Clean Math (a.k.a Tubby Time)

A few posts ago, I commented on the brilliance of using car time, when your kids are locked down and not going anywhere, to talk about math. Well, bath time is like that, too! While your kid is not locked down (right? right), he is doing something he has to do anyway. Use that time for your manipulative math purposes…

Get some soft foam pattern blocks. When they are wet, they will stick to the sides of the tub. Now…play! With younger children build pictures: boats, towers, people, whatever. Name the shapes as you play: triangle! square! parallelogram! rhombus! trapezoid! hexagon! Ask your child if it’s possible to build a  hexagon out of just triangles or just trapezoids. As with most anything you do with your kids, they will lead the way by stacking, sticking, and building in unexpected ways. Be delighted with it all.

Perhaps you notice the bite marks in our pattern blocks above? The kids love them so much they have tried to eat them (yes, there is a potential choking hazard here, so exercise common sense when deciding whether these toys are right for your child at this stage of the game.)

With your older children, you can allow for the same free play, and you can also ask more questions. When they tile the pieces together into a mosaic, why do some shapes fit together and others don’t? Can they build bigger versions of the smaller shapes (ex: a bigger square out of little squares, a bigger triangle out of little triangles, a bigger trapezoid out of little trapezoids)?

By the way, some of the most fun we have is watching the shapes (particularly the triangle) spin around the whirlpool formed as the tub drains! Yup, this still holds the 7-year-old’s rapt attention.


If your child no longer takes baths or is older than early elementary school, there is still  a lot of value in having pattern block manipulatives around the house to fiddle with. Even adults have a hard time not creating some kind of pattern when a pile of these blocks are within reach.

(Mathematically…learning about angles and angle measurement in middle school or high school geometry is often an abstract endeavor and for that reason can be troublesome for some students. Thinking abstractly is an advanced developmental skill. Playing with these shapes at an early age develops pattern skills and sets the physical foundation for later abstract thinking. You don’t have to have a “curriculum” of questions to ask. Just let your child play with the shapes and make his own discoveries.)


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