Tangrams are “open-ended” materials, meaning they can be nearly anything a kid can imagine, just by re-arranging 7 puzzle pieces. Oh, how I love them. (If you don’t love them, see troubleshooting tips below.)
HOW: Converting these Chinese dissection puzzles to Judaism is so easy. Find a page of regular patterns online or in a tangram book. Some traditional tangram pictures just need a new name, like a fish we can call Dag Gadol (big fish) for the critter that swallowed Jonah, or like a Chinese lidded pot that can double as a dreidel. The meaning changes with the name, and comes from our own intention, how we look at it. It’s a fun Jewy activity to look at patterns and try to imagine them in a Jewish context: what can be Jewish and what makes it so? A weird convex blob can be a challah. The dude on a horse can be Mordechai in the Purim story.
See my printable Jewish Tangrams sheets below. I’ll be adding more.
Or, ignore established patterns and just fiddle with the 7 shapes until something looks Jewish. Try to make a shofar, a Torah scroll, etc. The only rules are that the pieces cannot overlap, and all 7 must be used.
Jewish tangrams work best when kids are familiar with the really real object they are trying to re-create with tangrams. For example, a sheet of shofar tangram puzzles won’t make sense if a kid hasn’t seen a shofar since last year (or ever). Better if the shofar is in the room, or at least shown from a book or website. There’s gotta be context, there’s gotta be real stuff so the abstract stuff is meaningful.
WHY: Educational benefits of tangrams are well-documented elsewhere, but lemme tell you that when I see a kid puzzle a new shape with tangrams, I can almost hear her brain stretch. Tangrams inspire leaps of imagination, spatial awareness, fine motor, one-to-one correspondence, abstract thinking, and a zillion other skills. They can also build Jewish identity.
Shifting these 7 pieces around on a table to make Jewish holiday symbols and ritual objects can enrich any curriculum. And, they’re “kosher:” for those of us who need activities permitted on a holiday with work prohibitions, tangrams are ideal. Scooting puzzle pieces around on a table doesn’t break any rules at all.
When “work” isn’t an issue, paper tangrams can also become permanent pieces of art: kids can glue pieces to a background, label and keep.
MAKE (FREE) TANGRAM SETS
Need tangrams for home or class? The quick and cheap way is to print a free, online template and cut it out. I warn you, a thin paper set is not that fun to play with. Printer paper curls and drifts out of place. Kids need something grip-able and sturdy.
Solution: glue-stick the printed template to cardstock and then cut. Or better, let the kid do it.
Some sites offer free templates with patterns: colors, woodgrain, etc. Get a little fancier with these: print two woodgrain templates onto paper, then glue one sheet to each side of an empty cereal box before cutting the shapes. You’ll have a stiff, attractive, double-sided set of tangrams for free! (Double-sided comes in handy for puzzles that require a flip of the parallelogram, the only piece that does not have “reflection symmetry.”)
I bought a die-cut tangram pattern from Ellison and use it at school to make craft foam, cardstock, sheet magnet and even balsa wood puzzles. I use the cardstock versions when kids want to make a pattern and then glue it to a background. I use the magnet versions on individual dry-erase boards, small cookie sheets and also the big classroom dry-erase board. Foam versions work great on large pieces of construction paper taped to the table: the paper gives the foam just enough drag to stay in place yet move with ease.
TROUBLESHOOTING, SO YOU WILL LOVE TANGRAMS
1. Make sure your tangrams are made from material that is fun to pick up and scoot around.
2. Work from the solution, which shows the outlines of the shapes. I do not call this “cheating:” it is a legit way to introduce tangrams and it is still quite a challenge!
3. Know that a one-sided set will give you fits with the parallelogram, but that’s to be expected.
4. Limit the colors of a tangram set. In some sets, each of the seven pieces is a different color, which makes it easy to identify the pieces (“rotate the blue triangle”) but can also distract those of us who need to limit visual stimulation while making one large picture with several small pieces. I prefer sets in a single color.
JEWISH TANGRAM PRINTABLES
Good templates of the 7 piece set to print and trim: Aunt Annie’s Crafts.
My favorite tangram book details the surprising history of tangrams and includes about 2000 puzzles w/ solutions: The Tangram Book by Jerry Slocum (out of print but available).