Building a Chain Reaction at home can be incredibly satisfying, and a joyous celebration of invention and ingenuity; it can also be challenging at times. With a bit of support to those that are building, and the right mindset, this will be a fun exploration of cause and effect, and a rich way to find new uses for familiar materials and to spark children’s imagination. Here are some tips that might help!
Chain Reactions offer endless possibilities for invention — literally starting from an empty slate (or kitchen table, as the case may be)! If that seems daunting, here are a few prompts that might spark initial ideas.
Inspirational and delightful objects
The best Chain Reactions have a delightful, whimsical, absurdist bent to them, and that often comes from trying to incorporate a weird, incongruous object into the contraption. Whether it’s a strange wind-up or mechanical toy, a family of plastic dinosaurs, a soap-bubble wand, or a spring-loaded umbrella, figuring out how to activate these elements, or what kinds of stories they might tell, is a large part of the fun of building Chain Reactions!
Make up a story
Pick two or three objects that can be incorporated into the Chain Reaction, and make up a story about them. How can you connect that toy frog with the kitchen whisk? Is this a tale about a whipped cream-loving amphibian? What’s a simple scene within this narrative that you can illustrate with a chain reaction?
Start from the finale
Every Chain Reaction benefits from a good ending, so maybe think about how you want the sequence to end, or what “goal” you want your chain reaction to accomplish: maybe it’s a machine to blow out a birthday candle, or a contraption to automatically pet your dog. Then work backwards from that end goal, trying to keep a narrative thread going
Make a metaphorical machine
This is a little more elaborate, but if you become a chain reaction aficionado it will reward you richly. Pick a broad theme, like “love,” “friendship,” “adventure,” “traveling,” etc. Then everybody can spend some time writing down on slips of paper nouns, adjective, and verbs related to that theme. Love can passionate, fleeting, disappointing, big, fake, etc. Travel can be exciting, uncomfortable, scary, boring, and so forth. Once you have a good collection, you can randomly draw two or three words and build a metaphorical chain reaction machine that illustrates the specific combination you’ve collectively come up with!
Chain Reaction Playing Cards
We have created a special deck of playing cards to help you come up with Chain Reaction themes. It’s a full 52-cards (plus two jokers!) deck, so you can play any game you like with them, and each card has a gorgeous color drawing (by our favorite illustrator Iris Gottlieb ) representing a different object. To get started, simply shuffle the deck thoroughly and pick two or three random cards. Imagine a brief story that connects these elements together. What tale do these elements want to tell? What is happening? Why? Go ahead and build that Chain Reaction!
Before you begin, it is helpful to go on a hunting trip around the house to gather materials that are likely to be useful. We suggest you look for some of the following:
Balls of various sizes and weights
One of the main moving parts of a chain reaction is rolling balls. Golf balls, tennis balls, bouncy balls, and even larger ones like soccer and basket balls often work best.
Long pieces of material that balls and other rolling objects might slide along will be helpful to cover distances. You can make your own by saving paper towel or toilet paper cores, then cutting them lengthwise to make two half-pipe ramps. Train tracks from play sets also can work nicely, especially if you use the trains as elements of the chain reaction.
Even if you don’t have a set of actual domino pieces, anything rectangular and with one flat side will work well. Things like: erasers, match boxes, decks of cards, books, CD jewel cases, DVD boxes, etc. Fun physics fact : you can gradually increase the size of the next domino piece, starting from a small one and gradually moving up to one of those massive encyclopedia tomes!
Pro tip : working with dominoes can be really frustrating, as they tend to be inadvertently triggered and cause the whole sequence to fall down as you’re building. Using a piece of tape as a “soft hinge” helps in two ways: it will keep each domino in the right spot, and it will make resetting the whole sequence a lot faster. Just make sure you put the tape on the side where the domino is supposed to fall down!
Other Materials for Construction
We love masking tape for its versatility and ability to stick to many surfaces, and it is easy to rip off a piece with your hands (but masking tape can leave a sticky residue if left on furniture for too long). Painters tape will not leave a residue but is also not very sticky for some tinkering purposes. Gaffers tape is more expensive, but amazing: it is very strong tape, which rips easily and cleanly with your fingers, and will not leave a residue even after days!
This magical material that can become almost anything you want or need it to be. Save up some flattened delivery boxes and they will serve you well for many tinkering projects!
We recommend scissors, a utility knife, and X-Acto knife. Make sure you take your children’s ability to use bladed tools safely into consideration, but don’t be too afraid to trust them with a real tool: children don’t want to get hurt, and when given real tools with real consequences they will take them seriously and learn to keep themselves safe.
Nothing beats the versatility of a hot glue gun. We recommend investing in a good quality dual-temp tool; the low setting can be helpful for younger children who might be initially intimidated by this tool, and the higher setting will be useful to make more sturdy connections. Other types of household glues will be useful: glue sticks, Elmers glue, fabric glue, etc.
LEGO bricks, k’nex, tinkertoys, Duplo, meccano, and more! Anything that can be joined together to form structures is great, they will be helpful to get something that is the right height, or shape, or weight, to accomplish a crucially needed function
Ways to get height
When building a chain reaction, find things that can help move a rolling ball or other object in a downwards trajectory. Starting on a table surface, then stepping down to a chair, stool, and eventually the floor is one solution, but stacks of books, boxes, and storage containers can be helpful too.
Raid your kitchen
There are so many objects in a kitchen that can find a useful purpose in a chain reaction, from big utensils like spoons, ladles, and chopsticks, to colanders, pots, lids, steamer baskets, bowls, etc. Once you start looking around with a Chain Reaction lens, you’ll discover a treasure trove of elements.
Dealing with Frustration
Many examples of Chain Reactions can appear very elaborate, often requiring many attempts before they work flawlessly. Reality is simpler and less elaborate! Children often dream up ambitious ideas for a chain reaction contraption that can be challenging to complete with the materials available. Encourage them (and yourself) to start with a simple sequence — like a line of dominoes that is knocked over by a household object. Once that is working, you might decide to add more complex sections, building in front and behind what is already there. Having an early easy success will go a long way to continue engagement with the activity.
Don’t be too attached to initial ideas! It is perfectly fine to change your mind mid-construction, abandon your initial goals, and pursue some new and exciting directions that might have occurred in the course of building. Flexibility is a key component of tinkering.
Chain Reactions are a celebration of the ideas, imagination, and effort of tinkerers of all ages and skill levels. When it’s time to set off your contraption, we like to take a few minutes to describe what is supposed to happen before the start the whole contraption in motion. This allows builders to explain and be proud of the ideas attached to each section, rather than the outcome.
It might also be helpful to introduce the idea of a magic finger , a shame-free device with which each builder can prod along sections of the chain reaction that don't work exactly as intended. Keep a fun, encouraging, celebratory attitude and everyone will be proud of what they’ve made whether it works smoothly or not.
Extensions and connections
By now you might have become a fan of Chain Reactions and want to learn more about them. Here are a few connections with artists and media that have inspired us in creating the Chain Reaction tinkering activity.
Goldberg is best known for his popular cartoons depicting complicated gadgets performing simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. The cartoons led to the expression "Rube Goldberg machines" to describe similar gadgets and processes.
Bruno Munari was an Italian artist, designer, and inventor who contributed fundamentals to many fields of visual arts in modernism, futurism, and concrete art, and in non visual arts with his research on games, didactic method, movement, tactile learning, kinesthetic learning, and creativity. His book Munari’s Machines depicted metaphorical inventions to accomplish whimsical and often surreal tasks.
William Heath Robinson was an English cartoonist and illustrator best known for drawings of ridiculously complicated machines for achieving simple objectives.
Amazing Professional Chain Reactions
Der Lauf Der Dinge (The Way Things Go)
OK Go – This too shall pass
Commercials inspired by chain reactions