This activity is one I am doing at Math on a Stick at the Minnesota State Fair August 27 & 28, 2015 and can be found in the upcoming book I co-authored with Dr. Gordon Hamilton titled Socks are Like Pants, Cats are Like Dogs which is available for pre-order.
We often ask children to find and sort everyday objects according to their properties (for example, into piles of white socks and socks that are not white). In early algebra terms, this means sorting items into categories. We can also use this kind of mathematical thinking about properties to create brand new objects.
Beads are full of similarities and differences that can help you create beautiful patterns as simple or complex as you want. All you need to get started are string or pipe cleaners and beads in multiple colors and sizes. You can even make your own beads by cutting up drinking straws! As you create your patterns, you get to ask lots of interesting questions:
“How will you make the pattern interesting?”
“Will you use all small beads, or a combination of sizes?”
“Will they all be smooth, or will you add a rough textured bead into the mix?”
Whatever you choose to do, it will be yours and it will be beautiful. You will know exactly how to talk about what and how you made this beautiful thing because you’re the one who created it!
Pre-cut lengths of cotton string and/or pipe cleaners
Plastic pony beads, wooden beads, and/or beads made from plastic straws
Bowls or other containers to hold beads
Look at all the beads. Find different ways to describe them (color, shape, size, texture, etc.). Notice the similarities and differences between the beads (for example, same color, different shapes). Create a four-bead pattern unit (four beads in a row) and repeat that unit until satisfied.
Adaptations by Ages
Use very large beads or other objects like balls or blocks. Have baby handle and play with objects. Comment on their texture, shape, and color while baby is playing. Line up objects on the floor in front of baby to create a short pattern; repeat pattern one or two more times. Point to each bead and name one attribute category at a time (for example, “smooth, rough, smooth, rough...” then “red, blue, red, blue...”).
Provide pipe cleaners and a selection of large wooden beads. Let your child experience the beads by touching and stringing them, but don’t worry about patterns for now. Talk through your own making process while your child makes hers alongside you. Talk about why the bead you are using is different from (or same as) the one your child is using or about what comes next in your pattern.
Use an interesting assortment of beads and pipe cleaners (or string), three or more attributes (such as bead shape, color, texture), and three or four beads to make pattern unit. Make your own alongside your child. Take turns investigating each others’ work - how is your child’s pattern similar to yours?