Science Toys!

What do you want to make today?


Because discovery is difficult, children have to be given scaffolding for their ideas. They need close encounters with rich materials; they need a careful yet invisible sequencing of objects.

—Sherry Turkle, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind

These are some of my favorite toys, crafts, and demonstrations for exploring science, math, metaphors, systems theory, and more!

Here are some cool things I’ve made:

Game of Life Hexaflexagon

I made a hexaflexagon based on a period three pulsar from Conway’s Game of Life. When you flip through the faces, it’s like a little pocket simulation!


Here are downloadable templates (PDF format) that you can print, cut and fold at home, in various colors:

I had them printed on 90lb cardstock, but for added durability you could also print them on regular paper and cover with clear packing tape after folding in half. Check out this instructional hexaflexagon folding video from Vi Hart! (Or see the hyperset folding instructions, below.)

Ecology Hyperset Hexaflexagon

After talking with Dan Fiscus at a symposium, I made a hexaflexagon using the ideas from a paper he co-authored, on the idea of life as a self-referential strange loop. (You can view a blog post about the paper, as well as download a draft PDF.) Fiscus, et al. (2012) express this idea as a hyperset formalism, written as: 

life = {environment{ecosystems{organisms{environment}}}}

I decided this would be a great concept to represent in hexaflexagon form! The first face is meant to suggest an organism, which is contained by an ecosystem, which is contained by its environment. The environment represents both large-scale processes (ex: biogeochemical cycles) that surround ecosystems, as well as the small-scale processes (ex: chemical reactions) that exist within organisms, so environment is again enfolded by the organism as you fold the hexaflexagon again. I’m trying to suggest ideas like variation and constraint, energy flow, and a hint of ascendancy/entropy.

Hyperset hexaflexagon

Here’s a printable template: Hyperset – foldable (PDF)

And here are some folding instructions: Flexagon folding instructions (PDF)


Planarian Paper Dolls

So… you know how planarians can regenerate from injuries? Well, sometimes it goes kinda weird:

So, I made Franken-planarian paper dolls! You can, too—just accordion-fold a piece of paper and cut out your favorite planarian shapes.


planarian_2 planarian_3planarian-papercraft-in-wild
These are some of my favorite science toys available for sale from other vendors:


skwishIs it a simple chewtoy—or a sophisticated cellular tensegrity model demonstrating dynamic resilience in the cytoskeleton, complete with organelle transport beads? It’s both! A very durable, dynamic toy to amuse and inspire babies as well as older scientists. You can buy the Skwish for $16 from the Manhattan Toy Company.

Cellular tensegrity model (source)

Cellular tensegrity model (source)



An amazingly fun flow toy! Perhaps also a fascinating way to visualize tokamak magnetic field lines? You can buy the Toroflux for $20 from Flowtoys.

You can also make you own version from a Slinky!

Tokamak magnetic field lines (source)

Tokamak magnetic field lines (source)

Flexi-Star 3

flexi-star 3So. The Orb Factory made a whole family of these amazing transforming geometric wire sculpture toys—and then stopped selling them. It seems like a few places are still going through their backstock, but I’m not sure how long it will last. You can buy the Flexi-Star 3 (the first and simplest iteration) from The HANDLE Institute store for $10.

I’m going to do a video review of these toys; a static photo just doesn’t do it justice!


vectorsphereThe gigantic older cousin of The Orb Factory’s Flexi-Star and Quix models! You can buy the VectorSphere from Kelvin Educational for $29.95.

These pages show some of the many shapes it can make!

The OSM (Object for Spatial Manipulation)

Hopson Kinetic makes this lovely and sturdy sculptural toy in a variety of colors. It transforms in a way that’s similar to the Flexi-Star 3, continuously turning inside out with a smooth motion.

Jitterbug Vector Flexor

vector flexorAlternative stable states! Vector equilibrium! Very Buckminster Fuller, much geometry, wow. You can buy a Vector Flexor for $15 from the Buckminster Fuller Institute Store. More info here and here, plus a video of the toy in action!