String Cup Telephone

I met up with the Los Angeles-based Trash for Teaching at the Maker Faire last weekend. Trash for Teaching is an organization that collects factory overruns and byproducts and redistributes them to teachers, schools, and museums for open-ended art making and tinkering. This is great for teachers with small materials budgets, inspiring for children to think creatively about how to repurpose materials, and wonderful for the environment. If you’re a Bay Area teacher, we’re lucky to have the incredible RAFT (Resource Area for Teaching) right here in San Jose.

I was given a few bags of materials to play with, and N and I enjoyed looking through the rolls, styrofoam, colorful papers, foil, cups, and sticks for inspiration.

Wouldn’t you agree that this is right up my alley?

Each bag was thematic, and one of the themes included materials that could be turned into string cup telephones. Do you remember tin can telephones? This is a a funny take on that idea.

Since Trash for Teaching is all about upcycling cast-off materials into something new, the big question today is “what was the original purpose of the cups you see in the picture below?” Bonus points and a big virtual trophy to you if you have the correct answer! (Keep in mind that these materials came straight from the factory floor and were never used otherwise!).

Make a string cup telephone set. It’s ridiculously simple, and worked great.

  1. Drill small holes in the bottom of each cup.
  2. Find a piece of string about three feet long.
  3. Thread the ends of the string through each of the cups. Tie off with big knots.
  4. Ring, Ring! Find a partner, pull the string taught, and you’re reading for some telephone play.

How would the telephone work if the string were 8 feet long?

20 feet long?

Does the sound change with different kinds of string or cups?

Playing Big

This week I’m sharing kid-friendly inspiration from the Bay Area Maker Faire.

Have you ever noticed that things can be much more fun and compelling when they’re really, really big? Think about awe-inspiring cruise ships vs. cute little kayaks or imaginative play possibilities in a refrigerator box. Today I have four show-stopping examples of play on a large scale, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you could replicate these at home or school.

Big Idea #1: Make your own Marble Machine

Open Make, a collaboration between the Exploratorium, MAKE Magazine, and Pixar Animation Studios, assembled this popular marble run installation. With a peg board as a base, participants could move various ramps, tubes, and funnels around to create the marble run of their dreams.

Grown-ups and kids were wholly engaged by this project. If you click on over to the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio site, you can download a Marble Machines PDF that will give you some ideas on getting your own marble run going. For more inspiration, we made these two marble runs from toilet paper rolls and cardboard boxes on TinkerLab.

Big idea # 2: Hundreds and Hundreds of Blocks!

If you plant a pile of hundreds of blocks in the middle of a sea of families, this is what you might expect to see! These structures were created by CitiBlocs, and I think they’re super cool. They’re narrow wooden blocks that seem to be great for building UP, designed for kids ages 3 and older. These structures remind me of the game, Jenga.

Big Idea #3: Baseball Bat Xylophone

Gorgeous, and simply genius!

Big Idea #4: Super size Lite-Brite

Did you remember the Lite Brite? This glowing, oversize Lite-Brite was an attention grabber, and people couldn’t keep their hands off of it.

Wouldn’t it be cool to have one of these permanently installed in the kitchen to entertain kids during dinner prep? Okay, maybe that’s just my dream! When I spotted a vintage Lite-Brite at a second-hand store last year I snapped it up for my kids to enjoy.

This photo isn’t from Maker Faire, but from a wonderful nature and wildlife center near our house, CuriOdyssey, where we’ve played with this even larger scale Lite-Brite made of colored-water filled bottles placed in what looks like a huge wine rack. I think it’s brilliant!

Photo: Frog Mom

What large-scale games are you excited about?

Maker Faire + DIY Design

We went to the Maker Faire this weekend, a DIY design/technology/creativity festival that attracts everyone from crafty sewing upcyclers to techie hackers to wide-eyed families looking for a creative outing. It was such an inspiring event, full of tons of TinkerLab-style making, that I thought I’d dedicate the week to Maker Faire talent. I gathered tons of good projects for you, and I hope you’ll enjoy the eye-candy that I have in store for you!

Shortly after walking through the main gate, we were greeted by a giant generator-powered electric giraffe. Its maker, Lindz, scaled a small kit robot up to this grand scale that reaches 17′ when its neck extends…and it was a show-stopper for sure. If you’ve ever been to Burning Man, you may recognize her, and you can read more about her here.

Here’s a peek into what makes her work. I have no clue, but I did loved seeing all of the colorful wires and appreciate the hours of welding involved in making this animal go.

Right around the corner from the electric giraffe was a pop-up tinkering studio that was designed to show how simple and inexpensive it can be to set up your own tinkering space. I love how they set up all their pliers on a folded piece of cardboard.

Inside this studio was a 5-minute LED Throwie project sponsored by Make Magazine. This would be a really fun project for kids older than five, but my 3-year old got into the spirit of it…especially the throwing part! LED Throwies were invented by the Graffiti Research Lab as an inexpensive and non-destructive way to add color to any ferromagnetic surface (street signs, for example).

The materials are simple and can be found at Radio Shack or similar stores.

You’ll need

  • a 10 mm diffused LED
  • a rare earth magnet
  • a lithium battery
  • tape (masking or packing will work)

LED lights have a long and a short side. Attach the long side to the (+) positive side of the battery. Squeeze hard to make sure the light works. If it’s a go, take a 7″ long piece of tape and tape the LED around the battery one time. Then continue wrapping the tape around the magnet until you run out of tape. Here’s a really clear tutorial,with costs (about $1 per Throwie), from Instructables.

Your throwie is now ready to be tossed at something magnetic, maybe your fridge? The Throwie should last about two weeks. And when the battery expires, don’t forget to dispose of it properly.

What else could you do with LED lights or throwies?

Project ::Deconstruct Monitor

My mom was cleaning out her basement and came across my husband’s ancient computer monitor, and for some crazy reason she didn’t want it. So she asked my sister to deliver it to my house…which is over 300 miles away!! What a good sister. But guess what? We didn’t want it either!

So, this big ol’ dusty tan hunk of Apple history became the perfect toy to deconstruct…with grown-up help because it turns out that monitors have tricky pockets full of icky stuff that can be deadly if messed around with in the wrong way. Lucky for us, my more-tech-savvy-than-me husband was up for the challenge!

Capacitors are Dangerous

Capacitors are dangerous. This you need to know. Our monitor was in storage, inactive, for about ten years so there was very little chance of being shocked by a charged capacitor. However, you have to be smart and can read more about it the truth of cathode ray tubes (CRT’s) and shock danger here if you’re interested in carrying forward in your own similar take-apart project.

If you decide to try this at home, with kids or adults, there are some warnings you should heed.

See the end of this post for a list of suggested items for take-apart tinkering.

After reading up on the dangers of endeavor, we decided that we’d only take Project Deconstruct Monitor so far before it would find itself at the town recycling center.

I’m not an advocate for anyone getting hurt, so use your best judgement and do your research, folks.

Tips for taking apart machines

  • unplug your machine
  • stay away from CRT’s (I know, we didn’t follow that advice — be smart)
  • wear goggles (again — be smarter than we were!)

Before the monitor met its fate, we brought out some tinkering tools to explore with: scissors, screwdriver, and flashlight. And N loved it! She got her hands right into the wires and asked loads of good questions. It was really fun for all of us to see exactly what was inside a monitor.

N got her flashlight out to get a closer look at the circuit boards, wires, and metal housing pieces.

And she even got to give the screwdriver a spin or two.

After this, my husband carted the whole thing off to be recycled by professionals, and suggested that next time we take apart a simple keyboard or mechanical clock. Agreed!

Aside from being on edge about safety, this was a great project for matching my child’s interests (she’s taken note of other deconstructed computers lately), supporting curiosity, encouraging exploration of the unknown, and giving her a more intimate understanding of the inner-workings of our computers. Who knows, she may be a computer scientist one of these days!

Good objects to take apart

  • sewing machine
  • clocks
  • bicycle
  • toys
  • toaster
  • old fashioned telephone
  • typewriter
  • fax machine

Tinkering with KidsIf you or your child likes to take things apart, check out this book, Unscrewed: Salvage and Reuse Motors, Gears, Switches, and More from Your Old Electronics. Bonus: The table of contents contains an inspiring list of take-apart objects to get the ideas rolling.


Idea Roundup: Tinkering

Do you think children should learn how to use hammers and nails? Power tools? Glue guns? And how do you feel about open-ended exploration of art materials? This week’s roundup brings you some big ideas on tinkering, creating opportunities for child-directed art, and free exploration at the art table. And as a bonus, I found an inspiring journaling idea that I think you’ll love.

Co-op nursery school teacher and blogger extraordinaire Teacher Tom writes countless thoughtful articles on play-based learning and childhood exploration. And I believe he’s a philosopher at heart. I love this post: Let them teach themselves

In a similar spirit, often the best activities are those with the least amount of direction. Kindergarten teacher Sally Haughey of Fairy Dust Teaching documented a day at the invention table in her class: Creation Station
Early childhood educator Jenny at Let The Children Play invited her kids to take apart old video recorders with plyers, scissors, and screw drivers. Real tools! There’s a huge public sculpture of dissected computers in our neighborhood that has grabbed ahold of my daughter. This is definitely something we’ll be trying soon. Tinkering at Preschool: Let the Children Play
Preschool teacher and educational consultant Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute writes about providing children with art experiences with the spectrum of preschool arts and crafts in mind. There’s a place in the preschool world for crafts, but crafts are often parent or teacher-directed while art is child-directed.  The Spectrum of Preschool Arts and Crafts
And, as a bonus, Rachel Meeks at Alphamom came across this inspiring illustrated way to document the passage of time with children. It turns the scrapbook on its head with the parent making simple drawings of “a day in the life.” What a fabulous keepsake. And wouldn’t this be a great activity to do WITH a child once they could draw too? Draw Your Story: The Illustrated Journal

What good ideas have you come across lately?

Growing Big Ideas

“Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.”

-Kevin Kelly, Futurist and Author of What Technology Wants

We had a big pile of CD cases, just waiting to be repurposed into…something! BioColors paints are known for their plasticity (they don’t crack like tempera), and I thought it we could have some fun squeezing them into the cases, sealing up the holes, swirling the paint around, and then maybe peeling the paint out. That’s where my idea began, anyway. But this isn’t about me.

N loves to squeeze stuff, and enjoyed pouring paint onto the plastic jewel cases.

We worked with limited palettes to avoid that big mushy mix of brown that comes when all the beautiful colors get mixed together.

N asked for “just red and white, because it makes pink,” and also wanted to add some sequins to the mix. Pretty.

We put about five of these painted jewel cases up to dry, and then N revisited them the next day — on her own accord — with fresh ideas in mind.

Like grown-ups, children need time for their thoughts to muddle together, brew, and then emerge into something bigger. It’s important to keep in mind that good ideas have long incubation periods (see Steven Johnson’s TED Talk, below) and we shouldn’t expect kids to come up with big ideas on the spot —  these things often take time to grow. And to properly give children opportunities to innovate, it’s helpful to present them with open-ended activities that can blossom beyond an initial plan.

If you’ve been following along, you may remember N’s growing interest in pitched roofs from when we made Gumdrop Sculptures and created a cardboard Pitched Roof for a water-flow experiment. The next day…

She opened a case, spotted the pitched roof connection, and said she wanted to make a house. I recently noticed that she’s had a hankering for building things, but this blew me away and was a far cry from where we started the day before. She needed some structural assistance from her handyman/contractor/dad, who was happy to cut tape and generally hold things together. Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about the teamwork involved in building structures, and it seemed that she enjoyed the real-world connection with her own team of workers holding up windows and such.

She then requested some siding material, which her handyman cut to her specifications. And thank goodness, or else the squirrels might come in! As my daughter approaches her third birthday, it’s amazing to see her mind take on more complicated tasks and ideas, and I look forward to seeing further down the path of discovery through her eyes.


Author Seth Godin created this loooong list called Where do ideas come from? It’s brilliant and easy-t0-read.

Author Steven Johnson talks about how ideas are networks in his TED Talk: Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson writes about the importance of open innovation platforms in The Genius of the Tinkerer in the Wall Street Journal.

This post is linked to We Play, ABC and 123, Tot Tuesday

What do you think it takes to grow a big idea?

Hammering (real) Nails

Since my daughter (now almost 3 y.o.) practiced hammering with golf tees back in October, I’ve been waiting and waiting for just the right time to introduce her to REAL nails! After working really well at piercing gumdrops with toothpicks, I had a feeling that the time had come. So I dusted off an old scrap of wood, pulled out our jar of random nails, and threw in a bag of rubber bands just to make it more interesting (inspired by this post at Jojoebi).

We used the hammer from our Melissa and Doug Take Along Tool Kit, and it worked surprisingly well. I gave her a small safety lesson, where I demonstrated how to hold a nail low…right down next to the wood. She was so eager to get to her task, and was fiercely focused.

Once N decided that enough nails were hammered in, she began adding rubber bands. At first there seemed to be an unspoken rule that each nail would be surrounded by one rubber band layer.

And then the rubber bands kept on going around and around the nails. I love all of those colors!

For my friends out there who want to avoid a mess, this is as clean as projects get, and all of the materials can be reused when your child is all done with their nail and rubber band exploration.

If you have a rubber band project that you’d like to share with the TinkerLab community, you’re welcome to share a photo or a link here: Creative Experiment #4: Rubber Bands

What are you building today?

Vinegar and Baking Soda

Have you tried the baking soda and vinegar experiment with your kids yet? 

Yesterday N skipped her nap and requested “gooey flour and water” for her quiet time activity.  Did you hear me sighing? I sort of had “read books” or “play with a puzzle” in mind, but I guess that would be too much to expect when we rarely sit down and work on puzzles during non-quiet times, right?

I had a million little things in the hopper, but it seemed like a reasonable request. So, there she was, inches deep in flour, salt, water, and white vinegar. With its clear color and acidic smell, the vinegar gave this sensory project an elevated feeling of alchemy. She liked the smell of it, then tasted it, and then tasted everything.

As I was sitting there watching this serious game of ingredient exploration unfold, I remembered the ol’ vinegar and baking soda trick! So I brought out the baking soda and asked innocently, “would you like to add some baking soda into your cups?” Of course she said “yes,” and her reaction to the merging of the vinegar and baking soda made missing a nap totally worthwhile.

First she add baking soda to all of the cups and then she poured vinegar on top of the baking soda. We played this game in both directions: adding vinegar to baking soda and vice versa.

After depleting my white vinegar reserves, she begged me for more. (Hey! This project is a winner!) Since I was also sort of curious about how the other vinegars would react to the baking soda, I reluctantly handed over my red wine and balsamic vinegars. They each bubbled, but had slightly different reactions.

Happy experimenting!

Happily shared with Childhood 101