Svetlana Pancenko was inspired to start an after school math circle in London called Igramatica when she realized that all children are mathematicians, and can have the joy of exploring mathematics through games. There is math all around us, and Svetlana helps young children discover it. Here is Maria Droujkova’s interview about this adventure.
Can you describe a meeting of your group? How do you plan, what do the kids and adults do, and what happens after?
My colleague and I usually discuss and plan each lesson: the structure of the lesson, what games we’ll play and in what order we’ll play them, and what materials and handouts we need to prepare. During the lesson we always alternate active games with board games so that the children do not get bored or tired. The introductory part of each lesson is a fairy tale where all of the characters solve different mathematical and logical problems. We chose this way of presenting new topics because children like fairy tales and acting. You can keep the kids focused and entertained while including them in the process of problem solving along with the characters.
The main things we do in our math circle are different active games, board games, construction, and combination. For our construction games we use lolly sticks, bricks, LEGO, mosaics, tangram, ornaments – either with instructions to follow or with using the imagination, which children like more. Symmetry has been our favorite last year. I can see how kids get the rhythm and enjoy the beauty of what they build. The combination part is about finding different combinations: how many handshakes are between 5 friends, how many roads are between fairy tales character’s houses, how to make a lion-goose or rhino-lion, how many ways we can build a pyramid out of three different colored rings.
Each game aims at developing the children’s mathematical, logical, and analytical thinking using their imaginations and abstract thinking. That’s why these lessons are suitable for kids with different abilities.
All parents are welcome to participate in the lessons and play with their kids in the group. We believe most parents need to learn how to play with kids so that they can play at home, on vacations, or during long trips.
After the circle the kids have some time to play whatever games they want with each other. For example, they can use a whiteboard for drawing, or build anything they want with colored sticks. Meanwhile we discuss with parents (privately or in group) what to focus on mathematically with their kids at home. We discuss what the kids achieved, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and where they need a little extra help.
What made you want to start a children’s program? What helped you to start doing it, once you decided?
We were inspired to start a math circle by reading Zvonkin’s book “Math from Three to Seven.” At first our circle was only for two boys. It was obvious to us that the best way for kids to learn is through play and competition in games. So we examined methods of mathematical teaching in different countries: The UK, Russia, USA, China, and Japan. We made comparative research and learned about the most interesting experiences. We tried many different games with our own kids. We saw how enthusiastic they were during these lessons, how they enjoyed themselves, and most importantly, we saw how easy it was for them to understand fundamental mathematical concepts through playing games. During the lessons we could observe kids’ reactions to each game and understand which games they liked, which needed to be corrected, and if we needed to make the games more challenging or more simple.
Then our group gradually expanded: we invited our kids’ friends, neighbors, and classmates. All the kids were excited to come and play with math, listen to new stories, and participate in competitions or team games. So we decided to organize an after school club where kids could play and learn math.
Can you describe a memorable episode or anecdote from your meetings? Something that warms your heart! (You can share more than one such story.)
Some days I feel really energetic and satisfied after the lesson when everything I planned worked and the kids happily played and asked for more.
At one of our first math circles about fractions we cut up small pancakes and then ate all the pieces. When I decided to go back and refresh fractions for the kids a couple months later the first question from one boy when he heard the word “fraction” was: “Hurrah! Will we cut and eat pancakes again?”
Another story: we told a fairy tale about a little ant who hurried back home and counted the legs of bugs and spiders. In our math circle we made the bugs and spiders out of green and red grapes and toothpicks. Another “tasty story”, and the kids learned which creatures have 6 legs and which have 8.
In one lesson at the beginning of our circle I introduced coordinates to 4-5 year olds. It didn’t go to well until we used a chess board with small lids from water bottles and hid tic-tacs under them. The kids were intrigued to find and eat the tic-tacs, and this helped them understand where H2 or A8 was!
What other inspirations can you name?
We are happy to be a part of the Moebius Noodles network; it gives us so many new and fresh ideas on how to develop our club further. Our other inspirations are: Jane Katc’s Moscow based club which holds a lot of family math camps in different countries (http://janemouse.livejournal.com/), board games of “Banda umnikov”( http://bandaumnikov.ru/), and games shared by Nataliigromaster(http://nataliigromaster.blogspot.com/).
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself for working in groups?
The most difficult question :) I would advise myself to make my lessons more structured and use connections between them, and to not be afraid of repeating things and making them a bit more difficult each time.
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