Snakes in the class

26th May 1995 at 01:00
What's long, slithery and guaranteed to send shivers of excitement through primary pupils as they study maths? Janet Rees explains.

Are you fed up with the same old topics? Do you want excitement and a challenge? How about snakes? Not fluffy ones or plastic ones, but real, living, moving snakes. Believe it or not, as an advisory teacher with the a son keen on keeping the reptiles, I was able to introduce the idea, through in-service sessions, of using snakes as a starting point for mathematical activities for primary schools. We brought in royal pythons, king snakes and corn snakes.

Games are an excellent resource for motivating, challenging and encouraging children to become involved in a range of mathematical activities. Using them can also build confidence across the ability range and allow children to explore and discuss ideas and develop appropriate language. Apart from the social skills involved, communication skills can be developed too, as children are encouraged to work co-operatively.

Many of the games we used were made very quickly and easily, with no artistic talent required, by using wrapping paper with snakes as part of the design (not easy to find). These games involved simple matching, counting on, direction and positional language.

Taking these simple ideas further, games were devised that encouraged children to work in pairs or within a small group so that mathematical communication and reasoning could be encouraged and developed. These games were then extended as the children became more adept by changing the numbers involved and introducing new rules. Other games were based on a 5x5 grid. These involved the children in building towers of cubes by placing cubes of their own colour on pictures of snakes on the grid, depending on the throw of a die or the spin of an arrow.

Comparisons of towers were made. Language such as. "taller than"; "shorter than"; "the same as"; "more than"; "fewer than"; and so on, was encouraged when talking about the results. Counting the number of cubes in each tower, putting them in order of height or length, looking at longer than, more and less, are all valuable mathematical activities.

To extend the game, changes were made to the rules and to the board. Putting "Add 1" at the top of the board and use a 0-5 die, or changing the numbers to 2-7. If you use a blank board, any instruction can be put at the top and appropriate dice used. Use the same basic idea for multiply, double, money, etc. The same ideas can be used for younger or less able children using a 3 x 3 grid, although there could be a tie if three players played.

Shape played a large part in the activities relating to snakes. The children were given a variety of skins that had been shed by different species, to hold, feel, look at and discuss. There were also live snakes that the children were able to hold and watch move.

The conversation was eventually focused on the scales that made up the skin. The children looked at the shapes, the patterns, the colours and the ways that they all fitted together. One group of children was asked to construct their own printing blocks, so that the patterns seen could be reproduced. They were allowed to use any materials that they could find, which meant that each child was able to interpret the task in their own way.

The results were stunning. Some of the blocks that were made were very small, while others were much larger. Some discussion was encouraged about the size and the shape of the paper that would be needed to allow the patterns to be printed. The children using the larger printing blocks eventually used the back of wallpaper rolls.

At first the children were asked to keep to their own shape and use just two different colours when printing the design, trying to place the shapes as closely as possible to each other. Here, the children that had used shapes that tessellated easily were on to a winner. The children who had chosen circles had more difficulty.

As each child finished their design, they were asked to join with another child, so that now two shapes could be used together. Again the children could choose with whom they worked. After a few minutes one pair was heard to say that they wanted to change partners because their two shapes did not tessellate with each other (one of the children had a pentagon, the other had a square). This led to a great deal of discussion about which sort of shapes would tessellate and which would not.

The children regrouped themselves and the activity continued. Those who had used circles were allowed to choose a new shape if they wanted to. The following day the activity was continued, but this time the printing was done on large sheets of material. These were later made into robes and cloaks for the children to wear as they presented their work to the rest of the school as a class assembly.

Activities using pattern blocks were also set up and the children created their own patterns. Prompts such as "Look very carefully at the snake skins"; "Can you see a pattern?"; "What shapes can you see?"; "Look how they all fit together"; "Use the Pattern Blocks to make your own snake skin pattern"; "Work with a friend to make a really long snake skin pattern"; "Can you make a pattern that will stretch all the way across the table?"; were used. Here the children were involved not only in fitting shapes together, but also looking carefully at the repeating pattern that was being created.

Problem solving and Investigational activities were also built into the day. At the simplest level, activities using toy snakes, such as, choose a snake and design and make a box for it to sleep in, draw and cut a paper snake which is the same length as the snake that you have chosen (not easy if the snake is curled up), find 5 different things that are the same weight as your snake, record in an appropriate way what they are.

To finish the day, how about a snake party? The children were involved in making snake biscuits throughout the day. Biscuits are easy to make, fun to roll out and only take 10 minutes to cook. The children needed to collect information to find out, for instance, favourite flavour, sort the information, represent the information and then use that information to plan how many of each type of biscuit needs to be made.

We talked about the shape and size of the biscuits that were made. once the dough was mixed and had formed a ball, the children were asked how it could be divided fairly? Is a long thin snake going to take the same amount of dough as a short fat snake? How were the snakes to be put on the baking tray to get the most on? How were they to be shared out?

At the end of a very busy, exciting and tiring day, we all enjoyed the "party" and agreed that maths really can be fun!

o A booklet, describing the games and activities in more detail, photocopiable sheets and teachers notes, is available from: Janet Rees, 13 Coltsfoot Close, Wickhambrook, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 8UP. Price Pounds 10 including post and packing.

Pattern Blocks are available from Jonathan Press, Unit 8, Tey Brook Craft Centre, Great Tey, Colchester, Essex CO6 1JE

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