How To Plan a Math Walk

Apr 19, 2021 | Articles, Math Activities, Math Tips

How to Create Your Own Math Walk in Your Neighborhood, Town, or School

The Community Classroom recently sponsored an Interactive Math Walk throughout downtown Northampton for families and educators, with sidewalk math that included 26 different math tasks, brainteasers, and jokes at each stop. We have received a few inquiries about how we planned a Math Walk, so we thought we’d make our planning process visible for all others who want to host their own math walk! 

A Math Walk banner sits proudly in the window of Strada Shoes

What is a math walk?

Let’s start with some basic foundational knowledge, as you may be asking yourself: What is sidewalk math and a math walk? Sidewalk math is an opportunity to explore math in a fun and covid-safe way. It takes the math out of its usual environment and plops it on sidewalks, giving families and other passersby the opportunity to play, discuss, and ponder. And enjoy math through math problems, math tasks, brainteasers, and math jokes. And by creating a map for participants to use, made a cohesive mile-long math walk.

Our team boiled down the planning and implementation process to 10 steps. We hope this helps guide you in your own events and we hope to hear from you about how they panned out! All in all, this process took up about 6 weeks.

1. Do your research.

Our research included searching the interwebs for information on public math and math walks, then reaching out to educators who had hosted them. A conversation with Christopher Danielson was key as we learned about two types of public math: layered and elicited. Layered is layering math in an environment where the math can stand alone (like the problem pictured below), and elicited is where you are prompting participants to think about the math that is already there (like the second photo).

 

Layered public math

 

Elicited math problem created by Sarah Bent of Mount Holyoke College

2. Form a team.

We reached out to a local math organization, the Western Massachusetts Math Partnership. This group included some powerful minds—math teachers and professors from local schools around the area! More minds on a team = increased chance of success. We set up weekly check-in meetings and work sessions to ensure momentum, as well as a sign-up form for subcommittees (Planning, Chalking, Tablers, Strolling Mathematicians).

Western Massachusetts Math Partnership member Sarah Bent works the Math Walk Table

3. Put on your walking shoes.

We knew we needed to walk the path and make sure it worked for kids, bikes, and strollers! We also knew we needed a specific spot to start and stop. We wanted to scout out what businesses it would make sense to reach out to, where the prime sidewalk real estate was located, and whose storefronts lent themselves to meaningful (and joyful) math conversations. And also plan out how families with kids could safely walk across busy streets—planning around crosswalks was a must!

4. Reach out to potential partners.

We hit the pavement, passing out flyers and letters with general information. We worked with the local Chamber of Commerce to connect with businesses. We had a few stores offer to arrange storefronts to fit our needs or to provide freebies for strolling mathematicians. We had gift cards to local pizzeria Joe’s Cafe Pizza, “Which One Doesn’t Belong” Math Cookies donated from Silver Moon Sweets, sidewalk usage granted by CLINIC Alternative Medicine, and chalk donated from A2Z Science and Learning Toys. A local graphic designer created beautiful maps (we have found out in doing Story Walks that kids LOVE holding a map!). And a local print shop created Strolling Mathematician buttons for all participants.

5. Contact decision-makers.

Working in a downtown space meant we needed to check out permits. We connected with the Department of Public Works to find out about permits, then the Health Department to make sure we were adhering to all regulations to make it a COVID-safe event. We found out we did need permission from the Health Department, who gave us some great pointers to keep people safe. And the Department of Public Works worked with the mayor’s office to drop our fee for the permit. They were all excited (but of course because it’s math, right?)!

Photo courtesy of Karen Foster

6. Curate the math (and get feedback).

The big takeaway for us—don’t reinvent the wheel. The beautiful part of education is how we share ideas and resources (and make sure to cite the sources!). We found some great math tasks that had already made their debut at other Math Walks, we asked for submissions from local families and teachers. Then we got feedback: we actually spent time doing the math to make sure they were solid (and fun). We also wanted to make sure there were access points for all ages, 2-99 years. 

A problem submitted by Kindergartener, Zach M. Zach’s problem was stop #1 on the Math Walk!

7. Try the math tasks out!

Things we learned included how chalk worked on different sidewalk textures, which colors of chalk were easiest to see (and how red chalk was not easy to see for those who were colorblind!). We learned which chalk held up to foot traffic, and how long it would stay on a sidewalk. Next time we wanted to create a rubric for students to try them out and submit feedback. When we had them in order for our stops (1-26), we also thought about flow. We wanted to make sure there were math puns sprinkled in, that the beginning of the walk had some easier ones at the beginning for younger toddlers and kids. 

One important thing we found out was that we needed directions for grown-ups. See page one of the Math Task PDF at the bottom of the article to see the guidelines our team created.

8. Put on your walking shoes (again).

With the printed problems in hand, we walked out the pathway on our maps. We made sure the math problems matched the locations, that storefronts hadn’t changed and didn’t fit the problem anymore (and one window had changed so we punted!), that we had good sidewalk squares to chalk on that didn’t block access to entranceways. 

An elicited math task using an existing skeleton outside A2Z Toys

9. Spread the word.

We created a press release and a letter for the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce to send out to local businesses. We created a social media toolkit for partners to share the event with their followers (that wouldn’t take much of their time!). We posted flyers. We tried to connect with local PTAs and school districts. We hustled! We ended up getting some airtime on our local news show, WWLP Mass Appeal, and a beautiful picture of a strolling mathematician finding such joy in math in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

10. Create a contingency plan.

If there was one thing we know about spring weather in Massachusetts, it is that it is variable! It can be hot, cold, snowing, windy—all in one week. We decided to make our event rain or shine and laminate the printed math walk problems for windows in case of rain. We ended up not needing them but had them in hand even the day of, in case a storm came our way.

And then host your math walk!

We gathered the afternoon before to chalk out the math problems with a team of 10 chalkers, including some student chalkers! Our SideWalk Blocking Permit was good from 4-6 pm EST, which was almost the exact amount of time needed. 

We were thrilled the day of the Interactive Math Walk to see so many families out and about. We made sure to reach out to the private school and homeschool parenting groups, as well as public schools. We even reached out to several retirement homes. We also saw this as an opportunity for local schools to bring it back to their own communities (or as teacher professional development!).

We want to say thank you to Christopher Danielson and the folks at Public Math for their guidance and advice. And a special thanks to all the educators who have done tons of public math and math walks and shared their lessons learned!

Please find the following resources to help you in creating your own Math Walk:

You also might like to read our article “5 Outdoor Math Activities For Kids.”

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