Duke TIP

Geometric Building Sets

Have you ever bought an educational toy or game that promised to challenge your children’s intellectual curiosity? Has that toy or game eventually cluttered the attic?

“Product Tips,” a regular column of the Duke Gifted Letter, aims to help parents become more savvy consumers of educational toys, games, books, and software.

This issue reviews geometric building sets. We have researched and tested three products: Zometool, Roger’s Con-nection, and Plato’s Glo-Mobile.

With feedback from children and teachers, we have ranked the sets, taking into account the critical thinking skills challenged; the range of ages and abilities served; the directions and supporting materials available; children’s engagement with the products; product options; and cost and availability.

The most comprehensive of the sets is Zometool. The 484-piece Explorer Kit consists of hard plastic connector nodes with triangular, rectangular, and pentagonal holes, and plastic struts with ends shaped to fit into the corresponding node holes. The struts are color- and shape-coded; each of the three strut colors has a different shaped end, and each color comes in three different lengths. All parts are durable, flexible, and easy to manipulate.

Zometool allows users from age six to adult to construct vectors along 62 directions in space, building anything from simple polygons to complex geometric designs of fivefold symmetries. Zometool teaches the connection between numbers and space—from the simple laws of symmetry and proportion to the complex principles of geometry, trigonometry, and architecture.

Teachers ranked Zometool high for the range of abilities it serves, for its applications, and for its use in developing creative thinking skills. They ranked the user’s manual and the optional lesson plans for grades K–college as excellent.

The children (ages nine to sixteen) ranked Zometool high, but not as high as the teachers’ rankings. Zometool held their interest, though some reported frustration that the struts slipped out of the nodes easily. With more complex figures, the children found that they had to plan carefully for the shapes to work out symmetrically.

The children’s clear preference was Roger’s Connection. The basic set contains 14 nickel-plated steel balls and 30 four-inch plastic tubes embedded with magnets. The magnets are recessed so that the rods fit securely, allowing for up to 12 connections on a single ball. Be-cause the angles of attachment can move freely, unlike interlocking construction kits, the shape of a structure provides its stabilization. Children learn quickly that triangles are more stable than squares or other polygons, and the triangle becomes the stabilizing shape built into all other designs.

Roger’s Connection teaches all the same principles as Zometool, plus the principles of magnetism. Children can build kinetic constructions that move freely, like a working compass or a spinning tetrahedron. One drawback, however, is that the kits are small, and two or more kits are needed for building more complex structures.

Like Zometool, teachers ranked Roger’s Connection high. Roger’s Connection scored higher in value for teaching critical thinking skills but lower in supporting materials available.

Not recommended is Plato’s Glo-Mobile. The kit consists of 110 soft, hollow plastic connectors, 310 blunt wooden dowels about twice the length and width of toothpicks, and a pointed wooden stick used to poke holes in the connectors before inserting the dowels. Both children and teachers complained that the sticks broke easily and that the structures took too long to build. Using the pointed stick to make holes was tedious, and unless the holes were placed precisely, the structure was unstable and unsymmetrical.

One teacher, however, recommended the product for high school students to use for individual projects; the product is not recommended for children under twelve.
—Sarah Boone

Sarah Boone has a master's degree in teaching and certification in gifted education. She teaches at Meredith College.

Product Information

How does DGL
rank products?

one star

1: Poor

two stars

2: Fair

three stars

3: Good

four stars

4: V. Good

five stars 5: Excellent
Ratings are based on content, format, student appeal, and adaptability to different levels of instruction