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Zack said "If I tie it to here, what will happen to the rope? It will get stuck. It will get so, so stuck. (pulling hard) Oooooh!"

What was drawing the two-year old children to play with string, wrapping objects again and again? Their teacher Sarah Anne and I wondered. It seemed that they were using the string to know things, that by wrapping and 'tying' they were somehow coming to understand objects in a new way, the way a baby does when it touches, tastes, and climbs on something.

Sarah Anne and I proposed our theories, but weren't convinced of any of them, so we consulted with Sabot's math specialist, Cat. She noticed the children pulling on the strings, ribbons and ropes. She proposed that they might be figuring out mass by testing the resistance of the spools, bottles, chairs, tables and trees they were wrapping. She taught us the term "spatial structuring," which is the way we humans begin to organize information about a form or forms in space.

In order to understand form, we have to be able to see different ways of measuring and organize those mental measurements. There is linear measurement, then area, and 3 dimensional form or volume. This is why children represent shapes and forms with cubes in elementary school math. The cubes allow children to build representations of form in layers, which helps them mentally coordinate different aspects of forms into a complete picture.

So, by wrapping and then pulling on strings, the children are testing the resistance of the objects and hence coming to understand the mass of a tree as compared to the mass of something else. Math - it's pretty cool after all.

About the Author: 

Anna has been teaching at Sabot at Stony Point since 1996. She went to unconventional schools growing up and has never stopped trying to figure out how people learn. She studied photography and printmaking, K-8 education, and art education. Anna is a volunteer for community radio, teaches teachers at Mary Baldwin College, and is an artist working in paint and mixed media. Anna's Atelierista blog is read by educators and people from around the world who are interested in progressive education. Her whole family are artists and musicians. She and her husband feel rather surprised that their daughters are both in college now.