by Tina Manzer
“We live in very nervous times,” noted Beverly Johnson recently, as we discussed everyone’s apparent need to calm down, reflected in trends like the coloring-book craze and this year’s crop of fidgets.
Beverly is founder of Fractiles, a 20-year-old company that makes Fractiles 7. Similar to coloring and fidgeting, “playing” with Fractiles 7 helps people of all ages relax. The process of arranging the magnetic diamond shapes on a board is soothing, and the symmetry of the results is like a balm.
Fractiles sets are often used in therapy for children and adults, and they are especially helpful for people with sensory integration dysfunction (DSI) and neurodevelopmental issues. “Special ed teachers tell me there is always at least one student who has difficulty focusing for more than a few seconds. They are delighted to see that Fractiles holds his or her attention for the entire class time,” says Beverly.
The angles of the diamond are based on the number 7, or more specifically, multiples of 1/14th of 360º, explains Beverly – thus the symmetry. “Geometry is where art and math meet. You see it in the pattern of seeds in a sunflower, or the whorls of a seashell. We are all hardwired to appreciate the symmetry of those patterns.”
While other geometric toys like pattern blocks are based on the number 5 or the number 6, Beverly chose 7. “It’s unique and simple, but with a lot of combination possibilities. There are only three different diamond shapes in a Fractiles set, but literally billions of combinations you can make with them if you have enough tiles.
“This really smart guy named Albert Einstein once said, ‘Combinatory play is the key to productive thinking,’” she adds. “What it really comes down to is that, there are not many brand new things, but there are always new combinations. Putting things together helps us learn.”
Speaking of new combinations
As a family of skills to develop, STEM has expanded to include Art (STEAM) and more recently, Robotics (STREAM) according to the Toy Industry Association. But the toys that reinforce science, technology, engineering and math skills are not all about robotics or computers, or even electronics. “STEM toys simply manifest a solid understanding of good old-fashioned science and math skills,” wrote Mark Carson of Fat Brain Toys a few years ago. In an article entitled, “Will the Real Stem Toys Please Stand Up?” he noted: “When you play with a real STEM toy, you may not be learning any specific skill. Rather, you are learning the fundamentals of critical thinking, problem solving, visualization and perseverance.”
Fractiles is one of a few simple toys that does that, Mark noted, as have renowned educators, scientists and one Nobel laureate in physics. STEM educator John L. Hall, formerly a professor at the University of Colorado, uses Fractiles to get kids interested in how to teach themselves and learn independently. “It encourages creativity and innovation,” he said. “We wish there were other materials of a similarly versatile and compelling nature.”
“STEM education transforms the typical teacher-centered classroom by engaging students in exploratory learning, discovery and problem-solving,” explains the STEM Education Coalition. “Traditionally, the four skills have been taught separately and mostly independently from each other. In STEM education, these subjects all play an integral part in the teaching of the whole.”
Fractiles 7 is earning a great reputation among STEM schools, says Beverly, where teachers use it mostly in the primary grades. “Fractiles is a perfect early STEM learning tool because it is a fun and creative way for our future engineers, scientists and artists to build key skills. It helps young students develop pattern recognition, visual spatial awareness, and the ability to break down complex problems into simpler components.”
It’s also effective at the opposite end of the age spectrum. “Fractiles is a relaxing and creative way to pass the time,” said one customer. “I’m a 45-year-old woman and not the least embarrassed to say this was purchased for my own personal use.”
Over the past 20 years, Fractiles 7 has become a staple in stores of all kinds, from specialty toy and school supply to museum and gift stores. If you carry it, make sure you leave an open set on your sales floor. The product fits in many sections: math, art, puzzles and made in the USA, and should be an easy sell to parents who want an educational, fun and creative toy. But if you need it, Beverly provides a simple one-page list of unique selling points on her website, fractiles.com.
Over the years, the product has not changed. “The colors are the same because I have yet to find others as effective as these are,” Beverly says. The magnetic tiles are made in a factory in Minnesota, and sets come in two sizes with a magnatic board: a 192-tile edition and the best-selling 96-tile travel edition, plus the 48-tile “fridge edition” with no board.