## FAQ: Playful Math for Older Students

My students are so busy that time-consuming math projects are a luxury. How is it possible for older kids to play with mathematics?

Too often, the modern American school math curriculum is a relentless treadmill driving students toward calculus. (Does this happen in other countries, too?)

But that’s definitely not the only way to learn. For most students, it’s not the best way, either.

Here are a few ideas to get your older children playing with math…

## The Value of Puzzles

I love puzzles. Don’t you?

Here are several examples of river-crossing puzzles you and your kids can try. They date back at least to the time of Alcuin, the famous scholar from the court of Charlemagne.

I wish someone would write a whole math curriculum devoted entirely to puzzles.

### W.W. Sawyer on the Value of Puzzles

Master teacher W.W. Sawyer didn’t write a curriculum, but he often used puzzles in the classroom.

“It is quite possible to use simultaneous equations as an introduction to algebra. Within a single lesson, pupils who previously did not know what x meant can come not merely to see what simultaneous equtions are, but to have some competence in solving them.

“No rules need to be learnt; the work proceeds on a basis of common sense.

“The problems the pupils solve in such a first lesson will not be of any practical value. They will be in the nature of puzzles.

“Fortunately, nature has so arranged things that until the age of twelve years or so, children are more interested in puzzles than in realistic problems.”

—W. W. Sawyer, Vision in Elementary Mathematics

Then he gives this example:

“A man has two sons. The sons are twins; they are the same height. If we add the man’s height to the height of one son, we get 10 feet. The total height of the man and the two sons is 14 feet. What are the heights of the man and his sons?”

### Try This at Home

Not only can children solve puzzles like this, but even better — they can make up story puzzles of their own. You could spend a whole week or more making up silly height puzzles for each other to solve. By the time you were done, your kids would have a great introduction to algebra!

Maybe I never grew up. Because I still prefer puzzles over “real world” math problems.

CREDITS: “Boat puzzles” comic from xkcd.com.
[THE FINE PRINT: I am an Amazon affiliate. If you follow the book link and buy something, I’ll earn a small commission (at no cost to you). But this book is a well-known classic, so you should be able to order it through your local library.]

## More Dover Samples

“Without mathematics you can’t do anything! Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.”

—Anna Claybourne, I Can Be a Math Magician

Dover Publications sent out a new email today with fun coloring and craft samples. And several puzzles from I Can Be a Math Magician: Fun STEM Activities for Kids by Anna Claybourne.

Enjoy!

THE FINE PRINT: I am an Amazon affiliate. If you follow the book link above and buy something, I’ll earn a small commission (at no cost to you).

## W.W. Sawyer’s Rules of Mathematics

“In the beginnings of arithmetic and algebra, the main purpose is not to get the pupil making calculations. The main purpose is to get him into the habit of thinking, and to show him that he can think the problems out for himself.

“Pupils ask ‘Am I allowed to do this?’ as if we were playing a game with certain rules.

“A pupil is allowed to write anything that is true, and not allowed to write anything untrue!

“These are the only rules of mathematics.”

—W. W. Sawyer, Vision in Elementary Mathematics

[THE FINE PRINT: I am an Amazon affiliate. If you follow the link and buy something, I’ll earn a small commission (at no cost to you). But this book is a well-known classic, so you should be able to order it through your local library.]

### Inspired by Sawyer’s Two Rules

I love this quote so much, I turned it into a printable math activity guide. I hope it helps inspire your students to deeper mathematical thinking.

Here’s the product description…

Join the Math Rebellion: Creative Problem-Solving Tips for Adventurous Students

Take your stand against boring, routine homework.

Fight for truth, justice, and the unexpected answer.

Join the Math Rebellion will show you how to turn any math worksheet into a celebration of intellectual freedom and creative problem-solving.

Help your students practice thinking for themselves as they follow the Two Rules of the Math Rebellion: “A pupil is allowed to write anything that is true, and not allowed to write anything untrue! These are the only rules of mathematics.”

## Magical Mathematics

In fact, mathematics is the closest that we humans get to true magic. How else to describe the patterns in our heads that — by some mysterious agency — capture patterns of the universe around us?

CREDITS: Photo by Greg Rakozy via Unsplash.com. I am an Amazon affiliate. If you follow the book link and buy something, I’ll earn a small commission (at no cost to you).

## Playful Math Carnival #142: Math Art Edition

Welcome to the 142nd edition of the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival — a smorgasbord of delectable tidbits of mathy fun. It’s like a free online magazine devoted to learning, teaching, and playing around with math from preschool to high school.

Bookmark this post, so you can take your time browsing.

Seriously, plan on coming back to this post several times. There’s so much playful math to enjoy!

By tradition, we start the carnival with a puzzle/activity in honor of our 142nd edition. But if you’d rather jump straight to our featured blog posts, click here to see the Table of Contents.

## Activity: Planar Graphs

According to the OEIS Wiki, 142 is “the number of planar graphs with six vertices.”

What does that mean?

And how can our students play with it?

A planar graph is a set of vertices connected (or not) by edges. Each edge links two vertices, and the edges cannot intersect each other. The graph doesn’t have to be fully connected, and individual vertices may float free.

Children can model planar graphs with three-dimensional constructions using small balls of playdough (vertices) connected by toothpicks (edges).

Let’s start with something smaller than 142. If you roll four balls of playdough, how many different ways can you connect them? The picture shows five possibilities. How many more can you find?

Sort your planar graphs into categories. How are they similar? How are they different?

A wise mathematician once said, “Learning is having new questions to ask.” How many different questions can you think of to ask about planar graphs?

Play the Planarity game to untangle connected planar graphs (or check your phone store for a similar app).

Or play Sprouts, a pencil-and-paper planar-graph game.

For deeper study, elementary and middle-school students will enjoy Joel David Hamkins’s Graph coloring & chromatic numbers and Graph theory for kids. Older students can dive into Oscar Levin’s Discrete Mathematics: An Open Introduction. Here’s the section on planar graphs.

## Happy Hamilton Day (Belated)

While searching for posts to add to the Playful Math Carnival, I stumbled on a new-to-me math holiday.

Hamilton Day celebrates mathematical discovery — that “Aha!” moment when your eyes are opened and you see something new.

Or something new-to-you. That’s worth celebrating, too.

### History of Hamilton Day

Irish mathematician William R. Hamilton was struggling with a tough math problem in October, 1843. It had him stumped. Then on the 16th, as he walked along Dublin’s Royal Canal with his wife, inspiration struck.

He suddenly realized he could look at the problem from a new direction, and that would make everything fall into place.

“And here there dawned on me the notion that we must admit, in some sense, a fourth dimension of space for the purpose of calculating with triples … An electric circuit seemed to close, and a spark flashed forth.”

—Sir William Rowan Hamilton

In one of the most famous acts of vandalism in math history, Hamilton pulled out a knife and scratched his new equation into the stone of the Broome Bridge: i² = j² = k² = ijk = -1.

### Also by Hamilton

“Who would not rather have the fame of Archimedes than that of his conqueror Marcellus?”

—Sir William Rowan Hamilton
quoted in H. Eves, Mathematical Circles Revisited

### Why Celebrate Hamilton Day

“So there’s much to celebrate on Hamilton Day. Beyond its utility, we can appreciate mathematics as a human endeavor, with struggles and setbacks and triumphs. We can highlight the opportunity math affords for daring, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking.

“Hamilton Day could, in other words, pivot away from Pi Day’s gluttony and memorization, neither of which is part of mathematics, toward the intellectual freedom and drama that are.”

— Katharine Merow
Celebrate Hamilton Day, a Better Mathematical Holiday

### How Will You Celebrate?

• Learn about a new-to-you math topic.
• Work on a tough math problem.
• Think about different ways to do things.
• Try a nonstandard approach.
• Talk about how it feels when you learn something new and it finally makes sense.

I’ve penciled Hamilton Day (October 16) into my calendar for next year.

CREDITS: Commemorative plaque photo (top) by Cone83, CC BY-SA 4.0. Hamilton portrait by Unknown artist and “Death of Archimedes” by Thomas Degeorge, public domain. All via Wikimedia Commons.

## FAQ: I’ve Ruined My Daughter

My daughter is only eleven, but I’m afraid I’ve ruined her chance of getting into college because she is so far behind in math. We’ve tried tutors, but she still has trouble, and standardized testing puts her three years below grade level. She was a late reader, too, so maybe school just isn’t her thing. What else can I do?

Standardized tests are not placement tests. They cannot tell you at what level your daughter should be studying. They aren’t designed that way. The “placement” they give is vague and general, not indicative of her grade level but rather a way of comparing her performance on that particular test with the performance of other students.

There can be many different reasons for a low score. I’ve listed a few of them in my post In Honor of the Standardized Testing Season.

Here’s the full quote:

Audrey seemed, for once, at a loss for words. She was thinking about the question.

I try to stay focused on being silent after I ask young children questions, even semi-serious accidental ones. Unlike most adults, they actually take time to think about their answers and that often means waiting for a response, at least if you want an honest answer.

If you’re only looking for the “right” answer, it’s fairly easy to gently badger a child into it, but I’m not interested in doing that.

—Thomas Hobson
Thank You For Teaching Me

CREDITS: “Pismo Beach, United States” photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

## How to Build Math Literacy

Here’s the full quote:

We all know reading a book each day to our child develops their love of literacy… well, playing games is the equivalent in maths.

Through playing card games and board games (just short and sweet ones) children develop problem solving, counting and so many other skills.

Imagine if every time you play a game you say, “Let’s do some maths.” What a positive association your child will develop with maths!

—Ange Rogers
Instagram post

Discover more creative ways to play math with young children at the Number Doctors blog.

CREDITS: “Falling dice” photo by Riho Kroll on Unsplash.