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Build Your Own Construction Set

Build Your Own Construction Set

Like a lot of people right now, my workspace looks a little different. I prototype on the kitchen table instead of in the Tinkering Studio, and I’ve essentially stopped ever taking out the recycling because I keep finding new uses for the trash treasures inside. Whether it’s out of resourcefulness or necessity, many of us are looking around and seeing the creative potential of everyday materials even more than usual. Through this lens, we've been using everyday materials to make and test out different sets of component parts that support playful exploration through construction. 



What everyday items can become building materials? I've found it helpful to loosely sort types of supplies into 3 categories: raw materials, connectors, and tools:

Raw Materials might be cardboard boxes, thin cardboard (like pasta packaging or cereal boxes), toilet paper tubes, skewer sticks, and pencils. 

Connectors include masking tape, brads, string, hardware (screws, nuts, and washers), and rubber bands. Ryoko also wrote up a great post about connection methods for cardboard

Tools include scissors, hole punchers, and box cutters.

We're only at the beginning of our homemade construction set explorations, and they've already taken us in a few related but different directions. Working with whatever materials each of us happens to have in great supply led us into explorations of Making with Multiples. Testing out ways to quickly connect cardboard led us into Slotted Construction. Combining hole punches and hardware launched us into incorporating Moving Parts. And, as usual, things got interesting when we broke down the divisions between material categories. Asking “can cardboard be used as a connector?” propelled us into explorations of Balancing Toys. We’re looking forward to following along as this exploration continues to steer us in new directions. For now, here's an overview of what we're thinking about.

Making with Multiples

We've been exploring using a single type of material as a component part to make modular construction sets. Building with many multiples of a single material, whatever it may be, automatically creates visual cohesion. The work of our Artencurs friends has been particularly inspiring in this regard (images are from their site): 

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change thisIf you search for variations of “artist uses thousands of...” the internet will complete the thought with all sorts of whimsical and elaborate constructions. Artists have used thousands of... 
  • Starburst wrappers to make a dress

  • Ping pong balls to make a light sculpture

  • Jelly beans to create detailed mosaics

  • Crayons to create sculptures

Scott Weaver's Rolling Through the Bay sculpture (right) is an example of making with multiples that we particularly love. In his case, the component parts are tens of thousands of toothpicks. But even a few toilet paper tubes can become a construction set (left) that supports explorations of stability and balance. 


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Slotted Construction

One approach to connecting component parts that we're excited to explore further is cutting slots into each piece. Artencurs again comes through with some stunning images (left) and Luigi will be sharing more about his own experience making a slotted cardboard construction kit (right). We're currently testing different approaches to making slots, adding color, and designing shapes. 


Moving Parts

Incorporating hole punches, hardware, and different kinds of hinges into a construction kit allows for projects that can move. That movement can be captured in videos and stop-motion animations to tell stories and bring creations to life. For example, here's a new robot friend that I made recently: 


We're interested in exploring different ways to build structures that can have moving and rotating parts, and how to use that movement in meaningful ways (like to create scenes and stories).

Balancing Toys

The question of how to connect different parts in ways that allow for easy building, taking apart, and rebuilding led into using cardboard as not just raw building material, but also connector pieces. 


This launched an exploration of balance based on structures made out of cardboard, a hole puncher, pencils, heavy bases (I used threaded knobs designed for equipment and machinery), and various household items of different weights (toilet paper tubes, dry pasta, tongue depressors, washers, LEGO). 


I've been calling these "Coping Mechanisms" because building them can be so meditative. You're forced to focus on small changes in construction that impact the overall balance, and their movement is usually subtle and calm:

I'm looking forward to continuing to develop and test these different forays into building at home — and to continue looking at every item in my recycling bin as a potential component part for the next construction set.