MC Escher and tessellations: Where math meets art

In our ongoing quest to keep L engaged with math without necessarily pushing her through more and more abstract concepts. I still harbor fantasies of her going back to school at some point, and I worry that the growing disconnect between her age and her abilities is only going to make finding a fit harder. However, I want her to continue to push past the zone where things are easy and have to persist on some difficult tasks, too. She already struggles with shutting down if things don’t come instantly to her (or if she doesn’t do them “correctly”) so one of my goals for her educationally is to grapple with that which is just out of reach.

We recently completed a lesson in Beast Academy related to using polyominos to fill defined spaces. We’ve also been using pattern blocks in relation to our study of fractions, so it occurred to me that we could use pattern blocks to begin to explore tessellations.

A tessellation is a repeating pattern that has no overlap or gaps between the pieces. You can tessellate lots of shapes, but if you want to see how cool tessellations can be, you’ve got to check out the artwork of M.C. Escher.

I found a really cool link that shows how to make your own tessellating shape, but I knew that opening with that level of open-endedness was likely to freak L out. Instead, we started with our pattern blocks.

I took a cookie sheet and used washi tape to define a small (about 4″) square on the cookie sheet. We defined this as our field. We then sorted the pattern blocks by shape. L chose a shape to begin with and we began seeing how we could cover the entire field with that single shape with no overlap and no gap.

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Tessellating squares is easy!

We then moved onto hexagons, which were also simple to tessellate.

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We had a nice connection to the honeycomb in nature when we did this one

We then moved onto a shape which I’m not sure they had “when I was a kid” – or if they did, I certainly didn’t know anything about it… rhombuses! L loves the shape and the word – and I love the way she says the word (a mildly trilled “r” and like rum-busses). She first arranged the small rhombuses in a non-standard pattern, which we decided also looked like nature.

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Like the wing of a bald eagle!

When we moved onto the larger rhombuses, I asked her to arrange them differently than the previous set of rhombuses. One of my strategies with her is always to ask her to reflect on what she’s just done and find a slightly different take on the task. Here’s what she came up with for the larger rhombuses.

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A different arrangement of rhombuses

I decided at this point that she clearly understood the basics of the task. I asked her to remove most of the blue rhombuses from the field and instead, use a few rhombuses to make a different shape. Instead of tessellating rhombuses, we would tessellate this new shape she created.

L put together three blue rhombuses to create a hexagon. She was concerned that they didn’t fit together perfectly, but I told her that we could pretend there were tiny white rhombuses filling in the gaps because the gaps themselves were regular. She then began tessellating the sets of three rhombuses and came up with quite a cool pattern.

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Hexagons made of rhombuses

As we were admiring the work, L decided that we could now add some of those whole yellow hexagons to the field. I asked her to think about how to add them in a pattern, like she might find on a floor or a wall. She came up with stripes.

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Yellow and blue striped hexagon tessellation

And then, of course, she decided to input the red half-hexagons in sets of two to complete the stripes.

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Full on hexagon stripes

Very cool!!

Building off the idea of altering patterns, we then picked up the final shape we hadn’t yet used: the humble equilateral triangle. She designed a tessellation in which the vertex of one triangle rested at the midway point of a side in each line.

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Each line is the same with the triangles in the same places

She then pushed over lines two and four to line up the lengths of opposing triangles with one another to form a slightly different pattern – and in it, she found hexagons! We had a conversation about how we could re-create the three-lined hexagon tessellation above with additional green lines or how we could use three triangles in the place of any one of the red half-hexagons to complicate it further.

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Look, mom! Hexagons!

I was feeling pretty good about the open-ended result we’d experienced so far on this day, and I stepped away to take part in a quick phone conversation. When I returned, she’d created this tessellation. The green triangles are the wingspan and the single triangle above them serves as the head of one bird and the tail of the next bird.

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The birds in mid-flight

She also used this time to find tessellations on the floors and walls of our bathrooms. Since she was still really into it, I pulled out a recent supply I’d ordered from Nasco, anticipating both her enjoyment of this concept and her love of animals.

Animal. Tessellation. Templates.

I kid you not.

I mean, what in the what? Right?!

Anyway. They were a hit!

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Look at how fun these are!!

Let me be clear: I am jealous that we didn’t have these.

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She tessellated fish

The fish was the end of it for the day for her – I mean, she had been at it for a solid few hours. However, a few days later, we revisited the templates again. This time, I urged L to think about coloring in a pattern to enhance her tessellation. She picked up the dog and came up with this.

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Red and black tessellated dogs.

We’ll get to the self-made templates in the coming weeks. Overall, I feel relatively certain that she engaged her pattern-making brain, build some fine-motor skills, and also had a pretty darn good time, too.




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