An Open Kit for
Tinkering with Balance
In this activity, participants build a kinetic sculpture that balances on a single point. As learners create with everyday materials and aesthetic objects, they transform discrete elements into a moving art piece that can respond to the environment. Through the process of clipping and sliding components onto a central hub, participants engage with center of mass, inertia, torque, and equilibrium. The colorful shapes recall artists like Alexander Calder and the materials set can be expanded with everyday materials found at home.
What do we mean by an open kit?
We call this playful experience a kit because it relies on a durable set of parts that learners can combine in open-ended ways to explore physical phenomena (in this case, balance and stability). The kit offers easy starting points and can be shared with learners with different levels of facilitation, from a standalone experience to a fully facilitated activity. It’s open in that we hope you build your own set, adapt it to your setting, and add new components and ideas.
What kind of tinkering does this support?
We designed this activity and the material set to support certain types of tinkering and engagement:
Balancing sculptures often fall over. In this activity, the durable parts guide learners in taking risks. There are soft landing pads under the stands which catch the elements and invite participants to try again and troubleshoot their creation. Seeing the process repeat itself across the multiple stations allows people to support each other when the sculptures tip, teeter and tumble.
Circular stations that are big enough to support multiple participants and large-scale parts support learners working together to create a personally meaningful structure. Dramatic geometric shapes paired with familiar materials give people the chance to invest in the experience by blending aesthetic elements with everyday explorations.
In this activity, when learners attach, slide and reconfigure dowels, weights and decorations connected to clips, they can feel how different materials respond and if the sculpture is about to fall. This intuitive process of combining the fixed set of materials in many different ways allows people to get an embodied sense of the phenomenon.
Make the Materials Set
To try out this activity with a group of learners or for yourself, start with creating a set of materials that are easy to use and robust enough for settings where participants use the materials over and over. This set of materials is also a great tool to quickly try out and prototype kinetic art or tinkering ideas that relate to balancing. It is a modular set designed to be expanded and used with other materials
The starting points allow learners to quickly dive into the exploration of the phenomenon. They help to experience the concept of a balance point and take first steps in constructing a sculpture. In addition, different starting points allow learners to choose and adjust the difficulty level. We like to paint the balancing point in a bright color to draw attention to it.
Seesaw: 1/4" square dowel, 36" long. Attach the dowel to a triangular balancing point (centered for the easiest set-up). The smaller the height of the triangle, the easier it is to balance the structure. A 0.5” triangle is a good size for a 36” long seesaw.
Curved arms: This is similar to the seesaw, but with a piece of curved wire instead of a dowel attached to the triangular balancing point.
Ball with multiple arms: 1.5”D wooden ball, with 5/16” drill holes to press-fit ¼” square dowels or fluted round dowels. Experiment with dowel length from 3” to 16” and different geometries
A sturdy base that provides the right height for different learners, with a landing zone area of about 2’ radius around it where materials can be placed and enough space for multiple learners to collaborate.
Basic set-up: 1” round dowel, 1 foot tall or higher, or anything that can serve as a perch (like a broom stick) attached to a 2x4 piece of wood with a 1” hole as a stand. For a more sturdy version, consider the cylinder base we use in the Tinkering Studio.
For starting points with a triangular balancing point, the flat end of the dowel works best.
For starting points with a ball balancing point, glue or screw a cup washer to the top of the stick, or add a small rim made from cardboard around the dowel. Creating a bowl shape keeps the sculptures from falling off the dowel while still moving and balancing in interesting ways.
This piece serves as the construction material to create unique geometries building of off the starting points. To reward intentional building, it’s important that connections are not elastic or sag over time. A metal clip glued to a square dowel (8.5” long, 3/16” square), fluted dowels, or hexagonal pencils, make for a reliable, sturdy connection.
Aesthetic and Narrative elements
Elements of story and aesthetic appeal motivate initial engagement and personal connection as participants explore balance. Narratives create room for bringing in personal interests and whimsy and provide entry points for a wide range of learner types. We like acrobats (8" tall) made from 1/32” HDPE plastic, thin cardboard, or cardstock combined with hand drawn or laser-cut abstract shapes like an Alexander Calder sculpture. A wide variety unique elements encourage learners to make personal choices.
Weights and dense/heavy objects are an important ingredient for creating stable structures and can also lead to surprising and seemingly impossible constructions. To support systematic investigations, multiple objects of the same size and material are best suited for weights. We use 1.5" diameter washers attached to a clip.
Set the tone for the space by creating signs that welcome learners in and offer some starting point ideas. For balance, we like to invite learners to make a moving balancing sculpture, to add by clipping, and to poke or blow air to make it move. We noticed that participants don't always feel comfortable taking apart sculptures that are already built, so we also write: if a sculpture is already set up, can things come off and stay balanced?
Tips and Essential Ingredients
Glue: All parts can be adhered with hot glue. However, for lasting connections to the metal clips, a two part epoxy is the best choice.
Strong connectors: Reliable, lightweight connectors that allow for precise placement and keep parts from moving are essential to investigating the relationship between the shape of the structures and their stability. Metal clips are our preferred choice as they allow for making bigger and more precise structures. Regular wooden clothespins sometimes lose grip, but also work with constructions that don’t use a lot of weight.
Wind: The dynamics of counterbalance create fascinating movement when structures are pushed or disturbed. Add an oscillating fan or try the activity outside to see your sculpture gently move in the wind.
Take it Further
Expand the Materials Set
With this material set, learners can play and investigate over and over again without the need of any consumable materials. In contexts where craft materials are available, this set can be expanded in multiple ways. Learners can create their own expressive shapes and add them to the set, natural and found materials are great additions, too. Creating a set with everyday materials, like using pencils as extender pieces and spoons as weights, can be fun too.
This activity was co-developed with Wonderful Idea Co. Documentation and testing in collaboration with Artencurs and Cosmo Caixa.