner of Cyberspace)
    • Check out this online version. While physically working with the blocks is ideal, this free online tool is a great alternative to buying blocks.
  • Choose 2-4 puzzles you want to start with and print them off – remember to start simple! Check out these from Young Mathematicians:
  • Commit to playing pattern block puzzles with your child once this week. Add some accountability by scheduling it in!
  • Questions about how to make or play the game? Email me at rdevaney191@gmail.com.

References

Reed, K. and Young, J. (2017). Play Games, Learn Math! Pattern Block Puzzles. Teaching Young Children 11(4). Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/apr2018/pattern-block-puzzles.

Young Mathematicians. Pattern Block Puzzle Games. Retrieved from https://youngmathematicians.edc.org/patternblockpuzzles/.

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