At Temple University, psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has tested the connection between play and creativity in children. In one experiment, she gave groups of four- to six-year-olds a pipe cleaner, a paper clip, and some aluminum foil. She told one group to play freely; she told another to think about what uses the objects might have; and she told a third group to use the objects to build specific tools, such as a bridge or a ladder. She then challenged the children to figure out ways to get a bear across a river. Hirsh-Pasek found that the second group—the ones engaged in what she calls guided play—came up with the most creative solutions. The same idea applies to scientists, she says: They do their best work when they’re free to play around with a known set of problems.
Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, sees an explicit connection between toddlers and scientists. She’s done studies that show that children run their own experiments by playing with the world around them. “One of the things that we always say is that it’s not that children are little scientists—it’s that scientists are big children,” she told one interviewer. “Scientists actually are the few people who as adults get to have this protected time when they can just explore, play, figure out what the world is like.”
On Thursday nights, Erik’s class meets to work on unsolved problems in the field of geometric folding. As the grad students file in, he writes a set of questions on the blackboard. One involves a box of business cards that he’s left out on a desk. Can the students figure out a way to turn them into interlocking octahedrons? Another involves a square piece of paper. What’s the largest regular tetrahedron they can fold from it?
It doesn’t take long for the students to pop up from their seats and start scrawling on the board. Soon they’ve broken up into groups, sketching out ideas or punching thoughts into a laptop. Each team has its own approach. Some use rulers and Scotch tape; others draw things by hand. Erik stands by with his stylus, jotting notes onto a tablet, doling out advice and cracking jokes. These freewheeling sessions often lead to published papers, and the tetrahedron problem might even have some useful applications: It could teach manufacturers how to use a sheet of metal more efficiently.
As usual, Erik’s father Marty is also in the room, drawing his ideas on a scrap of paper. At one point, he shows the students what he’s doing, and they crowd around to see. He’s come up with a quirky way of folding a set of triangles—the four faces of the tetrahedron—from a bunch of smaller shapes. It’s a plan the others hadn’t thought of, but Erik shakes his head as he surveys the sketch. He and Marty can at times seem more like brothers than a father and a son.
“Well, it’s another approach to play with,” Marty says. “It’s very conceptual, but I think it has possibilities.” Later he’ll try to build a working model in his studio, and Erik will go and take a look. When Marty’s not around, Erik might even make some changes of his own—it’s all part of their process.
“We know each other so well that it makes for a really effective combination,” Erik says. “He’s always trying to reinject some playfulness into my serious work. It lets us do things that neither of us could do.” It also lets them do things that other academics would never try.
Among their many big ideas, the notion that play is fundamental to science may be the most profound. It could also form the basis for Erik’s greatest contribution to his field. As the students file out of the classroom, having spent two hours doodling and folding, doing math and generally enjoying themselves, he wipes the blackboard clean. When I ask him later why he chooses to teach the way he does, he answers simply, “I think this is a cool way of working, and more people should work this way. Sadly, not everyone does, so I try to pass it on.”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.