Joy in patterns

I took this picture of two of my students, and I had to share it. The satisfaction and excitement are so palpable.

I love pattern blocks, and here’s why:

  1. They’re fun—kids love to play with them. I like playing with them too. When I broke them out, these two needed no prompting to start building; it was a treat, right away.
  2. The connections to math are immediate. This lesson went from playing to a discussion about different kinds of symmetry (notice that there are no lines of symmetry in the shape that’s down on the table, yet what kind of a world would it be if we couldn’t describe it as symmetrical? It has a different kind of symmetry, we decided: rotational symmetry), to thinking about problems of resizing pattern blocks, and comparing their areas (how many little triangles would you need to make that big triangle in the picture?).
  3. The connections to art are immediate! And this can lead to a new kind of meta-discussion: are the things that make a pattern pretty artistically the same as those that make it pretty mathematically?
  4. Most elementary school classrooms already have pattern blocks. And millions of lessons on how to use them.

This picture, to me, is like a little image of what math feels like. Every mathematician feels that moment of giddy excitement when something comes together. I keep thinking of the Oscars where Roberto Benigni won Best Foreign Language Film for Life is Beautiful. Later that evening, Tom Stoppard won Best Screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. Standing staid at the podium, he said “I feel like Roberto Benigni on the inside.” I think that’s what a lot of mathematicians are like: not too externally exciting, maybe, but just like these two brilliant girls on the inside at that moment when a structure you weren’t sure you could build stands before you.