Painted Paper Chain – A STEAM Math Activity

STEAM (representing projects that integrate science, technology, engineering, art, and math) is an integrated teaching approach that engages learners to solve problems through problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking.

In today’s STEAM project, a prompt from our membership program, TinkerLab Schoolhouse, we’ll do two things:

  1. Wonder along with children about the possibility of walking through a small piece of paper. (hint – scissors are involved)
  2. Combine math and art to create a painted paper chain.

With a regular piece of printer paper in hand, we’ll start by saying something like…

“I wonder if we can walk through this piece of paper?”

By the way, I love using “I wonder…” questions because they can help even the most reticent children engage and have agency in the question at hand. Everyone likes to solve a problem.

After musing about it for a few minutes, you’ll likely come up with some zany ideas on how to squeeze your bodies through a small piece of printer paper, and then conclude that it’s not really possible.

Then you might share this nifty magic paper cutting trick that will open your child’s eyes to see that it could actually be possible to walk through the paper after all…

painted paper chain - a steam math activity

After cutting, you’ll end up with an enormous hole to walk through, like this…

painted paper chain - a steam math activity


Now, you might notice that our paper has a rainbow effect happening, and that’s because we painted it first. You can do this if you like (I recommend it because, in my opinion, painting makes everything more festive and elevates the project from math to math + art).

However! You can first share this “I wonder…” question with unpainted paper to help your child understand the concept, and then set up another sheet with the painting prompt. And we’ll show you that next.

Here’s how to set up the painting prompt

Print out the Paper Chain printable (scroll to the end of this page for the printable link), and set up the page that shows half a sheet of lines next to:

  • watercolor paint
  • water
  • a brush
  • scissors
  • and a rag (for drying the brush).

Then, invite your child to paint.

painted paper chain - a steam math activity

Once the paint dries, fold the page in half and cut along the grey lines (see the directions sheet that shows which lines to cut).

painted paper chain - a steam math activity

There are two ways you could cut this:

  1. Cut the paper so you can walk through it (back to our original question)
  2. Cut the paper to make a paper chain

We’ll give you directions on how to do both.

No worries if you don’t have a printer > Just take a look at the PDF and copy the concept on your paper with a ruler and pencil. It will work!

painted paper chain - a steam math activity

To make a festive party streamer that’s 1000 times better than anything you’ll find in the store, make multiple paper chains and tape them together, end to end.

Why is this math?

  • Children will develop spatial reasoning: the ability to imagine things in three dimensions.
  • Children will gain a sense of numbers as they count how many lines they’re cutting.
  • Children will explore pattern as they understand how the pattern of lines contributes to the new shape of the cut paper.

Click here or the image below to view the 4-page Painted Paper Chain download (PDF)

painted paper chain - a steam math activity

If you can use more activities like this, we invite you to join us in TinkerLab Schoolhouse, our membership of weekly art and STEAM prompts for early childhood (age 3-8).

painted paper chain - a steam math activity


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