Two books I’ve read recently have encouraged me to investigate my memories from childhood. In Tracy Zager’s “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had“, she urged me to think about my maths autobiography to see what influenced my current feelings about maths. In Stuart Brown’s “Play“, he urged me to think about my play history to see what influenced my current feelings and tendencies about play. In the spirit of those two, here are some of my earliest memories about maths and play.
In primary school, I have very few memories of actually being in a maths class, and all of them are negative. I’ve related two of them already in this blog. One was my memory of doing a maths assignment about one million dollars, where the financial aspect distressed me to tears. Another was my memory of my Year 6 teacher attempting to teach us averages using cricket.
The only other maths class memory is of a test I did in Year 3. I had been sick with asthma for a couple of weeks and came back to school on the day of a test. I dutifully did the test and actually got almost full marks. The only thing I got wrong was the meaning of the word “net” in the phrase “net weight” as you might see listed on a packet of food. I distinctly remember it being a multiple choice question and ruling out two of the answers as ridiculous, but basically having to guess between the other two. I was angry because how could I possibly know that? Everything else was just logic and so I could figure it out for myself, but you can’t figure out the meaning of a word without more context. Eight-year-old me was an astute little person.
Across my primary school career, I do remember a strong feeling of pleasure and fascination associated with construction toys. I remember absolutely loving the MAB blocks, in particular the moment when I replaced ten units with a long, and ten longs with a flat and ten flats with a block. Interestingly, my memory is only of the blocks themselves and I can’t pinpoint a year level or a teacher that goes with this. I also remember loving playing with polydrons and attribute tiles, but again the memory is just about the fascination of playing with them, and not about any particular maths class. In fact, thinking carefully about what is around me in these memories, I seem to be in a hall or a library, rather than in a classroom.
Outside of school, I remember playing a game in each new playground, where I would try to do every part of the play equipment exactly once without crossing my path. Would I have to interpret the slide as both a sliding down and a climbing up in order to do it? Would I end up trapped on the top, or could I finish on the ground where I started?
At home, we’d build elaborate maze-like cubby houses out of spare mattresses and sheets (we lived in a house where visitors often stayed over). I remember planning these out with my brother with explicit conversations of how we would fit more rooms and pathways into the space of our shared room. I also remember spending hours making designs with a ruler and compass. Or by folding paper several times and cutting out holes then unfolding and sticking on a contrasting colour.
It seems that for me, geometrical play holds the strongest positive mathematical memories from my primary school years.
Indeed, my very first memory of primary school is about geometrical play. It’s the moment I walked into my kindergarten classroom for the first time. We walked into a carpeted play area, and the desks and blackboard were some distance away at the other end of the classroom. Here in the play area was a bookcase filled with big thick brown blocks. Some of them were on the floor being made into a car track by some other children. I remember immediately wondering about how the various straight and curved pieces might fit together. I have some vague memories of tying various combinations on other days in kindergarten.
Earlier than this, one of my only memories of Happy Days Pre-School was getting out the giant foam blocks from the store room under the building and playing with them on the grass.
It’s funny that so many of my positive mathematical memories are geometrical when now I also have such a love of the structure and behaviour of numbers. Maybe that came later, though my mother says as a very young child I was always “playing number and letter games in my head”. I myself can’t remember doing that, but my mother is a very astute person and I am not about to doubt her observations.
My earliest memory of any kind is of a cool hard flat greenness. My mother says this is probably a memory of the back verandah at the house we lived in before I was two years old — it had a green-painted concrete floor. I wonder if other people’s earliest memories are about feelings of space and colour. If so, maybe it means we’re all geometers from birth. Or maybe it’s just me.
What is clear is that it’s hardly surprising that I ended up doing a PhD in finite geometry even though the original undergraduate degree I enrolled in was mathematical physics. I think the fundamental pull towards that geometrical play was calling me all along, considering how strongly I gravitated towards it in primary school despite the rest of maths not being so inspiring.
If you’re reading this, I don’t know what you might learn from my story. But for myself I realise I am right where I belong.