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In the book Play, Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan relate a story about how younger engineers weren't able to problem solve as well as older engineers.  You can read the full story here, but the gist of it was that even though younger engineers were at the top of their classes at MIT or Cal Tech, they weren't doing well when it came to problem solving in their engineering jobs.  Older engineers, on the other hand, had no trouble solving complex problems.  When researchers started to look at the differences between the older and younger engineers, they found that the older engineers spent a lot of their childhoods taking apart telephones, building go carts, and generally playing in ways that required them to build things with their hands.  The younger engineers who weren't doing so well hadn't played with erector sets or taken apart VCRs or done much of anything that required physical problem solving.  Younger engineers who had played in that way as children had no trouble solving problems in the field.

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This shows that playing can help us learn to solve problems in "real life" situations.  I used to build with my erector set as a child.  I played with marble rolls, Tinker Toys, Legos, and blocks.  I even had this really cool set of toys where you could put gears together and watch how they spin.  I never had a set of K'Nex, though...not until now!

So to break in my new set, I started playing.  I wasn't impressed by any of the things I could make in the booklet that accompanied my set, so I decided to build my own designs.  Above is a little baby fractal I made.  Soon, I'll do a whole post about fractals, and we'll get to play with them some more.

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To the right is a collection of squares I arranged in three dimensions.  It's all just for fun, so I played around to see what interesting shapes I could make.

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I started making spirals.  First, I just made a spiral with square corners between the segments (right). I tried making a 3D square spiral, where I moved my segments into the third dimension (up off the table) so I could use more segments of the same length before running into the spiral I had already made.  This spiral didn't work so well because it wouldn't hold it's shape.  That's okay, though, because it's all part of play!

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To the right is an octagonal spiral I made.  I was able to use six segments of the same size before I had to upgrade to the next size segment.  That meant I could make a much bigger spiral.

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Remember the optical illusion of the impossible cube? Well here it is in real life!  Looks right at first glance but...

Get out your blocks and your Legos!  Take apart your old telephone and VCR!  Have fun!