Snowflakes, Snowmen and Sweets! We find ourselves in the midst of the winter holidays, with all their glorious splendor. Hanukkah menorahs have been lit, there are Christmas trees to decorate, cookies and pies to bake, and potato pancakes to fry. For those of us in colder climates, there are snowmen to build and snow angels to make!
Amid all the holiday loveliness, your little one catches a glimpse of a snowflake ornament. His curiosity piqued, he bombards you with questions. What is this, he asks? Why does it have that shape? It looks the same whichever way we turn it... Intuitively, even the youngest children are able to comprehend that there is a special quality to the snowflake’s construction. Yes, it is beautiful… but it is beautiful in a very specific, regular way. Does that special regularity have a name? Indeed it does, you say. It is called symmetry. Let’s see if we can explore it further.
Note to parents - you may want to make some printouts of snowflake images ahead of time… Then you can show your children that if you fold the image along one of the axes, you get a mirror reflection on the other side of the fold. Do the same thing along another axis. Let your kids play with the images to see how else they can fold them and in how many ways. With this approach, you can introduce them to the concepts of mirror symmetry and rotational symmetry in one fell swoop!
Let’s see what we can turn our attention to next… See the faces of family and friends gathered around the holiday table? Are they perfectly symmetrical? Well... what if someone’s eyes are a different color? Or they part their hair on the side? What about clock faces? Depends on whether they use numerals or tick marks, doesn’t it?
As you are sitting around a dinner table, have your kids take a look at their dinnerware. Is that lovely round plate symmetrical? Can you figure out in how many ways? What about your spoon and your fork?
And while we are putting up more holiday decorations, take a look at the brightly colored ornaments on your Christmas tree. What do you notice?
What about your Hanukkah menorah? Well, that depends, doesn’t it? 😉
You didn’t think we would forget about cookies and pies, did you? Challenge your kids to create symmetrical and asymmetrical cookie designs. You can use dark and white chocolate chips, M&M’s, Reese’s Pieces - anything similar you can think of! This would be a wonderful activity to keep both the younger and the older children entertained for some time - a lovely bonus for busy parents. 😊
And of course, with that freshly fallen snow, your little ones will want to go outside and play. You could make a jolly symmetrical snowman, but you could also make one that Picasso would be proud to call his own! 😁
Now that your child understands symmetry, there is no reason to be bored on the road ever again! There are so many things to notice and so much to explore! Every trip, every errand, no matter how long or how short, can become a scavenger hunt! See that bright red STOP sign? Is it symmetrical? Why or why not? What if you just painted the whole thing red and removed the words? Oh, and what if you rotate the sign a bit? Does the shape look exactly the same as it did before? The wonder of the road is yours to rediscover in unexpected ways.
Parent Confidential - Further Resources
FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
Math on the Go aims to engage kids in the wonders of mathematics when they (and you) are on the go, with little opportunity to sit, or grab a pencil and paper. But what if they are a captive audience at a relatives’ house? Or sitting in a restaurant, (impatiently) waiting for everyone to finish eating and the bill to be paid. Here are some more involved activities should you find yourself in that situation this holiday season:
If your child likes to color, there are many coloring book resources to consider. A lovely book by Alex Bellos called Patterns of the Universe is our particular favorite. It might be a fun one to do together. Find the symmetry, and figure out how to use color to make sure that the symmetry is preserved.
If your child was especially intrigued by snowflake patterns, Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin might be of interest.
Pattern blocks are another wonderful resource, both at home and on the road. The love of these has stayed with some of our children well into adulthood. They are useful not only for exploring symmetry, but for discovering polygon shapes and fractions later on.
For a child strapped into a car seat, consider the travel version of Fractiles, magnetic pattern blocks.
Kaleidoscopes are a wonderfully entertaining way to explore the topic of symmetry.
FOR OLDER CHILDREN
If your older children (or you, for that matter! 😊) are further intrigued by the idea of symmetry and where it can be found, there are a wealth of resources out there. Here are just a few books to wet your appetite.
Symmetry: The Ordering Principle by David Wade
This is a little gem of a book. One of the beauties of it, apart from the wonderful illustrations and the detailed symmetries it describes, is that it is small enough to be tucked into your purse or a car seat pocket.
The Symmetries of Things by John H. Conway et al.
A beautiful exploration of the many kinds of symmetry for a budding mathematician or a budding artist alike.
The Magic of M.C. Escher by J. L. Locher
A feast for the eyes, and the best way we know of to pique a child’s interest in geometry.