‘For the last year or two, I’ve seen so many people tweet about they have tables in their math classrooms where they put math or math-adjacent things for kids to fiddle around with before/after school or during their free time. Here is a recent tweet thread:
So of course, color me insanely jealous. (I think I first heard of this idea from Sara Van Der Werf on this blogpost.) The thing is… I really want kids to see math as something that exists outside of the math classroom. And anytime I see an opportunity to do that, I go for it. So things like math club and math team, yes, I’ve led those in the past. Independent studies/work with kids, yes. But I like the idea of opening up the umbrella of what counts as math. So a few years ago I helped organize a math-art gallery (with real mathematical artists!) at my school — with an exhibition called Technically Beautiful. Or organizing math-related book clubs with kids (from Flatland, to Hidden Figures, to How Not To Be Wrong, to whatever.) Or assigning my “explore math” project to some of my classes.
The appeal of the math play space was so strong that last year I decided I would make one for this year. The tricky part is that in my school, we don’t have our own classrooms. Last year, I taught in four different classrooms. But luckily outside of the math office, we used to have a long bench where only a few kids sat on when waiting for class or a meeting. So my plan: remove the bench and make a math play table/space right there.
My colleague and friend Danielle was interested in the idea, so we basically just did it. We asked maintenance to remove the bench. We set up three card tables. And we had the space ready for the first day of school. Ready to see what it looks like?!?
I’ll go through what exists in our space now.
When discussing the space, we agreed that it had to look cozy and inviting. So with our limited artistic skills, we put together this beautiful sign. We tried hard to come up with a better name, but we kept on converging on this simple one… so we went with it. We literally crumpled paper of different colors and tacked them up to write the word space. I’m actually in love with the way it looks. It was what we had around, and we got creative!
Now on the left side we have this:
This little cart was being thrown away by a third grade teacher, so we stole it! We put showerboard on it so it can act as a whiteboard, and if you look closely, we have some whiteboard markers below for students to us. On the board itself is a number game lifted totally wholesale from David Butler (his post about it is here). The idea is that with four small numbers (e.g. 1, 10, 10, 7) and two large numbers (e.g. 60, 120), students should attempt to make the target number 121.
After showing this to one of my precalculus classes, a student was obsessed with trying to get the target number using all six numbers, and came up quickly with a way to do it. He was super proud, and rightfully so!
Next we have two card tables covered with some fun cloth I found at home.
These are books that I brought in for kids to thumb through (though they just have to ask and they can take it home to read!). I have a zillion books that could go here… My criteria was nothing that could turn off a student easily. So a book of math poems, a childrens book about Sophie Germain, a math book based in funny comic strips, women in mathematics book, and a couple “math novels.” I even had a math department colleague/friend write a “recommendation note” that we stuck in The Housekeeper and the Professor, like this was a book store! (I asked our school librarians if they had the little book stands, and they were happy to give me some!)
Ikea had some $1 picture frames, so we used them to post some puzzles and jokes!
We also put out some puzzles from Play With Your Math which we thought had a low barrier of entry but that kids might enjoy!
We also have a little estimation station (currently of jars with rice in them):
And of course we saw that Sarah Carter had provided us with a lot of math jokes that we could steal and use in our math space… So we have that up also! Because how could we not?!?!
Lastly, we have a “tinker table” where we have some tiling turtles, other tiles, and a weird set of puzzle pieces which need to get put back into a square shape.
And that… is about it!
At the start of putting things together, we realized we needed a bit of a formal vision for us to stick to… so we drafted this super quickly, but it was something we both felt was approximately right:
Vision: To create an unstructured public space where kids can relax and fiddle/tinker around with fun math things that might not be related to things in the formal curriculum. The hope is that this allows for the experiencing of math as something casual and playful. We want this space to encourage students to want to talk mathematically with each other.
Through this space, which will be curated and changed periodically, we want to widen the umbrella of what gets counted as “math” and “doing math,” and who gets to be counted as a mathematician.
We encouraged teachers at the start of the year to share information about the math space with their classes, even writing them a blurb they could read in their classroom but also encouraging them to leave their class five minutes early to bring kids over to just look around. What we wanted teachers to emphasize? “Most importantly, we don’t want you to be scared to sit down there. We spent time making this space for you. We want to say that again — this space is for you! Pick up books and see what they’re about. Make designs with the tiles. Flip the joke page over to see what the groan-worthy punchline is. Try the number game puzzle out, or pick up the paper folding puzzle that we have there for you. Make an estimate for the estimation challenge. We want you to feel comfortable here — not treat it like a museum.”
Lastly, you might have noticed that in the vision we mentioned that the math space is designed to changed periodically. That’s the goal. Of course the jokes will change each week as will the numbers for the number challenge. But everything else — books, estimation, picture frames, tiles — will be swapped out. We have a giant list we’ve brainstormed of things that we could put in this space, and we’ll make decisions as we see if and how kids are using it. Some ideas include:
- Instructions for the game of SET, and space for kids to play the game!
- Wooden “put these together to form this neat shape” puzzles
- A variety of math poems that students can take and put in their pockets during Poetry Week at our school
- A spirograph or two
- Math and Climate Change coloring books with lots of colored pencils (where we hang up the pages on the bulletin board after things get filled in)
- Towers of Hannoi
- Origami paper and instructions
- 3D printed mathematical objects, including cool math based optical illusions (like these!)
- A museum of WEB Du Bois stunning and eye-opening infographics involving race in America
- Information on women mathematicians and mathematicians of color and mathematicians that are LGBTQ+ and…
- Fun little math problems (the size of a business card) that kids can pick up and bring with them
I actually have so many more ideas on my list, but it’s all written so informally no one would ever fully make sense of things. But these are just some. But if you have ANY other ideas that you think would make sense here, I’d love to get a nice long public list for math play spaces — so throw any ideas down in the comments.
With that, I’m out!