Monday, February 21, 2011

Exploring Geometry Playground

Exploring the Gyroid

Geometry Playground is unusual in at least two respects. First, it focuses on math, a topic that is underrepresented in museum exhibits. Second, it’s a traveling exhibition committed to integrating a highly experiential approach. Produced by the Exploratorium and funded by the National Science Foundation, Geometry Playground was at the Science Museum of Minnesota in January 2011 when I saw it just before it traveled on. 

As an advisor on the project I was inclined to like it. I had been fascinated as I  watched exhibition ideas and components evolve over several years. Yet, I was impressed by how well project goals about geometry; social interaction; learning through immersion; and playground design came together coherently and strongly. In the playground spirit, Geometry Playground (GP) is physical, playful, and social. And it does it with geometry.

Stack of Stars
Mind and body work together all the time to provide us with information about the world. In GP, minds and bodies work together to explore familiar and novel geometric shapes at multiple scales. Children climb on, squeeze through, and peek into the tunnels of the 12-foot tall Gyroid structure. They clamber up and over and perch on the Stack of Stars climbing structure. This experiential, immersive exploration provides children with direct, first-hand experience of shapes, features, proportions, and scale. Moreover, it does so while maintaining in-tact physical and spatial relationships basic to understanding geometry. As a result, the super-sized Stack of Stars and Gyroid structure are not just a fun call to children and tweens to scramble and stretch across a novel structure. Spatial skills as well as social and motor skills are being exercised when a child shouts to others, “Come on! I know a short-cut to the top.”

Developing a whole-body appreciation of the stars (stellated rhombic dodecahedrons) comes from climbing on them and squeezing through openings between them. At the edge of the structure’s platform are also sets of smaller stars producing a side-by-side comparison of scale and new perspective on both units. As hand-held manipulables, the stars can be lifted, rotated, and fit together in Space Filling Blocks giving a concrete sense of how the star’s features fit together. Alternative ways to explore space-filling shapes extend beyond scale. Diagrams show how these not-so-familiar stars are formed from another shape by manipulating features. Nearby, turning the wheel at the Stellator shows a dodecahedron transform into a stellated dodecahedron. In addition, along the climber’s platform, photos of everyday space-filling shapes place them and geometry in the context of daily life.

In keeping with an experiential approach to geometry, exhibit messages are integrated into surfaces and structures and are encountered by moving in and through space. Text on the floor in front of the giant Distorted Mirror reassembles miraculously into instructions. Text on the face of the Projected Puzzle becomes readable when the puzzle pieces align. Challenges for exploring the Gyroid follow the smooth curving surfaces of the tunnels precisely where children will–and must–look as  they reach and climb. 

Playful Exploration
Projected Puzzle proclaims, "Look Here."
A playful, minds-on exploration of shape, perspective, distance, and distortion complements the lively navigation of the innovative climbing structures. Lining up with the pieces of the Projected Puzzle prompts several tilts of the head to read, “Look Here” and finally gets a smile. The distorted mirror changes our relationships with familiar objects and makes them look surprising or funny. Variations on the geometry of looking into a distorted mirror produce perplexing results.  A conical mirror flips images inside out. A foot-tall cylindrical mirror transforms a radial pattern into a grid so drawing letters on the grid produces scrunched and scrawly letters to (stifle a) laugh at. Then there is the tall cylindrical mirror that wondrously squishes an elongated chair and the people on it to normal proportions. 

Distorted Chair reassembled in the mirror
Geometry as Social Space
Living large ...inside a globe
Several classes of students 11 or 12 years old seemed to enjoy themselves and each other as they scampered up, across and over the Stack of Stars; they talked, called out, and chatted with one another. Tweens perched on the Gyroid and wormed through its tunnels. In both cases, the structures were social space, a kind of space often absent from their settings. The novelty of this structure made hanging out on a playground cool or, perhaps, irrelevant. Here they moved, they talked, and they teased on a pile of geometry. At the hexagonal Distorted Drawing table members of a class shared tips and laughed at slip-ups. Classmates squeezed into and chatted inside a familiar object–a globe–experienced in a not-so familiar way, at a giant scale and from the inside. 

"You just find these four corners."
Workstations with seating located along the railing of the Stack of Stars platform invited exchanges among visitors, including me. Eleven year-old Mohamed paused to fit a space-filling block in a tray. Not immediately successful, he seemed ready to take off. Pointing to the block he held in his hand, I asked him about the four pyramids on one side. Just enough of a clue, it turns out. He fit the block into the tray with only a try or two. Fitting in the next few blocks went faster. I heard Mohamed say to himself, “It gets easier and easier.” When Abdullah, a classmate, stopped by, Mohamed gave him a tip: “You just find these four corners and the block fits. Like this.” The two boys worked together fitting in several more blocks so there was no wasted space. When Mohamed’s teacher passed by she asked, “Mohamed, would that be a tessellation?” Mohamed paused and answered, “It’s a tessellation. Yes! There are no gaps. Yes! I filled it up!”

… and Beautiful
Geometry Garden
Those not called to explore the exhibition’s geometry with exuberant physicality, might be attracted by its beauty. One area, Geometry Garden, is a cabinet of geometric curiosities–everyday objects, natural, sculptural, topological models, spirals. They call attention to geometry’s presence everywhere, in many forms, and often beautiful. The cases create almost a room-like space with a quiet, contained feel for lingering and appreciating the thoughtfully selected, artfully displayed and wonderfully lit objects.  Highlighting the beauty of the geometry comes through in many, smaller, more subtle ways in all parts of the exhibition as well. The space-filling blocks literally glow as they rest in back-lit trays. The lighting also illuminates the blocks’ faces, accentuating the surfaces and features.  The imposing scale of the Gyroid and Stack of Stars and selection of materials make them more like sculptures. The smooth, polished surfaces of the wooden Rotating Squares (ovals and triangles) work as striking sculptural pieces as well as artful seating, and an irresistible crawl-though tunnels.

Geometry Playground lives up to its name as a playground for geometry. 

 During my visit, toddlers through tweens in school groups and family groups filled Geometry Playground. Children were all over and inside the climbing structures. Class and family groups clustered together to build a Sculpture That Moves, design at the Tile Designer, Geometron, and draw at Distorted Drawing. Pairs of students and adults worked at the stellated rhombic dodecahedrons. Small groups of adults as well as students and teachers strolled among the lighted cases of Geometry Garden.

The lay-out at SMM seems to suggest that finding enough space for a floor-plan that builds on geometry is a real challenge. At 5,500 square feet with 12-foot tall structures, Geometry Playground is a big exhibition. It requires both significant volume as well as a huge area; it won’t fit into just any space. The solution at SMM was to locate parts of the exhibition on two separate floors. The exhibition’s flow was interrupted and many visitors likely spent time on only one floor.

The exhibition is the major part of a bigger project that included two visitor research studies, the addition of some geometry structures on playground in San Francisco. The exhibition will travel to The Ruben H. Fleet Science Center (San Diego, CA) for summer 2011 to summer 2012.

For more information visit Geometry Playground


  1. Thanks for the great description of Geometry Playground Jeanne! I look forward to seeing the exhibition during one of its stops.

    (It would also be great if you could adapt this post to create an entry about Geometry Playground on the ExhibitFiles website, to.)

  2. Thanks, Paul. I do plan on posting this description on Exhibit Files. Also,I just heard that Geometry Playground is currently at the Don Harrington Discovery Center in Amarillo, TX, and will be there through Memorial Day.