Skip to main content

Marble Machines revisited

Marble Machines revisited

As Lianna mentioned yesterday, we have been exploring the idea and practice of expanding some core Tinkering Studio activities for an earlier audience, specifically thinking about how to create an environment and set of materials that would encourage exploration and investigation for 2-6 year old tinkerers.

Wooden tracks and a funnel being used as a marble run on a slab of pegboard
Tape and delicate construction in a workshop setting
Lots of kids and adults building marble runs on a giant pegboard wall
Marble Machines on the museum floor, unfacilitated

The first activity we tackled was Marble Machines, perhaps the oldest and most established of our core activities. We typically invite learners to explore this activity in professional development workshops, where we are able to dedicate a long period of time to it, have lots of expert facilitation on hand, and can offer an expanded palette of materials to work on daring and unusual ideas. On the other hand, we also have an unfacilitated area on the floor of the museum, outside of the Tinkering Studio proper, where visitors can immerse themselves (literally!) in a collaborative Marble Machine wall; however, the tradeoff there is that there is no facilitation, and the materials available for building are drastically reduced—the most conspicuous change being the absence of tape. How do you go about homing in on a set of materials that is appropriate for younger tinkerers while still allowing for a rich exploration of physical phenomena?

As our R&D process often goes, we started with what we had available, provided an expanded palette of materials and options, then noticed what worked and what didn’t, rich areas for refinement and further exploration, and then proceeded to simplify and eliminate options that were confusing or difficult to use.

replace this text

Initially we set up a commercially available product called Haba blocks on a couple of custom-made table tops that were at the right height for younger visitors; we also added a few big blocks that were left over for Kazu Harada’s After Dark event a few months prior.

replace this text
replace this text
replace this text

We noticed some interesting explorations, like comparisons of size and weight of balls, exploring the sound-making properties of some of the materials, and some problem solving when trying to make sense of some of the more complicated materials on offer.

change this
change this
change this
replace this text

But we also noticed that the Haba tracks presented an unexpected element of confusion for this age range: they are meant to be stacked flat on blocks, so the slope of the track is built into the block itself. This is counter-intuitive to a young learner, who intuitively wants to angle the track itself downward (and often very steeply so!) to make sure the ball runs down, and it resulted in very unstable and frustrating constructions.

In the end we decided to simplify, go big, and reduce the number of variables to focus investigations better.

replace this text

We narrowed down the set of materials to:

  • Big and simple tracks—a combination of wooden tracks and long cardboard tubes cut lengthwise—available in three different lengths

  • Lots of Kazu Blocks™, which we produced with a standard base for all of them, and in three or four different heights

  • Three sizes of otherwise identical wooden balls

  • A couple of sets of stands with holes in them, a commercially available item from Kodokids, affectionately nicknamed Swiss Cheese

  • A few elbows to allow for 90 degree turns in construction. We initially made them form corrugated tubing but later switched to smooth plastic pipe connectors because balls kept getting stuck

  • A few metal bowls to hold marbles and provide an implied end goal for the marbles, should the kids choose to do so

replace this text

We immediately saw improvements in the types of investigations kids were doing, the scale really encouraged immersive engagement with the activity and a broader range of ages could find ways of getting into goal setting and problem solving.

replace this text
replace this text

We also cut holes in the sides of the Kazu Blocks to encourage alternative uses for them, and indeed we saw quite a variety of solutions using the holes. It also made it possible to create small sandbags that could be dropped into the blocks to stabilize them if necessary.

replace this text

And we occasionally found them used in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated but which nonetheless delighted us and the kids in the space.

It’s been an interesting process to be very intentional about the kinds of interactions and investigations that we want focus on with this activity, and how effective reducing the available materials has been to achieve that goal. Next I will talk about a couple of special elements that we created specifically for the lower end of our young tinkerers!

replace this text

This project is supported through a generous grant from the Early Learning and Care Division at the California Department of Education.