Marcia Miller's Reflections & Resources

Playing with Pattern Blocks

Pattern block creations by a gathering of teens last New Year’s Eve

Wooden pattern blocks are wonderful in so many ways. You can create designs with them, build with them, and play games with them.  You can talk about their colors, shapes, angles, and how they relate to each other. You can lay them out in repetitive patterns or beautiful mosaics. You don’t need lessons for any of these things, only time and space to play.

The best part of playing with pattern blocks is sitting next to another person and conversing about anything and everything while you play. Years ago, Sandra Dodd wrote a beautiful essay called, Leaning on a Truck and other parallel play. She described the delights of playing with pattern blocks, along with many other wonderful side-by-side activities, and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since.




Games and Activities

Along with many freestyle uses of pattern blocks, sometimes it’s fun to use triangle paper or puzzle trays for different types of explorations.   Triangle Paper is good for laying out, recording, or coloring in various shapes and geometric designs.  Hexagon puzzle trays and triangle puzzle trays are good for creating contained designs that are easy to move from one place to another.  Sometimes these are easier for younger children to use because they offer a framework in which to build their designs.

Build the Yellow Hexagon Hexagon Puzzle Tray

Build patterned designs using a variety of pattern blocks. Experiment with symmetrical and asymmetrical patterns.

Build tessellations of various shapes. A tessellation is created when a shape is repeated over and over again covering a plane without any gaps or overlaps.

Create a repeating pattern with various blocks, and then let someone else copy and complete the pattern.

Dice Games: Use special pattern block picture dice along with regular number dice to make up your own games. Roll two, three, or four dice to determine how many and which shapes of blocks to use to create a unique design. Compare your designs with other players. Use the blocks you roll to build trains, mandalas, or asymmetrical designs.


Strategy Game: The Last Block In this game, players take turns placing pattern blocks on a hexagonal game board. The winner is the player who places the last block on the board. You can make your own hexagonal game boards of various sizes using triangle paper.

The Last Block

Hexagon Fill-in Puzzle: Use various pattern blocks to experiment with filling in a hexagon puzzle page like the one pictured below.  A few questions to get you started:  “How many different ways can the hexagon shape be filled?”  “What’s the least number of blocks you can use to fill one of the hexagons?”  “What’s the most number of blocks you can use?”  This puzzle idea is adapted from the book, About Teaching Mathematics: A K-8 Resource (p.90) by Marilyn Burns.  You can make your own hexagon puzzle pages using triangle paper, or get a template from Burns’s book.

Hexagon Fill-in Puzzle


Pattern Block Design Mats, Templates, and Activity Cards: All of these can be fun to use as matching games, fill in the blank puzzles, or as pictures to color in.

  • Design Mats of Animals and Flowers
  • Make your own pattern block design cards by covering triangle paper with a pattern block design and coloring in the shapes to match your design.

Thinking About Angles: If you take a minute to consider some of the angles of the different pattern blocks, you might notice some similarities as well as some interesting comparisons among the blocks. Can you start with an angle you know to help you determine an angle you’re not sure about? For instance, if you know that the orange square has 90 degree angles and the green triangle has 60 degree angles, can this knowledge help you discover the angles of the other blocks?

Pattern Block Activities with Marilyn Burns: Marilyn Burns has published numerous books filled with a variety of engaging mathematical games and activities.  She has much to offer in the way of thinking about math in meaningful, hands-on ways.  I took a week-long workshop from her way back when I was a classroom teacher, and her enthusiasm for mathematics has stuck with me.   Her books are written for classroom teachers, but if you can get past the focus on classroom methods and lessons, and the details that don’t apply, you’ll find some great activities.  Even though I don’t need the teaching components from her books anymore, I still enjoy looking through them to find new ideas to play with.

  • Scoop and Sort: Grab a scoop of blocks and sort them by shape.
  • Build the Yellow Hexagon: How many ways can you “re-create the yellow hexagon using different assortments of blocks?”  (See photo above.)
  • Building Larger Shapes: “Can you use the green triangles to build a larger green triangle that is still the same shape?  How many do you need?”
Building Triangles

Pattern Block Fraction Shapes with Cynthia Lanius: I think Cynthia asks some fun and challenging questions about how various pattern block shapes relate to each other.  She offers a different way of seeing them.  I would only explore these types of ideas after lots of general play with pattern blocks. Because we played with them so much over the years, it was natural for us to be fascinated by questions like these.   If I had just pulled these pages out as assignments to solve, it wouldn’t be the same.

What fraction of the design is blue?

I hope you’ve found a few new ideas to play with as you explore the pattern blocks.  Have fun!

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8 Comments for “Playing with Pattern Blocks”

  • Janet says:

    This is great! We just bought some pattern blocks (used) from another homeschooler. Where could I find the frames? I think we would enjoy working within and without the frames.

  • Jeanette says:

    Is it possible to make a square with pattern blocks? The reason I am asking is because my math teacher got mad at us for not being able to make a square. When she gave us the example, tangrams were used instead of pattern blocks. Can you make a square out of pattern blocks?

    • Marcia Miller says:

      Hi Jeanette! While it’s true that you can make a square with tangram blocks, I think the only way you’d be able to make a square with pattern blocks is if you just used several of the orange squares together to make a larger orange square. So you could make a 2″x2″ orange square, or a 3″x3″ square, or a 4″x4″ square. But that’s probably not what your teacher was pushing for, and I’m sorry he or she seemed to have such a narrow intention for you as you explored the pattern blocks! I’m guessing the goal was to use many of the different blocks to create a square, right? I don’t know how you’d do that, mainly because the angles of the other blocks (the yellow hexagon, blue rhombus, red trapezoid, etc.) don’t lend themselves to this. One fun thing you can do with the pattern blocks is make larger hexagons or triangles or trapezoids with a variety of the different blocks arranged together. I love doing this because combining all the different colored blocks makes for beautiful designs! You can see some examples of these possibilities in the above photos.

  • Christionna Odom says:

    Do you know where I can purchase these?

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