Back from the math salon and feeling great. I’ve been able to make some minor adjustments since the last one: I added a challenge problem, a group game after people have mostly arrived to break the ice, a little discussion of the relation of games to questions and math, and more written down to help people jump right into playing without me being there. I also explicitly encouraged kids to tell me about their innovations and variations on games. After I did, two kids ran up to me to show me their chess variations… and they (the variations) were awesome. (The kids were too.) I asked them to write them down for me so I can publish them here–hopefully I’ll get them soon!

The best thing I had going for me was Katherine, Math for Love’s newest addition, and an unbelievable asset (she’ll be properly introduced on the website soon). It was a packed house tonight, with more than twenty kids, many quite young, plus their parents. I might have been a bit overwhelmed without her. But with the two of us there, everything went smoothly, and seeing her in action was a pleasure. She relates phenomenally well to kids, drawing out shy children, offering just the right kind of challenge to confident ones. A parent emailed me afterward that her incredibly shy daughter, who hardly ever speaks to adults “could not stop talking about all she had done with Katherine.”

This is my third math salon since I borrowed the idea from Sue, and I see more and more potential in the format. Still, there’s a deeper question for me in all this: how can I help parents and students move from play to serious mathematics? I feel competent to help bridge the gap if I’m working with students myself, but how can I nudge parents toward an understanding of how mathematical understanding develops in children? It starts with play, then moves to questions, which, properly tended, can motivate real exploration and learning. There are lots of ways to seed all these stages, of course, and the math salons definitely encourage the beginning. I’d love to be able to send all these families home with a clear sense of where to go next, and how to use the games as the garden loam to nurture their family’s future development in math. Something to think on. My little course in nim (still being written) may be a good option. I’m probably going to be getting some math circles for K-2 students going soon, and I think I’ll be spending very direct time with the problem.

For now, though, I get to bask in the contentment of a math circle gone really, really well. The same parent who emailed also added:

I want to just say one more time that you both have a wonderful energy for working with kids. I have seen lots of math workshops and I’ve never seen so much fun.

If we can get kids having this much fun and connecting it to math, then we’re off to a good start.

After watching Sue’s video, who I’ve followed for a year now, I’m intrigued by this open, do what you please environment. I teach 2nd grade and math is not a huge focus in our building/district. If once a week my math class was setup in this salon fashion, I think we’d definitely boost the interest level in math. Any ideas on where to start?

I think it’s a great idea to have a salon setup in a math class. One caveat: I had a lot of parents there to help guide things (and explore for themselves). If you can get parent volunteers to come in to your classrooms, that will help keep things running smoothly until the kids learn how it goes. However, I think it would work even without that.

If I were you, I would have a bunch of games and puzzles (a start is below), possibly with explanations for how they work. You can also introduce games and activities in class–nim is always a favorite, as is hex. Once kids know how to play them, they won’t be daunted by them at the salon. On the other hand, the salon is a great time to explore with blocks like Cuisenaire rods, which you might want to include in lessons later.

I’d also suggest having a big sheet of paper (or lots of little sheets) for their questions and observations. You might find really great ideas percolating up as they play, and you could use them for some highly motivated follow up in class.

Another great resource for games is Games with Pencil and Paper by Eric Solomon. He includes Dots and Boxes and Sprouts, which are both super low tech, fun, and math related. I want to play some version of Eleusis at some point too, but it takes a little more figuring to get that going in a group in the right way.

Good luck! I can’t wait to hear how it goes.

I’m also curious about what exactly went on. What activities did you have available?

I had a bunch of games and puzzles and blocks, divided in various ways.

At the block table: pattern blocks and tangrams and Cuisenaire rods.

At the puzzle table: towers of Hanoi and some others (I’ll be adding to this… I had Rush Hour last time, and I have some good pencil and paper puzzles to add for next time). I also had Martin Gardner’s April Fool’s 4 Color Map.

At the games table: Blokus, Set, Hex, Nim, Chess, Pente, Abelone, Dvonn, Quoridor, Pyraos, and a few others.

I also had a Dice Games table, with explanations for Pig, Damult Dice, and Dice War.

I brought in a bunch of books too, but they don’t seem to get much attention.

To add for next time: more puzzles in block or pencil and paper form.

Just got Game with Pencil and Paper from the library. It’s fantastic. Thanks for the good resource.