Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Discovering a Maze's Secret: You

The Perplexus  (photo courtesy of Plasmart)

WHAT: Perplexus (Original)
DOES:  A 3-D maze within a sphere; 23 Feet of track; Go from start to end through twists and turns;  Make one wrong move, your ball falls and you have to start over.  You have to concentrate!
INVEST: $18- $25
TOOLS: Think Like a Scientist/Engineer, Express Yourself, My Body Needs to Move, Social Scene Helper
(Part 2 of Perplexus Review coming tomorrow)

"MOM!  Play with me!" 

Number 2 is a "+1 Kid."  He always wants someone to play with him.

I could be putting on my shoes and halfway out the door, sleeping, eating, cooking, whatever…  It makes no difference.  He makes me feel as I though I must drop everything to play with him.  Sometimes I do but sometimes I am just sooooo tired. 

And so I decided to buy Number 2 a toy which he could play by himself and you would think Legos were good but he is not a builder-type so what could I do?  

I got Perplexus.  A maze with no extraneous pieces except for a stand so that the maze in the sphere won't roll away.  No clean-up required.  Just pick up and play.

Play by Yourself!  No More +1  

If you don't already know what it is, then just take a look at the video.  It's a simple concept in a very complex-looking toy. Basically, you have to start at the starting line with a ball and go through a 3-dimensional maze on a track.  You have to be careful and not go too fast or you will fall off the track and have to start from the beginning again.  You will follow numbers as they increase which will provide a sense of direction as well as location.  (ie. I keep losing it at #42!) You finish when you get to the finish line.  It's very simple. No instruction booklet to read or lose.

When I gave this to #2, I figured it might give him a feeling of accomplishment while he played with it.  Additionally, marble runs are eye candy to him so the motivation would likely be there.

Sure enough, he loved it.  I left it in my living room right next to my couch and whenever he wanted it, he could just start playing.  It would amuse him for various lengths of time.  Sometimes he would prefer to play with his Perplexus even though there was a person willing to play with him but he never became obsessed.  I think it was because it was a little hard for him.  He is 4 and it is for Ages 6 and up.  We have the Perplexus Rookie (tomorrow's post) now which was made for younger kids but he still plays with both of them.  In fact, Number 1 stepped on it somehow and made a dent but thankfully, it popped right out! Phew!  It's a sturdy toy too.

Truth be told, I really was surprised to see how engaged both my kids were.  But I think many people like this toy. In fact, it is currently a nominee for Toy of the The Year Award in the "Educational Toy" category.  While there is no question that this toy makes a child use his brain, I didn't quite understand exactly just how this toy was "educational."  What exactly are the kids learning? So many toys are being described as "educational" these days.  

What's the "Educational" in this "Educational Toy"? 

So I called Jonathan Lauter, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.  As a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, he treats kids while directing a very busy ambulatory behavioral health services clinic for children at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York City.  In short, he knows a lot about kids' brains.

When I asked him what might be happening when a child is playing this way, he had a bunch of things to say.  Some of which included working on visual-motor skills (hand-eye coordination), thinking steps ahead, practicing impulse control, and even memory skill use since you will not be able to solve it at the first try and will have to rely on your past experiences to triumph over tricky corners and loops.  More significantly, at least to me, Dr. Lauter said that by playing with a maze in this way, a child can become more self-aware.

Self-awareness?  This is what is educational about this "educational toy"? The kids are learning about themselves?

Dr. Lauter described that through the twists and turns of this maze, children are learning about their own skill sets.  "In terms of each task, they need to think about 'Well, what do I need to do now? How do I slow myself down?'" Dr. Lauter believes such questions promote self-awareness and cause-and-effect-learning.

These skills can be transferred outside of the ball maze into a child's world, he advised.  "Understand that "cause-and-effect" immediately puts you in a place where you realize you do make an impact on the world," he said.  "When you are engaged in a process when you are able to be more self-reflective and think more carefully about your actions, you're building the building blocks that allows you to be more civilized and more thoughtful about other people around you."

Sometimes I wish I could press a "pause" button on an interview so that the expert doesn't figure how horribly slow I am processing what he said.  In my defense I should say that all I expected from our talk was to hear something about hand-eye coordination.  But seriously, can you really improve your people skills with a toy that doesn't require you to be with people

He tried to explain to me that the acquisition of these skills are not wholly a result of conscientious learning.  That is, not everything we are able to do was learned when we were purposely being taught something.  The skills that a child builds when they learn that if they move this way, the ball will drop and you have to start the maze over again is the same skill that maybe someone like Number 1 would use to figure out, "Gee, if I bring an extra Beyblade to school, then my friend Jacob who doesn't have one can play with me and then all of us can play together.  There will be Beyblades everywhere!"

Another Social Twist

I also find that the Perplexus Original is really hard!  Dr. Lauter says that it's okay if it is hard but that doesn't make me feel better when I get to #26 for the fourth time and drop the ball!  Number 2 is no exception, sometimes he takes too long of a break between trials.  What I like to do then is to try playing with it by myself in front of him.  In our house, that is a parent strategy that always gets the kids interested.  The kids cheer me on but can't wait for me to screw-up. So of course, when I put it down, there is no way they won't pick it up.  They will fight over it. 

But what is really interesting is when they watch me play, we start talking about the particular turns that are toughest and then I realize that we are sharing an experience together even though he is not holding the maze with me.  It's almost like going on a trip to an island that your friend had just visited.  The experience becomes a bridge for connection.  Moreover, the fact that it is hard, even for the grown-ups provides for the kind of joint whining and complaining that builds bonds between people (like at the office).  This is probably the most unexpected Social Scene Helper I've encountered and that's what makes this maze even more amazingly rewarding.

Come back tomorrow to hear more from Dr. Lauter when he described what a child "makes" with a toy like Perplexus which is very odd considering there aren't any pieces you can touch - everything is inside the sphere!  

Add Perplexus to your Toolbox Today

Click Here for Part 2 of Perplexus Review

Disclosure statement: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by the manufacturer or retailer of any of the mentioned products in exchange for the publication of this post.  The Perplexus Toys viewed by Dr. Lauter and myself were purchased by me. Plasmart gave Toys are Tools permission to embed this video and to use the graphic above.  See FAQ regarding links.


  1. Awesome post. Nice elucidation of some of the more subtle connections between playing and learning.

  2. I can see this frustrating my little one but entertaining my older one. It looks quite cool.

  3. Challenging yet beatable. Box says 6+. I agree, but I would start with Rookie for 6 and 7 year olds first until you're confident they would enjoy Original. Has the same number of barriers as Rookie (100) but with lower sides and trickier maneuvers. Has 3 different starting points to help skip ahead!
    Check out my full review at