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Shape and space offers wonderful opportunities for enriching
children's experiences in mathematics in practical ways, as well as
making links with other areas of the curriculum, such as art,
religious education and history. If it is simply reduced to making
tables about the properties of different kinds of triangles and
quadrilaterals then we are missing plenty of mathematical
At Key Stage 1, some of the initial ideas are related to
descriptions of position and shape, and children need to be exposed
to plenty of activities that enrich their use of language.
Vocabulary such as "over", "under", "below", "above", "before",
"after", "inside", "outside", "round", "square", "straight",
"curved", and so on, is all-important. One activity that I enjoy
using with young children is attribute tables that ask children to
place objects in the places that match the headings of the rows and
the columns. It is important to start off with practical equipment
such as Compare Bears and to encourage children to talk about the
problems by working in pairs. Once children have had plenty of
practical experiences with arranging concrete objects on grids,
they should be ready to tackle something slightly more abstract
Shape and Colour
Fill in the empty boxes.
That problem is based on the vocabulary describing shape and
builds on this but adds in vocabulary about position
Use these clues to colour each shape:
- Blue is between green and red
- Orange is below green
- Yellow is to the left of both purple and orange.
Able pupils could be encouraged to make up some problem like
this. Making them up is much more difficult than doing them, and
you may want to provide some coloured multilink as a support.
After becoming familiar with the basic ideas about position
and description, the children will be ready to explore
twodimensional shapes and their properties. This is often done by
filling in the missing things in tables, but a more interesting
approach is to do something practical. Plenty of the properties of
shapes can be explored with groups of children and loops of string,
and the conversations will give the children more opportunities to
communicate their mathematical understandings to each other, as
well as providing you with an insight into their understanding. A
loop of string and three children to each loop can be used to
explore triangles. There are plenty of questions to ask:
- What shape can you make if everyone makes a corner?
- Can you make one with all the sides the same length?
- How many lines of symmetry does it have?
Isosceles and right-angled triangles can be made in the same
way and children can explore their lines of symmetry, the angles in
them and how many different kinds of triangle they can make.
Recordings of the findings can be made using drawings or sticking
down the string on big sheets of paper and making a display for the
Here is a problem that extends these ideas into quadrilaterals
and their properties:
You will need a loop of string for this activity and three
friends to work with.
- With all four of you holding part of the string, make a
quadrilateral that has one line of symmetry.
- How could you convince someone else watching that your shape
has just one line of symmetry?
- Now use the string to form a quadrilateral with two lines of
- Again, how could you prove where these two lines lie?
- Now use the string to form a quadrilateral with three lines of
- Is it possible? Explain.
- Now use the string to form a quadrilateral with four lines of
- Where do the four lines lie?
Ideas about symmetry can be extended by considering the
symmetries of equilateral triangles. The following question starts
to build up the ways in which the rotations and reflections of the
triangle can be considered by looking at the number of ways the
triangle could be posted into a shape sorter. On the NRICH website
this problem has an interactivity with it as well, which makes it
appealing for children to experiment with and also makes it ideal
for whiteboard use.
- How many different ways can you post this triangle into the
- A dot has been drawn on the triangle to help you keep
- The triangle is white on the other side.
- If you can post the triangle with either the grey or white
colour face up, how many ways can it be posted altogether?
The triangle can be posted in as it is, turned through 120
degrees, turned through 240 degrees, flipped over about a vertical
line of symmetry, flipped over about a line of symmetry through the
bottom left-hand corner and flipped over through a line of symmetry
through the bottom righthand corner. So there are six symmetries
From this starting point a further question asks children to
work out the ways in which these different turns and flips can be
combined and whether they are equivalent to one another. Here is a
follow-up question that starts to explore this:
Naomi has a triangle which is blue on one side and yellow on
the other. It has a dot in one corner on each side. How many ways
are there of posting this triangle through a triangular shaped
All these ways of posting the triangle are different. They can
be called symmetries of the triangle. Can you work out a way to
describe each one? You might like to choose a symbol for
Naomi finds that she can turn the triangle and then flip the
triangle vertically so that she gets another symmetry. What might
she have done?
Here is another problem that asks children to look for squares
on a Cartesian grid. Some of them are set on the slant, so this
will help to address the commonly held misconception that squares
have to be set with their sides parallel or perpendicular to the
sides of the page. There is also some potential to practise
recording coordinates and to look for patterns in the coordinates
of the vertices of squares.
On the graph below there are 34 marked points (six diamonds
and 28 crosses). These points all mark the vertices (corners) of
ten hidden squares.
- Each of the six diamond-shaped points is a vertex shared by two
- The other 28 points are each a vertex of just one square. All
of the squares share at least one vertex with another square.
All the squares are different sizes. There are no marked
points on the sides of any square, only at the vertices. (There are
two near misses!) Can you find the ten hidden squares?
There is an interactive mathematical game on the NRICH website
which uses some similar ideas and would give children plenty
of experience to challenge the "slanting" squares
Here is another slightly zany problem for older pupils, which
uses coordinates that are on an isometric grid. This odd
arrangement can generate some interesting discussion about
coordinates and what is special about Cartesian coordinates, as
well as an exploration of different kinds of triangles.
The graph below is a coordinate system based on 60-degree
angles. It was drawn on isometric paper.
The marked points are (6, 2), (6, 5) and (9, 2). When joined they
form an equilateral triangle.
The following five sets of points are also triangles.
A. (1, 13), (6, 8) and (6, 13).
B. (1, 1), (3, 3) and (7, 1).
C. (12, 1), (17, 1) and (8, 9).
D. (1, 10), (5, 2) and (6, 6).
E. (7, 5), (15, 4) and (7, 11).
What kinds of triangles are they?
Can you work out any of the angles at the vertices?
The final question will be quite a challenge for children at upper
Key Stage 2 with some of the angles rather tricky to calculate.
There are a few that are straightforward and can be easily worked
out using the properties of isosceles, equilateral and right-angled
triangles as well as the 60-degree angles in the isometric
The next question would be best tackled using lots of straws or
rods of different lengths. It would be best to scale the sizes up
so that the rods were easy to handle, making them possibly 9cm,
12cm and 15cm long. An interactive version is available on the
You have lots of sticks of 3, 4,and 5 units long. How many
triangles can you make using these sticks? Each side can only use
one stick but a triangle can use more than one stick of the same
length. A further question would be to ask "How do you know you
have them all?" This leads on to the idea of proof.
So far I have only looked at problems involving shape in
two-dimensional space. Three dimensions open up a whole new range
of possibilities. I can remember being told by someone that
geometry should be tackled with very young children in three
dimensions first of all because that is our normal environment.
Certainly the language of position that I referred to earlier does
make a good introduction to work in three dimensions as well as
two. Now let us consider a few questions that take children into
three dimensions. In three dimensions practical apparatus becomes
even more essential in order to help children to visualise the
mathematical attributes of the shapes they are considering.
You have been given three shapes made out of sponge; a sphere, a
cylinder and a cone:
- You are going to make some shapes for printing out of these
- How would you cut the sphere to make the largest circle for
- How could you make the largest possible circle from the
cylinder? And the cone?
- Which shape would you use to make a very small circle for
- If you cut the shapes in different ways, what other shapes for
printing could you make?
- If you make two cuts, are other shapes possible?
Using modelling dough can be quite helpful here (although you
might find a bit of adjusting necessary as the dough can change
shape slightly on cutting).
Instead of describing shapes in terms of their attributes,
another possibility is to construct shapes from a description.
Polydron, which are plastic shapes that clip together to form
three-dimensional solids, are a brilliant resource for
Can you make the solids according to the clues given?
a. This solid is a cube but:
Only three colours are needed.
One blue square touches all three red squares.
Another blue square touches only two red squares.
A yellow square touches only one blue square.
b. This solid has five pieces:
There is one square, this clips to all the pieces.
The isosceles triangles are red and green.
The edges of the red shapes do not touch red shapes.
Only red, green and blue shapes are used.
N.B. Almost any
shape/solid that is constructed can be represented as a set of
clues, and pupils might like to make up examples of their own to
try out on their friends. What makes a good challenge? What's the
smallest number of clues you can give and still make the challenge
possible to solve?
Another more challenging question that really needs quite a
large supply of Polydron is this one:
What is a tetrahedron?
Here are four different triangles:
The sides of the small equilateral triangle are the same
length as the short side of the isosceles triangle and the short
sides of the right-angled triangle. The sides of the large
equilateral triangle are the same length as the long sides of the
isosceles triangle and the long side of the right-angled
You have an unlimited number of each type of triangle. How
many different tetrahedra can you make? Convince us you have found
I hope this has given you some more ideas to make shape and
space exciting for children. Perhaps you may find that some of
those children who struggle with number work surprise you when they
tackle some of these geometric problems.
This article first appeared
in Maths Coordinator's File issue 19, published by pfp
publishing.(Although the File is no longer produced, some articles
may be available through Optimus Publishing http://www.teachingexpertise.com/-821.)