The IMACS Blog has recommended several games, puzzles, and apps that encourage structured mathematical or computational thinking. We’ve also noted the benefits of unstructured time for creativity and for inspiring insightful problem solving as supported by a 2009 study on wandering minds. This week’s blog brings together these two ideas with a look at a puzzle called the Ball of Whacks. This toy was recommended to us by an IMACS alumna whose daughter is enrolled in our Primary Enrichment math class, so we have it on good authority that the Ball of Whacks is a winner!
What Is It?
The Ball of Whacks is a puzzle that consists of 30 magnetic pyramids, which the inventor calls “Whacks.” When you open the package, the 30 pieces are held together by internal magnets in the form of a ball-like, 30-sided rhombic triacontahedron. Give the “ball” a good whack and it will break apart so that you can play with the pyramid pieces.
What makes these pyramid pieces so special? Each is a right golden rhombic pyramid! (We math geeks tend to have a natural appreciation for toys such as this one.) As the mini-book that comes with the Ball of Whacks explains:
Whether you’re an aficionado of this special polyhedron or what you’ve read above is enough to satisfy your mathematical curiosity, we think you will enjoy playing with this toy in several ways. After breaking the puzzle apart, your natural first instinct may be to figure out how to put it back together. Although this won’t be challenging for most of our blog readers, we think you’ll still find it satisfying if you enjoy the simple beauty that mathematics often presents.
With that out of the way, you might find yourself casually shifting puzzle pieces around without much physical effort or purposeful direction. Then in what seems like a sudden moment, they come together in one of many interesting shapes or patterns. The experience is reminiscent of doodling as a way of relaxing and unleashing your subconscious. This kind of unstructured play feels uncannily like a physical representation of a wandering mind that experiences sudden insight in solving a problem.
When you’re in the mood to solve a well-defined problem analytically, pick one of the more than 20 shapes in the mini-book and try to make it yourself. Then think outside the book and create your own design. If you enjoy tangrams, then you’ll probably enjoy playing with the Ball of Whacks in this way. Don’t forget that the pyramid pieces are magnetic, so you can create designs on any metallic surface such as a refrigerator door or magnetic white board.
In addition to the shape challenges, the mini-book also contains 15 exercises that make up what is called a “creativity workshop.” For example, Exercise 4 asks you to drop your assumptions about how you play with the Ball of Whacks. As the book explains:
The exercises make for an interesting casual read. They may even help parents begin discussions with children that end up leading to creative thinking. Given that different minds get stimulated by different types of experiences, it’s hard to say definitively that this particular toy will enhance your creativity. However effective the Ball of Whacks is as a creativity tool for a given individual, one thing is certain: the Ball of Whacks is a fun toy for unstructured play, which is widely understood to be good for creativity.
The Ball of Whacks can be had for about $25 online through retailers like Amazon. Some might balk at what seems like a high price for a “simple” toy; however this seems to be in line with the price for magnetic “thinking” toys such as Magna-Tiles and Geomags. For a mathematically inclined mind, the Ball of Whacks can be loads of fun!