The Return of the Rubik's Cube

This classic toy is an awesome way to practice the logic and problem-solving skills that are crucial to STEM education. Here’s how to harness the fun. 
Jeff Harris

My family had one when I was a kid. I’d pick it up, twist the sides around a few times, and maybe get three blue squares in a row before I’d throw it back in the toy bin in frustration. So when my 8-year-old son, Nate, asked for a Rubik’s Cube, I assumed he’d be as stymied by the puzzle as I had been. But I forgot that Nate has something I didn’t have when I was his age: YouTube. Turns out there are rules for solving the Rubik’s Cube and plenty of online tutorials where you can learn them. Not that it’s easy, though.

While solving the Cube may not be the dominion of geniuses as once portrayed, understanding and mastering the formulas is tough. Nate watched the videos, cried, gave up, tried again, cried again, until a few days later…voilà, he held a perfectly unscrambled Cube in his hands. Clearly, my son had something else that I perhaps didn’t: grit. And that’s one of the biggest benefits of this plaything. The gratification isn’t immediate—kids have to pull from their reserves of persistence, determination, and resilience to be successful.

But that’s just the beginning. With cubing secrets more easily accessible, the satisfaction of “the solve” has been hooking more and more kids like Nate. “I’ve definitely seen a comeback with this toy,” says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. And he couldn’t be happier. “The Rubik’s Cube isn’t just entertaining,” Brown says. “It can teach important principles of math and science.” The old-fashioned puzzle, he explains, builds and employs skills that will help kids excel in the modern classroom and their 21st-century careers.

Toy or Tool?

This puzzle has come a long way since Erno Rubik, a professor of architecture in Hungary, invented it in 1974. Nowadays, Brown says, the Cube can be used as a hands-on way to teach algorithms, which are the foundation of computer programming and mechanics. “Figuring out how to solve problems is the heart of the scientific process,” so tinkering with the Rubik’s Cube fits right in with STEM education goals, Brown says. Learning one algorithm (on YouTube, say) helps kids start to break down solutions into steps, each of which builds on the last. They learn to think critically in general and are able to generate more flexible and effective strategies to solve this, or really any, puzzle.

Patrick Bossert, who wrote a bestselling instruction guide called You Can Do the Cube in 1981—when he was just 13!—agrees. He credits the puzzle for stimulating his love of logical reasoning, central to which are the Cube’s “if…then” formulas. If you twist one side up, for example, then the blue square will be next to the green one. Kids will see these concepts in everything from math homework to business spreadsheets.

Bossert says cubing also helps develop spatial awareness, the ability to see and understand two or more objects in relation to each other and to oneself. Kids must follow instructions for placement that include the concepts of “over,” “under,” and “behind.” This may seem like simple stuff, but being able to visualize and then follow through with a step is actually a complex cognitive skill for kids. Cubing takes this ability to the next level by continuously rearranging the position of the parts—and also continuously testing and expanding kids’ sense of space.

Another benefit of cubing: strengthening pattern recognition, says Feliks Zemdegs, a record-holding speed cuber in Melbourne, Australia. As kids learn to recognize that, say, a white square in the center of one side means that a yellow square is in the center of the opposite one, they’re also learning the building blocks of pattern recognition in music, math, and more. And of course as kids get faster and faster, they push memory and finger dexterity too (hello, future surgeons!). 

The Need for Speed

Solving the Cube is one thing. Solving it fast—really fast—is another. In fact, “speed cubing,” as it’s called, has become a competitive sport. The World Cube Association actually holds tournaments where Cube lovers from all over the planet commune and compete. (The current record for fastest solve of the 4x4 cube? Just 21.54 seconds!) “Practice is the most important thing,” says Zemdegs, who actually holds the current world record. “It took me about three months to get my time under 30 seconds, but two years to get it down further by about nine seconds.”

Since his first solve, Nate has been hooked on cubing—trying different patterns, playing with more complex puzzles, and solving them faster and faster (he’s down to 50 seconds for the 3x3 cube!). Our household now boasts no less than 12 different cubes of varying size and style. With this skill squarely in his pocket, I think he may move on to his next hobby: ruling the world, of course.

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