Why Are They Playing With Strings? Shouldn’t They Be Working On Mathematics?

Why Are They Playing With Strings? Shouldn’t They Be Working On Mathematics?

“String figures are a visually pleasing and wonderfully tactile way of learning to appreciate complex consequential phenomenon.” James Murphy, Math teacher, LaGuardia HS of Language and Arts, NYC.

String figures, also known as Cat’s Cradle, have been played worldwide throughout the ages in cultures as varied as the Inuit to the Maori. Long studied by anthropologists, and now used by teachers to develop skills needed for mathematics, these "simple" games support neurological pathways which lead to the development of the neocortex area of the human brain.

When children are working to create the complex patterns the twisting, turning, sliding and dropping of the strings form, they need to have an understanding of body geography and spatial orientation; not just the names of their fingers and which is the right or left hand, but also the meaning of above and below, towards and away, inside and outside, geometrical shapes, and more. Directions for the Starry Sky ask one to: “… Bend the thumbs over the front crossed lines, between the back crossed lines, under the front crossed lines, and pull these towards you. Bend the middle fingers over the index finger lines and from below put them behind the back thumb lines and pull them back.” And that is just a small part of the directions!

One has to work rhythmically, with coordination and concentration, and have the mental and physical dexterity to keep the string in place as they move through steps leading to the final figure. Sequential thinking and memory, along with an ability to visualize an outcome sounds like the skills needed to perform complex mathematical problems. You need to see the patterns and the form, and I believe that is ultimately what mathematics is, the seeing and understanding of more and more complex patterns.

In Grades 2/3 students not only used individual strings to play with, but Mr. Maynard, former OVWS Movement teacher, visited the class with a huge string which allowed students themselves to form the figures as each student stepped in for a finger! As he moved his fingers, he told a story calling upon the imagination of the class to follow the steps. After forming the shapes with individual string the students were asked to work together, to feel the give and take needed to keep the string tight and to let it slip when needed, building on the social fabric to create a large star and to free a group of animals from a circus train. Now students are creating their own string figures, and perhaps one day these same children will follow the advice of anthropologist Louis Leakey’s mentor who once told him before his visit to sub-Sahara Africa, “You can travel anywhere with a smile and a string.”