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int. j. math. educ. sci. technol., 2001, vol. 32, no.

3, 401 415

On the importance of mathematical play

Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, and Mathematics Centre, University College Chichester, Bognor Regis Campus, PO21 1HR, England


Mathematics Centre, University College Chichester, Bognor Regis Campus, PO21 1HR, England (Received 16 December 1999) A number of existing theories and proposals for the meaning and characteristics of `play are considered before the authors suggest six characteristics of mathematical play, including the idea that it is not conned to childhood. Previous studies provide evidence for relating play to cognitive gain while the place of mathematical play in research activities is illustrated by describing a mathematicians approach to a number investigation from the classroomThe Six Circles. The problem-solving process for the Six Circles and observations of students solving calculator and integration problems are analysed in relation to theories of play and cognitive gain and also considered from the perspective of the students experience. Piagets theory for the assimilation and accommodation of new information and Daviss view of play as `space to support learning are reected in the authors rationale for suggesting that open questions and mathematical play provide opportunities for students to develop their own conjectures, with no threat of failure, and provide a foundation for mathematical learning. Some di culties of implementing a `play approach in the classroom are discussed and further research questions proposed.

1. Introduction In this paper the concept of mathematical play is introduced with a view to discussing the importance of `play for both learners and researchers of mathematics. Mathematical play can protably be used by people of all ages when faced with new mathematical situations. We believe that the use of this play can extend the participants mathematical horizons; increase the connections between their separate pieces of mathematical knowledge; engender a positive attitude towards the subject; and improve successful learning and understanding in mathematics generally. In the second section of this paper the concept of play is considered from the standpoint of a number of authors and in the third section we dene what we mean by mathematical play. The following section, contains a review of studies where play has been used for cognitive gain in problem solving situations. Play is then linked with mathematical research and it is shown how a research mathematician might use play in trying to solve a problem. The sixth section of the paper aims to
International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology ISSN 0020739X print/ISSN 14645211 online # 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/00207390010022158


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show mathematical play at work in various problems that have been used with school students. The nal section attempts to draw the threads of the argument together. 2. Play Over the last one hundred years or so considerable attention has been given to play in the literature. Dewey [1, p. 180f] was considering one aspect of play when he said The rst stage of contact with any new material, at whatever age of maturity, must inevitably be of the trial and error sort. An individual must actually try, in play, to do something with material . . . then note the interaction of his energy and that of the material employed. This is what happens when a child rst begins to build blocks, and it is equally what happens when a scientic man in his laboratory begins to experiment with unfamiliar objects. It is important to note that Dewey already saw play as being of value at all levels of development and maturation. However, this is a far cry from reality in any current educational institution, except perhaps in kindergartens or the rst year or so of primary school where play is, at present, regarded as an acceptable part of the curriculum. Various suggestions have been made as to why play may be important for childrens development. For instance, Rubin [2, p. 11f] includes the following ideas: play allows the child to transform reality and thus to develop symbolic representations of his world; play aids in the development of creativity and aesthetic appreciation; play in childhood allows the practice and mastery of activities which are later useful for serious endeavours in adulthood; play serves a cathartic function in development. Sylva et al. [3], give the following ve items as characteristics of play, although the third item appears to be the reverse of what we sometimes see in practice: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) practice in assembling bits of behaviour into unusual sequences; the lessening of the role of failure; a temporary moratorium on frustration; an invitation to the possibilities inherent in things and in events; a voluntary and self-initiated process.

It is also generally agreed that in play, process is more important than product (see [3]). Hutt [4] draws the distinction between exploration and play. She sees exploration as occurring in a novel situation and as being directional with the goal of determining the properties of an object. On the other hand, play occurs only in a known environment with a goal of not `what does this object do, but rather, `what can be done with this object. In this sense, exploration is stimulus-referent while play is response-referent. Dienes [5] notes the importance of play for children in the development of mathematical thinking. He describes three di erent forms of play: manipulative,

The importance of mathematical play


representational, and rule-bound. Manipulative play can be thought of as exploration. Representational play occurs where objects are assigned properties that are di erent from those they actually have. In rule-bound play, choices are governed by rules, as in a game. Dienes sees manipulative play leading to concept construction while rule-bound play has considerable motivational power. Piaget was involved in extensive work on play and cognitive development. According to Piaget, children develop cognitive structures called schemata as they interact with the world. These schemata contain all the ideas, information, etc. about a particular object. As children gain new information about an object this is assimilated into the particular schema. On the other hand, if new information or experience is at odds with a current form of a schema then there is a change in the schema called accommodation. Although Piaget saw play as an important factor in this development, he seemed to think that its cognitive value declined as the child matured. The beginning of the school years mark the transition to games where rules are added to play to produce a repetitive cycle of action. Further, play in this sense is generally not considered to continue much past childhood, with adult play performing a very di erent function in a social setting. Games with rules . . . mark the decline of childrens games and the transition to adult play, which ceases to be a vital function of the mind when the individual is socialised. (Piaget [6, p. 168]) However, Erikson (see [7, p. 691]) . . . makes it clear that play is not limited to childhood but is pursued throughout the life cycle. Davis [8, p. 222] takes play further and stresses its value in the following way: Put simply, play is not so much an activity as it is an acceptance of uncertainty and a willingness to move. Play is thus the antithesis of the modern ideals of certainty, predictability, and linear progress. But it is not an abandonment of our quest for structure, order, pattern, and comprehensibility. Quite the opposite, these are the ends of play. But these ends are revealed only in the playing, for play is not simply random activity. Rather, by opening the door to the as yet inexperienced, to the possible, play reveals what is not yet known as it simultaneously o ers space to support learning.

3. Mathematical play We now introduce the term mathematical play. By mathematical play we mean that part of the process used to solve mathematical problems, which involves both experimentation and creativity to generate ideas, and using the formal rules of mathematics to follow any ideas to some sort of a conclusion. Mathematical play involves pushing the limits of the situation and following thoughts and ideas wherever they may lead. Hence there are no obvious short-term goals for mathematical play; it is designed to allow complete freedom on the part of the solver to wander over the mathematical landscape. However, there is a long-term goal and that is the solution of the problem in hand. Metacognition will keep the long-term


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goal in the mind of the solver but mathematical play will generate the ideas that are necessary for the solution of the problem. Since mathematical play may sweep anywhere over the mathematical landscape and use any techniques known or invented by the solver, it will often go further than is necessary for the solution of the current problem. Because of the freedom assigned to the solver in the above process it seems appropriate to think of the activity as a kind of play. The following points are implicit in the above description of mathematical play: (1) it is a solver-centred activity with the solver in charge of the process; (2) it uses the solvers current knowledge; (3) it develops links between the solvers current schemata while the play is occurring; (4) it will, via 3, reinforce current knowledge; (5) it will, via 3, assist future problem solving/mathematical activity as it enhances future access to knowledge; (6) it is irrespective of age. It should be pointed out that mathematical play does not necessarily lead to a solution of the problem. This is because the solver may proceed down many blind alleys and even produce incorrect solutions. However, mathematical play provides a non-threatening environment where incorrect solutions are not read as mistakes and may lead to a better understanding of the problem and/or the confrontation of misconceptions. The teachers role may be to ask questions which make misconceptions clear and provide sca olding (see Bruner [9]), perhaps in the form of questions or additional information, which starts the student `playing in a more productive direction. In the rest of the paper we will attempt to support the six claims above. At present we will be satised to note that our claims are consistent with at least the rst three suggestions quoted from [2] and characteristics (1), (4) and (5) of [3]. In addition, we support Dienes [5] and Piaget [6] in their thoughts on, and the valuing of, play but we di er from them in at least one important aspect. We believe that play is of value to people of all ages and not just to children.

Play for cognitive gain 4.1. Play Work relating to play for cognitive gain goes back at least to the research undertaken by Kohler [10], and later researchers, particularly Birch [11], who investigated the retrieval of bananas by chimpanzees. In these experiments the chimpanzees were given sticks that by themselves were too short to reach a banana outside their cage. Animals who had had experience manipulating sticks in a play situation were quickly able to join them to make a longer `rake that would enable them to retrieve the banana. Those animals that had not had this prior play experience spent a frustrating half an hour unsuccessfully trying to retrieve the prize. A number of authors have linked play with problem solving and creativity in children. Smith and Simon [12] have reviewed three types of study in this vein.


The importance of mathematical play


The rst type of study involved problems of a convergent type. These are problems where there is a unique solution to the task. Sylva [13], Smith and Dutton [14], Vandenberg [15] and Simon and Smith [16] have undertaken such studies with young children mainly in the 3 to 5 year range. The studies with children were similar to the work of Kohler etc., with animals. Generally, however, there were three groups of children. One group was allowed to play with the sticks and their connecting devices, one group was taught how the sticks could be connected, and one group was asked to tackle the task without prior play or learning. The results of these studies showed that the play and taught groups performed comparably and achieved better results than the third group. In fact, the play groups results were never worse than the taught groups and in Smith and Duttons study [14] where the task required more innovative thinking, the play group obtained the solution more quickly than the taught group. The second type of study considered by Smith and Simon, [12], required the subjects to demonstrate alternative uses for some material in order to produce a measure of divergent thinking. Three studies were involved in this second type. They were by Dansky and Silverman [17, 18], Li [19], and Dansky [20]. In Danskys [20] study, for example, the children were separated into three groups: a free play group were allowed to play with a set of objects as they wished; another group observed the actions of an experimenter; and a third group attempted to solve convergent problems involving the objects. Only the free-play subjects displayed heightened associative uency. However, simply providing children with play materials and allowing them the opportunity to play did not necessarily enhance uency. The childrens inherent creative ability seems to have been an important factor in the magnitude of the imaginative use of the objects in the alternative-uses test. Finally Smith and Simon considered two linked studies by Pepler and Ross [21], which involved convergent and divergent problem solving, as well as a study by Zammarelli and Bolton [22], which considered symbolic problem solving related to mathematical concept formation. In all cases, the children who played with the materials before testing, outperformed the other children. Smith and Simon [12], raised questions about the conditions under which these experiments were conducted. As regards the play groups, it is di cult to determine if the activity in which the children engaged was actually play. If intrinsic motivation, for example (see [3], characteristic 5 quoted in section 2), is considered as a prerequisite of play, then it may be that play is not what ensued. There is the problem too of the distinction between exploration and play. Most of the studies reported do not report on precisely what the play group of children actually did in their `play session, and so are unable to give any correlation between these `play experiences and subsequent performance on the test itself. A similar problem arises with the `taught group. Some groups were given direct training. Others were involved in situations where the materials were manipulated but the actual principle, on which the solution was based, was withheld from the children. Smith and Simon pointed out that what precisely occurred in both the `play and `taught sessions are vital for pedagogical reasons. If play of some description is more valuable for learning, then what is the nature of that play? If direct training is more valuable, then what is the nature of that training? Smith and Simon also suggested that there may have been biases in both testing and scoring, especially where a single experimenter, who was aware of the


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hypotheses of the study, was responsible for administering the di erent treatments, undertaking the testing and scoring the results. They proposed methods for overcoming these biases. 4.2. Games and mathematical problem solving Ainley [23], reported on an aspect of the Germany Mathematics Project that used games to assist young childrens learning of mathematics. The games used in this project were all especially designed so that the rules reected the underlying mathematics. When children play these games, it is expected that they will enrich and reinforce their understanding of mathematical skills, content, and processes. Ainley reported that the games that were used in the project encouraged the children to make conjectures. She felt that, in the classroom, children are loath to conjecture because changing a conjecture is tantamount to admitting they have made an error. On the other hand, within a game, `conjecturing is both natural and safe; games may provide opportunities to talk explicitly about the process of conjecturing. Because there are many moves in any given game, it is not possible to learn all the best moves for all possible positions. Hence it is natural for students to devise general strategies. Again, checking their answers is something that is often di cult to get children to do in normal classroom mathematics. This is because students see no reason to do it. In the context of a game, however, checking conjectures has a clear purpose if the conjecture is wrong, then the child is likely to lose. In this regard, games provide an opportunity for teachers to question students about their thinking. One of the inhibiting factors in learning new concepts is the fear of failure and getting wrong answers. Incorrect strategies within game situations are not recorded for later correction and so the stigma of failure does not exist. (We have already remarked in section 3 that mathematical play performs a similar function.) One nal example, which potentially illustrates the advantages of mathematical play in secondary education, can be found in Holton et al. [24]. They report on a lower ability 14-year-old girls class. The students in this class were given problem solving exercises for half of the school year for one out of four hours of mathematics each week. The problems were not di cult and, especially at the beginning, required only knowledge of simple arithmetic and the ability to guess and check. In the class, the lesson format consisted of a teacher introduction, followed by small groups working on the problem together, followed by a reporting back stage where individuals told the class what their group had achieved. This sequence was repeated two or three times in a lesson. During their group work the students were able to engage in mathematical play. In the process it is likely that they had time to practice and reect on the mathematics that they knew as well as the mathematics they were learning in their other mathematics lessons. The evidence for strong mathematical gains was that in the common examination that all students at that level in the school sat towards the end-of-year result, the problem-solving class made considerable gains on their results from the previous years. An analysis of variance showed that the girls in this class gained just under 8 marks on average. The largest average gain from any other class was about 2 marks. Only one other class, a high ability class, had specic regular lessons in problem solving.

The importance of mathematical play


This result, however, is certainly independent of experimenter bias. The common examination paper was set and marked by all of the teachers who taught at that form level. What is more, the questions were a combination of short answer skill questions, longer word problems and problem-solving questions. The percentage of marks available for the problem-solving questions on the examination was less than 15%. The research considered in this section shows that the potential use of play and games in both learning and problem solving for children from di erent age groups. 5. The place of mathematical play In this section we consider a model of the creation process in mathematics and discuss the stages at which mathematical play may be involved in that process. Lorenz [25] makes the connection between play and research and, in doing so, echoes the words of Dewey [1]. Lorenz says All scientic knowledge . . . arose from playful activities conducted in a free eld entirely for their own sake . . . Anybody who has seen in his own activities the smooth transition from inquisitive childhood play to the lifework of a scientist could never doubt the fundamental identity of play and research. This suggests that play is not simply the exclusive domain of children and that it does have a serious purpose. In this section we amplify this theme. Using a specic example, we illustrate how mathematics may be created and indicate the specic parts of this process which we believe are mathematical play. 5.1. A model of mathematical research A model for mathematical research is shown in gure 1. This provides a simplied attempt to encapsulate the mathematical process. We do not discuss

Problem experiment conjecture proof generalize/extend counterexample give up temporarily permanently

Figure 1. The mathematical process.


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gure 1 in any great depth here. (More can be found on this in Holton et al. [26, 27].) It is su cient to say here that the diagram is only an outline of what may occur. The actual process is far more complicated and is non-linear in the sense that, in meaningful problems, it is unlikely that a mathematician will move straight from problem to proof without considerable numbers of detours all over the diagram. 5.2. An example In what follows, we shall be referring to a number of problem-solving situations. We shall use the word solution to refer specically to a process that achieves an answer. An answer is the nal response to the problem. This may be a number, an arrangement, a shape or many other things. Hence the answer to `what is 99 + 24? is `123. One method of solution is the standard addition algorithm. A teacher may ask open or closed questions. A closed question tries to force a unique answer or response, while an open question allows for many responses. Similarly a convergent problem allows only one solution, while a divergent problem allows many. It is not possible in an article such as this to take a true mathematical research problem. Even mathematicians who are experts in an area are not always able to appreciate what mathematicians in another area do. So we consider the `six circles problem, one that is accessible to a wide audience, and try to indicate how a mathematician might approach it. Six circles are placed to form an equilateral triangle as in gure 2. The numbers 1 to 6 are to be placed one per circle. Is it possible to do this so that the sum of the numbers in each side of the triangle is the same? On being given the six circles problem a mathematician might spend a little while looking at the problem and thinking about it and trying some combination of numbers to see if an answer can be obtained quickly. During this phase the mathematician is coming to grips with the problem and trying to ensure that all of the conditions have been understood and incorporated into his/her conception of the problem. After a while these attempts may become more deliberate as a more conscious experimental phase is entered. Here an attack may be made on the corners, perhaps trying the larger numbers, the smaller numbers, the odd numbers or the even numbers there, to see if any of these will produce an answer. Should an answer be found, su ciently motivated mathematicians may, at this stage, attempt to determine all possible answers. After a while, when no further answers can be found by experimentation, the mathematician may well conjecture that there are precisely so many answers and no more. This requires the e ort of producing either a proof of that conjecture, in which case a theorem will be obtained, or a

Figure 2.

The six circles problem.

The importance of mathematical play


counterexample, in which case it will be necessary to try another conjecture and then go through this process again. Very often, mathematicians will not be satised with a rst proof. What mathematicians look for is insight into a problem. Why does it work the way it does? They will then look for an alternative proof that will tell them the real reason for the answers being what they are. At this stage, mathematicians like to see if they can push their result further. Are there any problems that contain the six circles problem as a special case? This approach may lead to a generalisation. Are there any problems like the six circles problem that might be worth investigating? The aim here is to nd interesting extensions. Whatever new problems are considered at this point, they lead to a repetition of the path through the diagram from `experiment onwards. The nal step in the process is to write up the result of the above deliberations in order to prepare the results for publication in a journal. 5.3. Analysis Where does mathematical play come into the process? It would seem likely that it can be useful wherever there is an arrow. Here, though, we restrict ourselves to commenting on just three places where mathematical play can be of value. These are: (1) understanding the problem; (2) producing a conjecture; (3) producing a generalisation or extension. What constitutes mathematical play in each of these points? For (1) it is likely that it will be fairly random. In the six circles problem this would mean placing arbitrary numbers in circles and testing the sum of each side. At this stage in any problem, the attempts at producing whatever examples are necessary are almost certain to be tentative, as they will only be guided by mathematicians intuition, previous experience and accumulated knowledge. It is by no means always clear exactly what direction to take at this point. Moving on to (2), after having passed the initial stages, mathematicians will almost certainly become more systematic in their approach to producing examples. They might decide to concentrate on sidesums of a particular size, 10 say, to see if these could be constructed or not. If they had trouble nding an answer with a sum of 13 this might lead them to feel that such a sum was not possible. This would then become a conjecture. In attempting to produce a worthwhile direction in which to generalize or extend (see (3)), more examples would be considered. Would it be worth extending the problem to eight circles on the side of a square? How about any six numbers not just the numbers 1 to 6? These new possibilities for problems could be tackled by mathematical play. At all three points, play is being used to create new information. Where this agrees with the mathematicians current thinking it can be assimilated into their concept of the problem. When the information is unexpected, the mathematician will adapt his/her current understanding to accommodate a new perspective on the problem. So we believe that mathematical play promotes accommodation as well as assimilation. This appears to be at odds with Piagets view which Sylva and Lunt, [28, p. 164], interpret as saying:


D. Holton et al. In play, assimilation is more important than accommodation, since in play the child acts on the world and changes it to t in with his own experiences and understanding.

A number of the characteristics observed by Sylva et al. [3], are present in this mathematical play. Behaviour such as adding single digit numbers together and comparing sums of di erent numbers, are combined in this play in novel ways that are directly related to solving this problem. The whole point of this play is to provide the freedom to notice seemingly irrelevant detail. For example, it may be noticed that two answers are linked in some way. Actually changing 1 to 6, 2 to 5, 3 to 4, 5 to 2 and 6 to 1 in one answer will produce another answer. This may be just an irrelevant detail. However, it may be used at the proof stage to reduce the length of the proof of a conjecture and provide a nicer, more elegant proof. In addition, the mathematical play here is self-initiated. The mathematicians can stop (give up) any time they please. It is not clear how mathematical play provides a temporary moratorium on frustration. However, it does lessen the risk of failure because in mathematical play there is no investment in a nal answer; there is always the possibility of changing direction when necessary. It is perhaps worth noting at this point that Ainley [23], claims that games encourage conjecturing and generalizing (though the generalizing that Ainley refers to is slightly di erent to our point (3) in this section). So from this point of view our mathematical play has links with games (which are a form of play). As in games, there are (mathematical) rules about how one can proceed. It is clearly not permitted to say 1 2 6 10 in order to get the sum of two sides to be equal. But the fact that rules exist does not stop the process from being play. However, just as there are rules, there is also a great deal of freedom. There is nothing to restrict the placing of the bigger numbers in the corner circles, the smaller numbers in the corners, or random numbers in the corners. It should be noted, however, that not every stage of the whole process of solving the six circles problem is play. Once a conjecture has been obtained, then the mathematical method is much more product oriented and less process oriented. The mathematical play has suggested a specic product or goal to be investigated. For a time after this, the mathematical endeavour is more focused. If it does not become possible to prove the conjecture or to nd a counterexample or if a counterexample is found, mathematical play again comes into its own in an e ort to nd a new conjecture. Once again the mathematicians have to cast their eye over the whole mathematical landscape for inspiration. There is now no specic goal or product on which to concentrate. If the mathematicians involved want to publish their results, then the formal writing up of a paper is not play. There are strict rules imposed upon writers of journal articles regarding what can be said and how it can be said. For them the product is now tightly dened and much more important than the process. It should be noted that mathematical play is not involved in solving `routine mathematical questions. In classroom situations where a teacher has demonstrated a particular problem type, the students may well be asked to duplicate that process on a number of similar problems. Here the process of solution is well known and in such circumstances the students have no need to engage in mathematical play. The product of learning the steps is more important than the process; no assembling of

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bits into unusual sequences is allowed; there may be an increase in the risk of failure; there is no freedom to notice seemingly irrelevant detail; the activity is not self-initiated.

6. Encouraging mathematical play Given that there is such a thing as mathematical play and that it is of use to mathematicians in assimilating and accommodating new aspects of the mathematical world, then it should be of value to school students at all levels. In this section we consider three examples of situations that can encourage mathematical play. 6.1. Example 1The six circles problem We have already discussed this problem in the context of research mathematics. It is, however, suitable for use with school students. Indeed, we have used it with children as young as 9 years of age, with secondary students, with undergraduates and with primary and secondary teachers. Only with the undergraduates has it been part of a course for credit. With school students and with teachers it has been used in a single session not linked to anything else. With very few exceptions everyone has very quickly become involved in the rst stages of mathematical play and this play has been very similar to that described in the previous section. One of the few di erences between the participants has been the ability and readiness to apply algebra. This is the result of the participants exposure to algebra and their condence in applying it. It should be noted that mathematical play can involve algebra as easily as it can arithmetic or any other area of mathematics. If a known skill is being used to explore and there is only the general goal of nding an answer in view (as opposed to a specic goal of justifying an answer or a conjecture), then the known skill is being used in the practice of mathematical play. 6.2. Example 2The graphics calculator exercise Secondary students who have not had much experience with graphics calculators were shown a program that would move a `dog across the screen. The students were then asked to adjust the program to make the dog jump or turn around or do whatever else they fancied. The students were given a page of notes explaining what the keys relevant to the `dog program were. They were then left to use their imagination. Initially the students engaged in mathematical play with the problem. They needed to explore the graphics calculator to nd out what the various buttons did; they needed to explore the programming facility to discover what the various commands were, how they were entered in (and deleted from) a program, and what they did. The play was often random and not at all systematic. In our opinion, mathematical play stopped when they made a decision as to what they wanted their program to achieve. However, as each new di culty arose, a student might revert to play to try to understand what the problem was. (Of course, the student might also ask another student or the teacher for help, or might consult the calculators manual.)


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A typical problem arose when a student who had decided she wanted to make a snake chase a mouse, found that she was unable to make both animals move simultaneously. An inexperienced tutor was able to diagnose the problem and tell the student how to arrange loops in the program to produce the desired result. On later reection it was clear that the students learning might have been enhanced if the tutor had asked pertinent questions about the ill-performing program. In that way the student would have been given the opportunity to construct her own knowledge and also have been exposed to a model for future error diagnosis. Such sca olding is an important part of the teaching process in open situations. Once again with this example there was an end product in mind but this did not become a specic end product until a student decided what they wanted their program to actually do. Hence the process was more important than the product, at least in the initial stages. There were also rules, the rules of the calculator by which students were constrained, but there were no rules as to how they should proceed. If we consider Sylva et al.s characteristics of play we see that the students were practising assembling the elements of the programming language into an unusual sequence, i.e. the program. While the activity may not have eliminated the risk of failure in this example it might have done on a future occasion when they were writing some other program. Whats more, while the teacher determined what the exercise was, the students did have control over the direction in which they took it. Only in a few cases was there any evidence of a `sulky child forced to ``play a maths game by his teacher [3]. So a certain amount of the activity was selfinitiated. 6.3. Example 3Area under a curve Two sixteen-year-old boys who had some experience with di erential calculus and who had been introduced to integration (as a means to nding areas under curves) were given an exercise on the area between various straight lines and the xaxis (Lau [29]). The exercise was to nd the area between the x-axis from x 1 to x 1 and the line y x. Because the students knew that denite integrals 1 produced areas under curves, they immediately calculated 1 x dx and obtained zero. This was obviously wrong. They checked their work by drawing the graph and shading the area. The correct answer was clearly one. At this stage they embarked on a period of mathematical play where they made a 1 several calculations of the form 1 x dx a x dx. They then checked this idea out on other lines and conjectured the general result that the area between a curve y f x, which is negative from a to b and positive from b to c, and the x-axis c b between a and c is b f xdx a f xdx. We conclude this section with a discussion of what the students who worked on the three examples of this chapter might have learned from their work. First, all students took part in some mathematical play and so had some experience of what it is like to actually `do mathematics in the sense that a research mathematician `does mathematics. Whether or not it was explicitly pointed out to the students that they had gone through the mathematical process outlined by the diagram in gure 1, it was what they had actually done. This is perhaps less obvious in the case of Example 2. Here their conjectures were that a certain combination of commands would perform the animation they had planned. A counterexample existed when it didnt; a proof when it did.

The importance of mathematical play


In the case of Example 1, the younger students were able to apply their knowledge of arithmetic in a novel situation and begin to see that in mathematics, statements have to be justied. The older students were able to see a use for algebra and to see how powerful algebra is in this context. The students who did Example 2 had a positive experience with graphics calculators and how to use programs. They learnt some of the limitations of calculators and the need to set appropriate limits and to vary parameters. In addition they had an introduction to errors, error checking, and error detection and correction. They found it necessary to be systematic and to follow a sequence of commands to ensure that all cases had been covered. Some of them learned to use a manual. The calculus students of Example 3 also learned to look for errors. They discovered some of the problems of using integration to nd areas under curves by experiencing di culties and overcoming them.

7. Discussion In this paper we have attempted to describe the existence of a type of play called mathematical play and to promote its use for students of all ages. This is a mixture of pure play and exploration in a mathematical context. It exists when people nd themselves in situations where there is no closed goal or no obvious closed path to a goal. We saw play being used in open situations where it was necessary to gain an understanding of the problem, where new skills such as the use of program commands and graphics calculator buttons were being learned, where conjectures were being formulated and where generalizations or extensions were being considered. In such open contexts `play seems to be a natural strategy, undertaken by young children and research mathematicians alike, in order to become fully acquainted with the objects under consideration. This type of play then leads the players to assimilate and accommodate the ideas and concepts under investigation. Consequently better learning and understanding of the mathematics involved takes place. In the case of research mathematicians it also leads to new results being proved. Further, students of all ages can benet from mathematical play. One of the other advantages of mathematical play situations is that students can take part at their own level and build on their individual knowledge and understanding. It also enables students to make errors in a supportive environment. It would seem that to achieve a high level of understanding it is as valuable to know that certain things will not work and why they will not work, as it is to know positive results. This certainly appears to be the way we construct our own internal map of a new city. By taking wrong turns and seeing where we end up we achieve a better concept of the layout of the city. In this way, through play and exploration over a larger area than is actually required to solve a particular problem, we provide the foundation for further learning. Some adults, however, will probably nd it di cult to reconcile mathematical play with their own experience of mathematics learning. Teachers educated in the traditional approach and those who are not secure in their own knowledge of the subject may nd it di cult to introduce play into their classrooms. They might nd it di cult to create the appropriate atmosphere in the classroom. Initially they


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may have di culty gathering appropriately rich activities to stimulate mathematical play. They will need to take time to ask open questions rather than close down the situation as did the inexperienced tutor in the graphics calculator example. To achieve this we will need relaxed, competent and condent teachers at all levels. Another area of concern may be that too much mathematical play will reduce the time available to cover the curriculum. The teacher involved in the calculus example has found this not to be the case. He is able to cover all items of the syllabus because his students have a more solid grounding in the subject and because the students in the process of their play raise new topics. An approach to teaching via mathematical play deserves further research and consideration. There is rst of all the task of dening mathematical play more precisely than we have been able to do here. Then it would be necessary to establish that mathematical play does indeed promote learning, understanding and creativity. If so, does mathematical play promote these things for all students? What combination of mathematical play and non-play is best for most students? Davis [9, p. 211] says Within mathematics education, the importance of play has not been overlooked, although it might be argued to have been undervalued. We believe that play has been overlooked for many older students in our schools and universities and that this situation should be rectied.

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