Celebrate this international holiday in your math classroom with five fun math activities that will engage students and introduce them to the rich traditions of the Lunar New Year holiday and its origins in China.
On Lunar New Year’s Eve, families gather with a huge feast with a variety of food depending on the region. For example, people from the North of China would eat dumplings, whereas people from the South typically eat rice cakes and rice balls. These foods are not only delicious but also symbols of good luck and prosperity. For example, the shape of dumplings resembles Yuanbao, which is the gold piece used as money in ancient times. As you make dumplings, you are wrapping the good luck, wealth, and prosperity into the dough. Another common dish on New Year’s Eve is fish 鱼(yú), which has the same pronunciation as 余 (yú), meaning “extra.” Eating fish, therefore, symbolizes abundance and the overflowing of good luck.
The Lunar New Year is also the time for the transition of zodiac signs. There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. The year 2022 is the year of the tiger. Each zodiac animal is believed to have certain characteristics and traits. For example, the tiger is believed to be ambitious, courageous with a sense of justice. Babies born in this year are believed to carry the characteristics of the tiger.
The Lunar New Year presents a rich and authentic opportunity for learning. Teaching about different cultures goes much beyond introducing the food, language, and traditions. It is a natural moment for children to expand their thinking by examining culture. Here are five ideas to easily incorporate the Lunar New Year into your math classroom. All you need is some paper!
Idea 1: Teach different calendar systems
Calendars and time are important topics in elementary curriculum. Children often ask why Lunar New Year does not start on the first of January in our day-to-day calendar. This is a perfect moment to teach about different ways of keeping track of time, examine the way we perceive time, and discuss how our perception is shaped by culture.
Calendars and time are important topics in elementary curriculum. The Lunar New Year does provides an opportunity to teach about different ways of keeping track of time, examine the way we perceive time, and discuss how our perception is shaped by culture.
Idea 2: Teach symmetry through paper cutting art (jiǎn zhǐ剪纸)
During the Lunar New Year, one of the traditions is to paste red papercuts on windows to scare away the Nian monster and bring good luck. Symmetry is very common in Chinese papercutting art as it is a symbol of the ideal, of happiness, and of hope. Students can enjoy a fun art and craft session while learning about reflectional symmetry and mathematical patterns.
A shape that can be divided into identical halves is symmetrical. Any line that can divide a shape into two identical halves is a line of symmetry. You can ask children to identify symmetrical paper-cut patterns from non-symmetrical ones and identify the lines of symmetry. Encourage children to experiment with papercutting and see what mathematical patterns they notice.
For example, in papercutting, folding the paper once will yield two figures. Folding the paper twice will give you four figures. When you fold the paper three times, you will have 8 figures. Fold the paper four times, you end up with 16 figures. Students will discern that they double the number of figures each time they add a fold!
Depending on the grade level of your students, you can incorporate the lesson on the power of numbers as well. The number of figures equals two to the power of the number of folds. For example, folding the paper four times: 2^4=16, giving you 16 figures.
|Number of folds
|Number of figures
Idea 3: Teach geometry with Tangram
Tangrams are ancient Chinese puzzles. From the seven pieces of the tangram, we can create many shapes of animals, people, objects, and scenes. There are seven geometric shapes in tangram, 5 triangles, a square, and a parallelogram. Tangrams can be used to teach geometric terms and geometric relationships. For example, children can manipulate the tangram pieces and discover how two small triangles can create a larger triangle, a parallelogram, or a square, and on the contrary, how a large piece can be divided into smaller pieces. In addition to teaching mathematical concepts and developing spatial awareness, tangram design also presents a great opportunity for children to develop their problem-solving skills and expand their imagination. For example, students can make tangrams with paper to design zodiac animals and new year’s scenes.
Download a Chinese New Year Tangram Activity for students to cut or copy and complete this activity. Print on heavy stock for durability if desired.
Idea 4: Create your own math riddles for the Lantern Festival
The Lunar New Year Celebration culminates with the Lantern Festival (Yuán xiāo jié 元宵节) on the 15th day of the New Year, the day with the first full moon. On this day, people enjoy the night illuminated by hundreds and thousands of lanterns in the street. One of the traditions is Lantern Riddle, which is sometimes written on a paper lantern or in a small piece of paper hung from the lantern. Many lantern riddles have to do with a play on words.
Inspired by this tradition, students can build their paper lanterns and come up with their own math riddles! Solving riddles is a playful way to challenge students to be creative and think out of the box and exercise their problem-solving skills. Making riddles also provides a context for students to apply their math knowledge, and they must understand the math concept deeply to come up with a good riddle. Teachers can also incorporate some fun math puzzles related to the specific topic that they are learning. It is very fun and engaging for students to display their lanterns and solve each other’s riddles.
Idea 5: Practice addition and subtraction with a magic square
A fun math puzzle is a magic square. A magic square is a grid of numbers in which every row, column, and diagonal adds up to the same number. The 3x3 magic square originates from ancient China, and this is the earliest known magic square.
Ask your student to use the numbers between 1-9 and put a number in each box, so that every row, column, and diagonal adds up to 15. Each number can only be used once.
Here is one possible solution.
As you could see, every row, column, and diagonal all add up to the number 15, which is called the magic number. There is more than one configuration for the magic square as well, and you can expand your student’s thinking by asking them to find other configurations and discern the relationships between them.
Incorporating culture and holiday traditions into learning activities has many benefits as authentic learning opportunity for students to understand the rationale of their learning and a natural context to apply their learning. Such learning encourages children to expand their thinking and make connections among different subjects for problem-solving. We also celebrate the diversity in our schools and society by bringing different cultures and holidays into learning. Children expand their horizon of understanding and become more aware of their own and other people’s cultural identities as well as how we are shaped by cultures. Finally, it is a joyful and engaging way to learn!