What comes to mind when you think of a square?
Do you think of:
- a post-it?
- a tile on your floor?
- a window to the outside world?
Believe it or not, this shape has inspired the learning of math, reading, writing, and even history, for centuries. The best example I can give you is of an ancient Chinese puzzle called a tangram.
A tangram is a square which has been cut into 7 standard pieces, or "tans." The seven pieces are five triangles, a square, and a parallelogram. It may not sound like much, but this one simple puzzle has many uses, and can pose a serious challenge to people of all ages.
Because tangrams came into existence long before any book was written, there is much mystery concerning their history. There are many stories about how they first came about.
One such story can be found within a beautiful picture book called The Warlord's Puzzle, by Virginia Walton Pilegard. The illustrations by Nicolas Debon are astounding and the facial expressions of the characters really complement the fascinating story behind this book. Like most folktales, this story also carries a meaningful message, and is one that will be appreciated by children in grades 3 through 5.
What I love about tangrams is that people of all ages can learn so many things from them. Even the youngest children can develop spatial skills and the ability to tell a story using this one simple puzzle.
A classic book for all ages of children is Grandfather Tang's Story, by Ann Tompert. In this beautiful story, a grandfather tells his granddaughter about two "fox fairies" who try to outdo each other by changing into different animals. "Fox fairies" and other animals are integral parts of Chinese folklore, which is explained in more detail at the end of the book.
The grandfather arranges the tangrams into different shapes to illustrate the story (there are so many different characters and shapes they can be made into), which allows a child to visualize the characters and events. It's a story of true friendship, imagination, and creativity, and one that every child should read.
There are so many things you can do with tangrams! Children can progress from storytelling to learning about creative writing, Chinese culture, fractions, problem solving, area and perimeter, and even the Pythagorean Theorem! Adults can also be challenged by this simple puzzle.
You can print out a copy of a tangram at funorama.com, and find some fun shapes to create at that same site or at tangrams.ca. There's also a great web site where you can rotate the tans into different figures at pbskids.org.
If you're really enthusiastic and want to make this a family activity, there is a Tangram Master 4 player set available. It includes 4 sets of wood tangrams, 200 puzzles, and a book about the history of the this amazing puzzle.
I hope you and your family enjoy this ancient puzzle.
Can you believe there's so much you can do with one square?