Asking young children to find, copy and extend patterns is a common math activity in preschools and kindergartens the world over. We encourage it because we want children to be able to see the relationships between objects which helps them problem solve later on. But according to recent research* our most common patterning activities aren’t actually developing that part of the brain after all.
While patterns can be highly complex, for early learners we generally concentrate on visual patterns using simple numbers, shapes or colours. Kids enjoy these kinds of activities and will often ‘work’ on them spontaneously while playing with blocks, creating a bead necklace or colouring for fun.
The most common teacher-driven activities are to duplicate or extend patterns.
But according to research these activities are too simple and don’t teach kids to actually see the relationships that will lead to higher mathematical understanding. They don’t exercise the part of the brain that needs it.
So what are we aiming for?
Analogical reasoning is when we take something we know (for example, our cat) and compare it to a new concept (our mum’s new car). We use the similarities or patterns we see to understand the new concept (I need to feed my cat and take it to the vet when it’s sick, so mum needs to fuel the car and take it to the mechanic so it keeps working properly). Because there’s a recognisable pattern our brain will store that information more effectively.
To develop this skill kids need to use their
- short term memories (for temporary storage)
- working memories (to wrestle with the information in their short term memory)
- inhibitory control (to see past the superficial to the patterns underneath)
Read through this infographic for a clearer explanation!
What is important about a transfer task?
In order to develop analogical reasoning kids need to not only SEE information, but manipulate it, ponder and stew on it, and decide how to represent that information.
And that’s what happens with a transfer task.
For example, if a pattern is created with fruit give your kids little plastic sea creatures and ask them to show the same pattern.
This way they are using ~
Short term memory: I see pieces of fruit… 2 pears, 2 bananas, 2 pears, 2 bananas
Working memory: How can this fruit relate to these sea creatures? What is the pattern and how can I show it? (AABB)
Inhibitory control: I need to ignore the colours… green, green, yellow, yellow because they’re not relevant to the AABB pattern.
All this equals serious mental processing!
A Free Transfer Task
I have created a free printable to help kids make the transition from copying a pattern using the same materials, to reproducing the pattern using different materials.
Simply print the 3 pages onto cardstock, cut and laminate if you wish.
- Kids choose a picture strip and decide what pattern it is: AB, AAB, ABC or ABB
- Place the matching pattern card underneath as a reminder
- Use other objects to create that same pattern.
- Compare the picture strip to the newly created pattern. Do they match? In what ways are they different and the same?
Melissa A. Collins & Elida V. Laski (2015). Preschoolers’ strategies for solving visual pattern tasks. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol 32, 204-214. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.04.004