Playing with Platonic Solids

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There’s a lot of talk about how playing with building blocks helps children develop math skills. But what about children that are too young to even “tote and carry” blocks? Have you thought about introducing them to Platonic solids? Ok, here’s a little refresher about Platonic solids:

A Platonic solid is a 3D shape where each face is the same regular polygon and the same number of polygons meet at each corner.

If the idea of introducing this concept to a small child sounds a bit over the top, here’s a surprise – your infant might already be enjoying one. After all, a cube is a Platonic solid. But why leave out the other four – tetrahedron, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron? That’s exactly what British mathematician Richard Elwes and his wife Haruka have done. Here’s Richard’s story:

When some friends told us they were having a baby, Haruka set to work making a soft cubic toy to give the child, by sewing together square patches of colourful cotton cloth left over from other projects, and stuffing it with cushion-filler. Being a mathematician, Richard immediately suggested the set should be expanded to include all five Platonic solids. (One challenge was to make sure that no two adjoining faces were made of the same cloth.)

These toys are intended for very young children, so it cannot be expected that they will ‘learn geometry’ in the usual sense. Instead, what we hope is that they will begin to foster a geometrical aesthetic, enjoying the symmetries of the toys, and developing a familiarity with these five solids, which will remain throughout their lives.

As the children grow older, we hope they will keep revisiting the Platonic solids in other forms, perhaps as wooden or plastic toys, maybe as dice or puzzles, later making them themselves out of paper or card. But there is no need to stop with the Platonic solids! As soon as practical, why not introduce shapes like prisms, antisprisms, and Archimedean solids (along with their duals: bipyramids, trapezohedra, and Catalan solids)?

For a small child meeting the Platonic solids for the first time, there is is one potential problem: apart from the cube, the names of these shapes fail to reflect their elegant simplicity. For a toddler, the word “icosahedron” is surely a bridge too far. So why not reduce them to their initial syllables: tet, cube, ock, dode, & ike? This will allow the child to have fun identifying and comparing the shapes, without getting bogged down in unnecessary Greek verbiage.

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Posted in Grow
2 comments on “Playing with Platonic Solids
  1. Susan Clark says:

    I would love to make a set of platonic solids out of fabric. Do you know where I could get a pattern? Thank you

    • MariaD MariaD says:

      One of the meaning of the word “Platonic” is “perfect” – and these objects are perfect in their symmetry. For each one, all faces are perfectly the same shape. Moreover, each face has perfectly equal sides!

      This makes the solids perfect for sewing. Print out one equilateral triangle, one square, and one equilateral pentagon. These will be faces of different solids, and that’s all you need.

      If you have questions on how to assemble the pieces, or any other questions, I will be happy to answer.

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