The Math Experience

This article is about Recreational Math.

*Crickets Chirp*

This sounds like an oxymoron.  Doing math for fun?  For many, math is not fun but scary, boring, tense and/or tedious.  Plus, you have to be highly skilled to do it.  We all tried doing it in school and most people’s only ambition after that was to never do it again.  Now I have the temerity – nay, the unmitigated gall – to say you should do it for fun?


Yes, because what you did in school was at best a distorted view of math.  Math can be fun and anyone can do it.  If you can find your feet in the morning so you can have something to put in your shoes, then you have all the skill it takes to do math.  You needn’t learn anything to start.

However, there is a lot you must UNLEARN.

UNLEARN what math is.  In school, math was addition, multiplication, integration, fractions, proofs and so on.  While this is a part of math, it is not all of it.  Math includes things like tiling a chessboard with dominoes, the Rubik’s cube and Tetris. Yes, THAT Tetris.  Please visit the following to see how much variety math has to offer:

UNLEARN what it means to do math.  In school, you had to find answers to problems or fail. Even worse, you weren’t even allowed to think – you had to solve it THEIR WAY and submit scratch paper to prove you didn’t use your head.  Well, math is about thinking, which means creativity.  Furthermore, you can’t fail because your real goal is to explore math puzzles.  You are studying, in the classic sense of the word.

UNLEARN what it means to study.  In school, studying meant memorizing things so you could repeat them on a test.  Studying was more about repetition than learning.  The studying I’m writing about is exploration, to be taken in the sense of the following sentence: “He studied the face of the woman he loved.”  You aren’t trying to pass anything; you just want to satisfy your curiosity.  It’s like hiking a hill.  You don’t want to rush to the top, but explore the path and enjoy yourself.  If you never get to the top, that’s fine as long as you had fun.  This kind of studying can be fun.  Studying is an INTELLECTUAL EXPERIENCE, to be enjoyed much like we enjoy eating ice cream as a taste experience.  You shouldn’t wolf down your ice cream to “solve the problem of eating it”, so why do this with studying?

If you were convinced to at least give Recreational Math a shot, what now?  Start by visiting the link above and find a puzzle to study.  It should easy enough that you can make progress, but challenging enough to make you think.  Now work on it in your way.  Try to solve it or just understand it more deeply.  Explore its parts; can you solve some of them?  Wax philosophical about it and go off on a tangent.  Stay on a tangent if you wish.  Put it aside and revisit it later.  Think about it in quieter moments.  Think about it when in traffic or in line.  See echoes of the problem in your daily life — after all, these puzzles are often abstracted from life.  Take your time – 5 minutes or 5 years.  If you get stuck, you can get enough help to get jump-started.

Keep going as long as it’s fun, even if you solved it.  Yes, when done you can try different ways of exploring it, revisit your solution to savor it, or even see what others did.  Stop when it’s no longer fun, even if you didn’t solve it.  Again, you can see what others have done.  In either case, if you read what others have done you will have a greater appreciation of why certain things are done the way they are.  It’s like watching a chess game; the game will be much deeper if you played a few yourself.

What now?  You can try another puzzle, or if you decide this isn’t for you, that’s fine; at least you tried it on its own terms.

4 thoughts on “The Math Experience

  1. I followed you from David Yerle’s blog. This is an excellent article!

    I fell in love with Geometry when I was 12 to the point where my parents had to force me to go out and play some days 🙂

    Then a few years back I read Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament and realized I was actually playing all this time. Playing with ideas, and not just solving problems, but learning to ask “What if?”

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