Tripping angles at the Exploratorium's "Geometry Playground"

Wanna take a ride on the gyroid?
Photo by Caitlin Donohue

“We had to create something that never has been done before, but that people can use in an instant, and provides a transformative educational experience.” Peggy Monahan, project director at the Exploratorium, is taking me through the “Geometry Playground” two days before the exhibit opens to the public. Its an interactive math learning wonderland that her team has been working on for the past three years. I hate math, but the exhibit, which opens Fri/25, seems to have the power to make me think about geometry without that irritating urge to put my head on my desk and sleep that math tends to compel in the less numerically inclined among us.

Of course, it helps that there's a big ass structure to play on. “This is the gyroid,” Monahan tells me. There's no need to explain, actually, because her cohort has been hyping me about this 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot thing since before I arrived at the exhibit. “The gyroid is an unexpected, almost maze-like structure,” says Thomas Rockwell, an ex-playground designer who helped to mastermind the concept of the exhibit. “Two people can enter it next to each other, climb through it, and emerge on the other side without every having been in the same space.”

Sound like an acid trip? It looks like one, too. The Gyroid was made by Exploratorium “math genuis” (according to Monahan) Paul Stepahin, and exhibit developer Eric Dimond from a shape defined by a NASA scientist looking for structurally sound forms.

An exhibition technician puts the final touches on "Geometry Playground." Photo by Caitlin Donohue

It's a single surface, just whorling and swirling and segmented into tesselated “chips,” dubbed thusly by the Exploratorium ladies and gents because of the way they arrived at the museum, stacked in boxes like so many Pringles. It's also super fun to climb in and on – its height makes for a perfect spot to sit and contemplate the museum's buzzy air of science discovery.

Also on the scene; a play structure of stellated rhombic dodecahedrons, an anamorphic hopscotch court and chair that, though skewed crazily when viewed by the human eye, form perfect right angles in warped mirror columns placed nearby. A gear cube with eight interlocking components grinds toothily, improbably, when you turn the crank, the whole configuration forming a perfect cube once in a cycle.

“Geometry Playground,” on the whole, leaves a pretty wild impression. And that's the point; it's supposed to reawaken our natural interest in problem solving. “We all are natural geometers,”  Rockwell tells me over the phone. He sought funding for the exhibit from the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Fund when he decided he wanted to make something “beautiful with mathematics,” like the Moorish architecture he saw when he was younger in Grenada, Spain. 

“I think geometry is something people naturally like to do. People love things like solving puzzles, building things, making dresses, knitting things.” Rockwell hopes the exhibit will also inspire educators to capitalize on students' natural awe of shapes and angles. “When we teach [geometry] in school, we teach with numbers and problems,” Rockwell says. “We want educators to realize that there's math education potential in all kinds of activities.” Like messing with hallucinatory playthings three years in the making. I'm not going to be doing better on my taxes any time soon, but that's a good time on my abacus.


"Geometry Playground"

opens Fri/25 (through Sept. 6), $15


3601 Lyon, SF

(415) 561-0360

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