The Attributes of Patterns

Guest blogger: Debbie Lee, Ed.D.

posted by Debbie Lee

Last week I wrote about patterns and using everyday household items to make them. Did you think of some items around your house you could use? I also wrote about simple ABAB patterns in a row formed by having two different elements (fork/spoon or red/green) that alternate. There are other ways to make patterns with everyday items though!

Elements of patterns are distinguished by an attribute. That can be WHAT an item is such as a spoon or a fork. It can also be by color, such as red or green. Those are easy visual ways to distinguish one element of a pattern from another. Don’t stop there! Again, start to think “outside the box.” Think positions!

You can use all of one type of item and make it into two elements just by altering the position. A soup can that is sitting upright, and then one sitting upside down, and then again one upright, and one upside (and so on) is also an ABAB pattern. What about a row of knives, one straight up-and-down and one diagonal, one straight up-and-down, one diagonal? That’s an ABAB pattern too. You can even have one knife straight up-and-down and two knives “crossed”, one knife up-and-down, two knives “crossed.” The possibilities are endless!










Don’t stop there! A row of cups sitting upside down with a small pebble sitting on top of every other one – that’s another ABAB pattern.   In other words, two items can be combined to make one of the elements and the second element can be just one of those items by itself.




Once you start to think of positional patterns, the sky is the limit! Almost anything you can use to make a “regular” type of pattern can also be used in a pattern that includes positioning.

Now that you know lots of ways to make patterns – ABAB, AAB, ABB, ABC, etc. – where do you go? Besides the different types of patterns we’ve talked about, there are different pattern skills. The easiest is copying a pattern. To do this, a child is shown a pattern and copies it, laying the same items under the presented items.



Once confident doing that, a child can move onto extending patterns. In this scenario, a child is presented a pattern and is asked what comes next, then places that item in the row, then is asked what comes next, etc. until at least two repeats of the pattern are completed.

PATTERN EXTENDING PHOTOThe last skill comes after much practice with patterns in their various forms. For this skill, a child is asked to create from scratch a pattern following one of the pattern types.



Once the children you work with begin to become confident with patterns, continue to challenge them with new and different types. Then let them create patterns that you or other children in the group have to try to extend. As they use their imagination to create new patterns, their understanding of the concept of patterning grows and grows!

Let us know what you have done with patterns this week by sharing in the comments section.


Debbie Lee, Ed.D.

Debbie Lee, Ed.D., has spent 44 years teaching in the field of early childhood education. She came from a family that valued education. Her grandmother, born in 1896, had a master’s degree and taught at the college level. Lee initially planned to teach geometry but, after working with young children in a day care center, she discovered her true passion: early childhood education. After earning her bachelor’s degree in early education from Marycrest College in 1979, she spent the next 20 years teaching preschoolers and kindergarteners, operating her own home day care program and serving in a variety of positions for the Moline School District in western Illinois. She received her master of science degree in early childhood education from Western Illinois University in 1986 and her doctoral degree in early childhood education and teaching from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003. Dr. Lee recently retired from her position as an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Western Illinois University, where she taught methods, family engagement, play, assessment and inclusion courses. She has also served at the local and state level for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Dr. Lee believes that the developmental foundation built during the early years has a major impact on a child’s future, so she is thrilled to be writing for Math at Home’s guest blog!

Read more posts by Debbie Lee, Ed.D.

4 Replies to “The Attributes of Patterns”

  1. The way I learned to teach patterns came from the Building Blocks Math ( developed by Doug Clements, who was featured in the Intro course for the Gateways to Opportunity-Math at Home courses. The process is to introduce the children to the unit of the pattern and have them develop at least three separate sections of the unit. For example, if the unit is red-orange, the students build three separate red-orange units. Once it is established that the units are all the same, the children put the units together to create the pattern sequence. I encourage teachers to try having their students use manipulatives to build units and then construct patterns. You will see firsthand how quickly children comprehend the concept of patterns, once they have concretely experienced it.

  2. I use different colored building blocks to teach about patterns. The children make towers or houses with a pattern of colored blocks..

  3. We love to work on patterns during meals. Lots of items to move around on our plates (especially at snack). But we also look at the patterns of the plates around the table or empty/full cups, etc. Makes for great social interactions!

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