In Defense of the Diamond

I had an opportunity to play math with children and parents at a local elementary school last night. (Shoutout to Oak Ridge Elementary! Thanks for hosting!) The Pattern Machines were a big hit.

One seven-year old spent some time deciding what to make and a couple of minutes idly punching buttons before she got down to work. In a short time, she declared she had made a square and presented it for my approval.

I noticed her square, as this seemed important to her, and I told her it gave me an idea. On my own Pattern Machine (leaving hers untouched—an important tenet of this work is never to take the pencil out of the child’s hand!), I made the thing below and asked her whether I too had made a square.

“No. That’s a diamond,” she declared.

I rotated my Pattern Machine 45°.

“Now?” I asked.

Now it’s a square.” she said with a knowing look.

Diamond also came up when I talked with children and adults about a page in Which One Doesn’t Belong?

I used to think that diamond was a lazy term for rhombus, but it is not. Diamond has a stable and robust meaning that is different from rhombus. On that Which One Doesn’t Belong? page, the upper right and the lower left shapes are diamonds. The lower right is not, yet each of these three is a rhombus.

Also sometimes a pentagon is a diamond.

So I propose we treat diamonds as we do other mathematical objects.

Let’s build rock solid definitions of them—definitions that we can take as shared and use to sort diamonds from not-diamonds.

Let’s investigate the consequences of those definitions.

Let’s investigate conjectures and prove theorems.

Together, let’s build a rich field of mathematical inquiry.

I’ll start us off. Some diamonds can be cut into smaller diamonds, as in the example below. Can ALL diamonds be cut into smaller diamonds? If not, which ones can and which ones cannot?

Fun with tiles

It is no secret that one of my proudest achievements is creating a lovely space on Twitter where people share stories of children’s math talk. Come read along on the #tmwyk hashtag.

That’s where I came across this tutorial-in-photos.

Math blocks how-to photos

I decided to make myself some. I modified the design a bit (but the food coloring is a genius idea! I used that for sure.)

Then I left them out on Sunday morning and waited for a child to happen along.

Tabitha making a zig-zag pattern with the math blocks

Sure enough, Tabitha began making things.

I ate breakfast in the other room.

Ten minutes later, she came in carrying two tiles, put together so that the blue triangles made a square.

Tabitha (7 years old): A square is just a diamond, but I don’t think all diamonds are squares.

Me: Can you draw me a diamond that isn’t a square?

T: The skinny ones wouldn’t be squares.

Me: Yeah. I think I get it. Draw me one, though.

She proceeded to do so. It took a couple of tries.

I lost the paper, but the result looked something like this.

Skinny diamond

Then, a few moments later she asked a new question.

T: Aren’t all 4-sided things squares?

Me: The doorway isn’t. One of those tiles has four sides but isn’t a square.

I  quickly draw a parallelogram in my notebook.

Non-rectangular parallelogram

Me: This isn’t

I drew another 4-sided shape.

Concave quadrilateral

Me: This isn’t either.

T: That has 3 corners, not 4. So it can’t be a square.

Me: Show me the three corners.

She counted the three corners that point out from the center of the shape, missing the one that points back inward. She paused.

T: Oh…four.

So What Do We Learn?

Opportunity to think about math is important. Something as simple as leaving an interesting math object out for children to play with can lead to fun math talk.

Tabitha was working on the definitions of square and diamond in this conversation, and she was paying attention to the properties of shapes. This is important work for elementary children. When children are very young—before about first grade—they are learning to identify shapes based on appearances. As they move further into elementary school, they need to start paying attention to properties—the number of sides, the number of vertices (“corners”), etc.

Starting the conversation

Make some of these tiles. The materials cost me less than $20 (mostly for the wood—I probably could have gotten it a lot cheaper), and the dying and painting took about an hour on a Saturday evening. Then leave them out.

Or leave out a bunch of squares, triangles and rectangles you cut out of construction paper (you can do this for under $3 and less than 10 minutes of cutting).

Then let the children play and be ready to talk.