Explore the conductivity of everyday materials to create homemade switches that control a variety of outputs and complexify larger projects
Share what you create and try out with us by using the hashtag #HomemadeSwitches.
What’s conductive around you? Explore materiality as you gather interesting, conductive objects to make delightful switches. Combine these with craft materials to customize your designs and add personality and whimsy.
Here are some materials to keep in mind as you collect your materials set:
☐ Conductive Materials: aluminum foil, graphite pencils, electrical wire, copper wire, copper tape, kitchen utensils, metal spring, pot lids, steel ball bearings, Play-Doh
☐ Craft Materials: clothespins, colorful paper, craft foam, feathers, balloons, recyclables
☐ Electronics Components*: battery packs, variety of outputs (motors, lights, buzzers), multimeter, alligator clips
*See Circuit Boards to learn how to make our battery packs and output blocks.
Start your initial explorations by making a circuit with a simple switch. This usually consists of three parts: the power source (like a battery pack), an output (like a light bulb or LED), and your switch. We recommend starting with aluminum foil because it’s easy to manipulate, and alligator clip wires are a great way to build connections between components.
Different Types of Switches
You can make a simple push switch with two pieces of aluminum foil separated by a "donut" of craft foam. The foam holds the pieces apart until you push on the center of the top piece of foil to bring the two sheets together to complete the circuit.
Depending on where you place conductive material, clothespins can make switches that are always on or off.
Switches can come in many forms, including this feather switch! When the spring holding the feather comes in contact with the copper tube, it momentarily completes the circuit.
Play With Cause and Effect
Homemade switches can add magic and suspense to a chain reaction. They help keep the momentum going and create variation in the machine. Play around with your switch and play around with adding another element. For the chain reaction on the left, how would you extend it?
The tennis ball rolls and knocks down the block, which completes the switch and spins the fishbowl, and then ...
This unique switch built inside a Light Play box uses a slow moving motor to turn on and off a light. Notice the tiny bobble underneath the spinning platform. When it touches the block on the left, it completes a circuit momentarily. This on-and-off pattern makes a simple, analog program, all achieved with everyday materials!
Secret Life of Components: Switches
Add inputs and outputs to homemade switches using electronics components.
Continue circuit explorations with PlayDoh and LEDs!
Build suspense into a chain reaction machine with switches and circuits.
Save interesting toy parts to bring to life with your switches.
Add drama to a light and shadow vignette by turning on and off lights.
Homemade Switches Activity Guide
Our PDF on Homemade Switches offers a printable way to share ideas related to this activity.
Engineer's Mini Notebook: Sensor Projects by Forrest M Mims III
We love the aestethics and content of Mims' books. His books, widely sold at RadioShack, were hand drawn and written. Mims comes from an amateur science background, and his detailed explanations leave readers feeling empowered to try out circuitry on their own.
Tucked amongst other electricity and magnetism gallery at the Exploratorium lives a hands-on approach to exploring circuits using everyday materials. Learn more about the Circuit Workbench exhibit.