Blocks and Modeling: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Exploring Geometric Objects – Online Workshop

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  • What: An intensive two-day online workshop on creating math puzzles, modeling, and visual-spatial thinking using everyday objects
  • Why: Learn how to help your children play with beautiful math, ask questions and pose problems as mathematicians do
  • Who: 25 parents, teachers, math circle leaders, and their children (ages 5-12), with Sian Zelbo and Sally Bishop as organizers
  • When: Live meetings Thursday & Friday, March 10 & 11, 2016, at 1:00 to 2:30 PM EST (New York)
  • Where: Online video-talk software Zoom (similar to Skype); recordings available to participants
  • Price: Registration is $20. Add $25 to crowdfund Sian Zelbo’s upcoming book Playing With Blocks, have your name in it, and receive paperback and ebook copies (~Fall 2016). Work-trade stipends are available upon request.
  • Supplies: 12 sticks (toothpicks or popsicle sticks), paper, pencil

Missed this course? Check out our available courses at

Playing With Blocks 2016

We are running an online workshop in two sessions, called “Playing with Blocks,” for 25 parents, math circle leaders, and teachers of elementary age children. The workshop will use open-ended puzzles to launch a discussion on how to encourage your students and children to approach mathematics with a sense of curiosity and exploration.

Let’s explore!

Mathematics curricula are often structured to help students learn and practice specific concepts and procedures. Children don’t often get the opportunity to ask their own questions, look for patterns, and make their own mathematics. The “Playing with Blocks” workshop will help parents, math circle leaders, and teachers approach their own mathematics in this way and to encourage their students to do the same. Once you are asking your own questions and not just answering questions posed by others, you are on the road to thinking like a mathematician. And by modeling a curious, creative, and playful attitude toward mathematical ideas you will be encouraging your students to enter that same frame of mind and teaching them to be mathematicians too.

Where is mathematics?

The activity you will explore is a joyful and elegant example of mathematics that starts easy, and then takes you far. The areas of math you will touch come from the subjects of geometry, number theory, and combinatorics. Visual-spatial thinking is taught much less than math with numbers, yet it is crucial to many areas of “grown-up” mathematics, science, engineering, and technology.
Kinds Of Polygons
You will help your children grow their math eyes, and notice unexpected links between concepts such as angle and area, minimum/maximum and perimeter, combinations that form a sum and types of triangles (equilateral, scalene, and so on). You will make bridges to other rich math activities, such as pentaminoes and tangrams.
Matchstick Pentaminoes
As we talk, you will pick up good math terms for this exploration, and good search phrases for when you want to investigate these topics more. You will also collect questions you can ask about any problem, to learn deeper, more joyful math. For example:
  • What makes Thing One and Thing Two similar or different? (For example, a triangle and a square.)
  • What is the largest thing you can make? How do you measure your things? (For example, using a grid to measure areas.)
  • What if you change your numbers around? What other things you can change? (For example, 10 toothpicks instead of 12.)

Here’s how it works:

Adults meet twice in a webinar format. During the first workshop, you will become familiar with Natural Math methods and activities and explore the art of creating your own math problems. You’ll be introduced to a chapter of Sian’s upcoming book and you’ll try it out live.

Between the first and second workshop, you will try out a math activity with your group of children or students. We want you to bring your experience back to the second workshop. Bring the successes, the challenges, the struggles; whatever happens we want to know!

One goal of our second workshop is to give you the support, feedback and confidence you need to try out even more math puzzling on your own. We will discuss your experiences and share feedback and ideas with one another. Our final goal is to be sure we have all grown in our confidence and abilities and love of math.

Want to make a difference for your children and see mathematics in a new light? Join this new Natural Math adventure!

Here is a sample of our Math Sparks. The goal is to start thinking about ideas – to spark curiosity. Click to see the full-size PDF and ponder the questions in it.

Activity Spark Playing With Blocks

Sian sian pic bw1Zelbo  holds a degree in law from the University of Texas and an MA in math education from Teachers College Columbia University. Sian was a practicing lawyer when she decided to return to school to explore her latent interest in mathematics. Sian has held various positions in mathematics education including associate director of the Center for Mathematical Talent at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University and math specialist at the Speyer Legacy School in New York City.  Sian also runs math circles and works with various schools as a math education consultant. Sian’s interest is in helping young people discover and develop their own interest and ability in mathematics through extracurricular activities that focus on mathematical reasoning and problem solving. Sian co-authored Camp Logic, a popular math circle and family book published by Natural Math.

Sally Bishop has loved math her entire life. A self-described introvert, she has an innate ability to recognize patterns in nature, ideas and people. She enjoys sharing her enthusiasm for math with people of all ages, both online and in-person, and is a talented editor with a knack for the big picture and details.  Sally started helping others see the inherent beauty of math in homeschool math cooperatives, where she embraces math learning that is empowering and fun. In her spare time, she reads widely and creates handmade books, often with a dog asleep across her shoulders and a cat in her lap.

Natural Math Principles


Openness is one of the seven Natural Math main principles, and the focus of this workshop. Openness means you can adapt, collaborate on, and share your math. A single math problem can be made into diverse others by changing one aspect or another. Which changes make it harder, easier, more interesting or less fun? It’s up to you!

What do you get from Playing With Blocks?

  • A highly interactive experience where you make models, talk, and collaborate with other parents and teachers.
  • Leading your children or students on playful math adventures.
  • The first meeting in a math circle format (you as a student!) to see how to run these activities, and to get inspired.
  • A day to try activities with children and friends
  • The second meeting to answer your questions, overview other activities, and prepare to do more with children.
  • Insight on how to adapt puzzles and problems to facilitate endless math exploration.
  • Make an impact on another Natural Math book by sharing your ideas directly with the author
  • (The crowdfunding option)  Your name as one of crowdfunders in Sian Zelbo’s new book, Playing With Blocks, and the paperback and ebook copies (~Fall 2016)
  • Most importantly, you’ll get the confidence in your own ability to do math differently in your family or group!

Questions? Email or ask in comments to this page.

  • Connection and devices: you will need fast internet to watch and listen. It’s better to have a microphone and a webcam so you can show and tell as well, but you can also use text chat. We recommend larger screens rather than phones.
  • Software: Zoom is a tool for talking, like Skype or Google Hangouts. Please download and try it, here: The same page has the link to a tech support center, in case you need it.
  • Recording: The meetings will be available to course participants as YouTube videos.