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What Parents Everywhere Can Learn From This Trailblazing Toy Maker

Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii spreads the gospel of the puzzle.

On a side street in the less-than-touristy eastern section of downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, tucked behind a tent-shaped building half-gutted by fire, you might just manage to find a four-story pink building. Notched with knobby, knot-shaped decorations, it’s distinctive for the neighborhood, but invisible from the nearby main thoroughfare, Peace Avenue. Yet inside this hidden low-rise is one of the world’s most whimsical, engaging, and underappreciated cultural galleries, the misleadingly named International Intellectual Museum.

All those who enter expecting to find some dry, poster board exhibits on the great minds of Mongolia and the world will be delightfully disappointed. The museum is actually an homage to puzzles, stacked high with traditional Mongolian logic games, hundreds of chess sets made from every material imaginable (some of them made of puzzle boards and pieces), and hundreds of puppets and knickknacks from all over, including one of the world’s oldest dolls, several thousand years old and uncovered in a Peruvian tomb. The artifacts occupy every corner of every floor of the building, and the museum is always growing—they added a new exhibit on the top floor just this year. But the museum isn’t just some giant junk room. It has a philosophy.

Tumen Ulzii with a chess set of his own design

Toys are charged and powerful philosophical, mathematical, and technological learning tools. They can tell you something about the values of a nation—like how Mongol puzzles carry mythic images, religious symbols, and the basic guidelines for how to set up a nomadic tent, or ger. So according to this philosophy, toys ought to be made with care and thought, disseminated widely, and, shown the same respect as any other traditionally high-brow or artistic artifact.

Founded in 1990 by Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii, who started making his own puzzles at age 10, the IMM was the first privately owned museum in Mongolia. Tumen Ulzii’s puzzles are traditional Mongol toys made of interlocking, three-dimensional wood blocks, (like an even more complex Rubik’s cube). These puzzles, often involving precise sequences and spinning motions that access internal, carved locking mechanisms, were among the first items on display at the museum. But in the intervening years the museum has grown to include over 11,000 items from 130 nations. The collection is split into 15 distinct puzzle and game categories, each with its own room or alcove.

One of Ulzii's puzzle boxes

The guides leading tours of the museums have all been trained in puzzles, optical illusions, and mind games. Most can perform up to thirty magic tricks on cue, breaking down the physical and perceptual properties at work for their audience. They can also assemble the puzzles in the IMM at lightning speed, challenging visitors to have a hands-on try at solving one themselves. Tumen-Ulzii, just to prove the difficulty involved in cultivating a logical and spatial mind, has standing wagers for visitors: $100, $1,000, or $10,000 dollars if you can solve a puzzle within a set time limit. One of the most ornate, a tortoise made of 11 pounds of carved silver puzzle pieces, uses 33 distinct interlocking methods, while the most complex puzzle requires 56,831 moves to complete. Most of the most devilish puzzles were designed by the impish Tumen-Ulzii.

Tumen-Ulzii’s not just out to prove he’s smarter than you. He’s spent much of the past two decades traveling the world preaching the value of raising children on complex rather than soft, fuzzy games, touting the definitive developmental aid that puzzles offer. In Mongolia, he’s partnered with the prominent Khan Bank to distribute over 13,800 traditional and culturally significant Mongolian puzzle toys to dozens of schools across the country, challenging tens of thousands of children to find joy in complex, logical challenges. And through his toy company, Mu-Tu-Uv Co., he sells puzzle rings and chessboards and wood blocks worldwide, and offers his services as a toy design consultant. He’s even taken his show on the road, setting up Mongolian cultural displays incorporating puzzles in bizarre but attention-grabbing outlets, like a prominent outdoor and adventure gear shop in Berlin.

A monkey-shaped puzzle box

The IMM, as crafted by Tumen-Ulzii, isn’t a hub for innovation and futuristic thought. It’s not flashy or well-funded. But its engagement with physics and problem solving creates an engrossing challenge, forcing us to acknowledge the value of some of the oldest and simplest games and technologies in the world. It’s a straightforward, but worthwhile goal, and one that seems, from the size and constant growth of the museum, to be catching on.

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