Marble Machines is one of the core tinkering experiences that we offer in the Tinkering Studio. It initially started in a formal school setting, but has been used in museums, libraries, and in home and afterschool settings. One of the amazing things about this activity is that it is incredibly versatile, it just “works.” We have found it to be a perfect introductory activity to tinkering as a practice for learners, and a great training ground for facilitators to develop their chops and personal style, precisely because the design of the activity is so strong.
However, it does require a fair investment to collect the materials and build the boards, tracks, bumpers, etc., as well as collecting decorative materials, funnels, bells, and other things that enrich the activity. On the plus side, if you are planning to do this activity more than once, you can use these things forever. We’ve been using our current set for 15 years!
On the other hand, if you’re not planning to facilitate this experience in a repeated way, the investment of time and money may be too large. In that case we suggest you take tinkering to heart and get scrappy about finding alternative materials.
Hoping to provide some ideas for creative Marble Machines, we have made a Pinterest page of some of our favorite ideas we’ve seen over the years. Here are some particularly low-barrier highlights:
This is as simple as it gets: ramps and tubes using natural shelves and height differentials! There are commercially available solutions as well—small to large sets, indoor to outdoor.
And finally something from my childhood: there is a time-honored tradition in Italy of building marble runs on the beach out of sand! With some practice you can build elaborate runs that twist, turn, and incorporate bridges and tunnels as well.
Enjoy this process and think creatively about the materials you choose. Ideally you will also be thinking systematically—what are the materials that you can use to build a marble machine that can be used over and over again—that is, one that is tinkerable). We’ve seen some lovely examples of marble machines that are glued together, but when they’re done… they’re done. How can you create a set of materials that is more flexible, can be used in many configurations again and again, and reused and repurposed for other projects that are imagined down the road? We have come up with one solution that works for us, we’re curious to see what yours might be!