Arlington kids learn math by making toys

ARLINGTON — A “ziggy-zaggy” might not sound like a serious teaching tool, but Eagle Creek Elementary students were eager to learn more about math through the handmade toy.

Rick Hartman, a former grade school teacher who’s made toys for the past 17 years, met with more than 200 Eagle Creek students and their families on the evening of Feb. 16 to show them how they could use applied math to put together their own “ziggy-zaggy” toys out of the supplies that he’d provided that night in the school cafeteria.

“It’s the toy that math built,” Hartman said on Feb. 16. “I believe in celebrating math in its many forms, and tonight I’ll be teaching kids how to use math skills to assemble these toys, from simple counting to number patterns and basic geometry, with some estimation and problem-solving thrown into the mix. My supplies come from being a toy-maker and a pack-rat.”

Each “ziggy-zaggy” started out as a small plank of wood, into which students hammered rows of nails using “safety-hammers” consisting of smaller pieces of wood with nuts and bolts screwed into them, the latter of which the kids used to tap the nails into the wood just enough so they were firmly embedded.

“Math isn’t just something you do with pencils and paper,” Hartman told the students, as he showed them the alternating placements of nails and blank spaces that they would use to create the “ziggy-zaggy” pattern of nails sticking out of the wood’s surface, for which the toy is named. “Math is all around us.”

By laying down two rows of nails, in which each nail on one side was matched with a blank space on the other side, Hartman’s pupils made a toy that also acts as a musical instrument when a small figure made out of popsicle sticks is dropped down between the two rows. As the figure falls, its “arms” strike the alternating nails and create a melodic sound.

With parents supervising their efforts, the students made sure their popsicle stick figures’ arms were equally long by cutting them with safety saws, while also making sure they were still long enough to strike the nails as they fell.

“I’m amazed by how well he could organize this project, with 200 kids participating,” said Eagle Creek mom Leanne Davis, as her 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son played with and decorated the “ziggy-zaggys” that they’d made, with her helping hands.

“It was really fun,” said Eagle Creek fifth-grader Tanna McMahon, after she’d completed her own “ziggy-zaggy.” “It was kind of cool to see my friends after school, especially to make toys. I felt good that mine actually worked.”

Fidel Ceja and his daughter, Itzel, were both impressed that she’d received such a hands-on lesson about design, while Maggie Fitzhugh and her son, Taran, agreed that the lesson remained entertaining throughout.
“I’m surprised that [Hartman] could captivate the attention of so many students for so long,” Maggie Fitzhugh said. “Everybody really wanted to do this.”

“Eagle Creek kids are extremely enthusiastic,” Hartman said. “Their teachers have done a fantastic job of bringing math into their lives in ways that make it relevant to them.”

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