Popsicle sticks + tape and marble run activities

Posted on June 22, 2014 in Portfolio, Teaching

A couple weeks ago we set out a few buckets of popsicle sticks and a pile of masking tape and let the kids try to make interesting structures, and we were very happily surprised with just how far it went! You might think that using just two ingredients would get boring and limiting really quickly, but in fact we saw kids coming up with new techniques, ideas and structures every day, so we kept it going for a solid week! Turns out, there is much to be learned through activities like this!

Observations and the value of parameters

Everyone finds creativity in different ways. For me, the times when I feel most creative are when I have well-defined goals and limited parameters for the task at hand. It forces me to focus and consider every single possibility, and encourages me to think outside of the box much faster and easier. After all, how can one think outside the box if they don’t understand what the box looks like?

While doing this activity I found that many kids also felt the same way. Sometimes we like to encourage a sort of chaotic productivity and embrace very open-ended play. However, I sometimes feel like work that is produced in this way is more likely due to chance rather than focused creativity (see the infinite monkey theorem). Of course in reality the lines between these schools of thought are gray and there much overlap and ample room for both methodologies, but I like what I like. For example, perhaps one can have open-ended play initiated by closed-beginning parameters.

In this activity, guests are given two (and only two) materials: popsicle sticks and masking tape. Their goal: to make something interesting. Their initial dive into the activity is met with structure and limitations, but during the course of their play they discover more and more possibilities, which in turn inspires creativity and bolsters the motivation. Having examples made by other kids hung from our ceiling really helped kids connect the dots and not get too frustrated early on. After all, everyone else made something, why couldn’t they?

Popsicle sticks and tape

On the first day, the other Maker Corps Mentors and I were a little unsure of how we’d make the activity work for the whole week. After all, it’s so limited … right? So we started playing, and kept playing, and played with the kids, and by the end of the second day we realized that there was actually quite a lot that could be done with the humble materials. For example …

Triangle tessellations

Personally, I became fixated on exploring tessellations with triangles to create folding 3D structures in the same way that 3D models on the computer are made. I began thinking about how every 3D model is constructed out of 2D polygons (usually triangles), which can be flattened or “unwrapped” into flat 2D structures.

I created lots of triangles, then taped edges of the triangles together in random arrangements to create interesting 2D forms. Then I would pick it up and start twisting it around to see how it naturally wanted to assemble itself and tape together whatever edges seemed to want to be together the most. It was really amazing to me just how varied the forms can get, and I would love to explore this idea more!

Tessellation infographic

Cobra weave stick bombs

2014-06-08 13.46.02 Another activity I tried to play a bit with was creating stick bombs that explode when triggered. This particular pattern is called the cobra weave, and has the unique feature of letting you build it as long as you want! I opted to make them as long as our table, then laying the trigger under a heavy bucket of popsicle sticks so that the entire thing explodes when a curious kid goes to reach for more sticks.

These stick bombs rely on tension built up by bending each popsicle stick ever so slightly over the previous sticks and releasing the tension in one spot, causing a chain reaction as the release of tension propagates through the structure. Apparently there are all sorts of different structures you can build, just Google it!

“This is the best day of my LIFE!”

This week also brought one of the coolest and most impactful stories of the summer. One morning a young guest named Andrew dropped by and started off the activity being very skeptical and unsure that he could do anything interesting. He impressed by the examples, but wanted to make something of his own.

At some point he decided he wanted to make a rocket, and quickly started gathering materials and formulating a plan for how to make one. I showed him how to make a rolled cylinder from popsicle sticks, then he went at it.

I turned my attention to some other guests to help them with their projects while Andrew went to work. Once in a while he’d come up to me with a question or a statement, then he’d go off to work again. Before I knew it, he had spent about four hours in the space working on his piece! Each addition he made resulted in more discoveries and more problems to solve. He realized he needed some landing gear, then he realized he needed something stronger than tape to hold it all together, because, as he put it, otherwise it would just go “PSSSSSSHK, BOOOOM!” So I would give him a hot glue gun and some advice and let him get back to work. It wasn’t until the final hour that we realized just how seriously he was taking his project.

Andrew began asking us, in increasingly exasperrated tones, where we keep the wire and “electrical stuff”. After he asked this a few times, we realized that he literally wanted to make a fully-functioning rocket, with recovery parachute, combustion engine and everything! Rats, we don’t have that. But what we did have is Tyler Swain, who knew exactly how to make rocket engines out of a water bottle, a cork and an air compressor!

Tyler drilled a small hole in the cork and jammed it onto a bicycle stem adapter on the air compressor while Andrew put a small amount of water in the small water bottle that he found. After jamming the cork into the next of the water bottle, the rocket was ready to launch. And then, well, you’ll just have to see below!

Andrew worked right up until the end of the day that day in our Maker-Space, clocking in an amazing five hours of work on his project! For me, the best part of the whole experience was when he stopped working on his project and came up to me (at least once) to say that “today was the BEST day of my LIFE!”

Marble run

In addition to all of this popsicle stick madness, Maker Corps Mentor Joe Sparano spent the week facilitating a massive marble run activity, letting kids set up tracks and try to get marbles to do interesting things.

As with the popsicle sticks activity, this activity was consistently popular throughout the week, and seemed to be most popular with families with very small children for whom using tools is challenging. I would posit a guess that the simplicity of a single marble moving through space on simple paths appealed to these younger guests more than the more cognitively complex building activities we tend to have. We may have to investigate this type of play in the future to make sure that we are providing accessible activities across multiple age groups.

And, of course, it is definitely worth noting that for every kid that enjoyed constructing paths with the wood blocks and rails, there was another kid who loved tearing it all down. We encourage this type of activity, so long as it’s not malicious!