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An Open Kit for Tinkering with Rollers

An Open Kit for Tinkering with Rollers
An Open Kit for Tinkering with Rollers

Build rollers that move in whimsical ways or make surprising sounds as they scoot, wobble, and tumble down a wide wooden ramp. Learners observe the movements of the contraptions, make changes that affect the way they travel down the surface, and experiment with phenomena like gravity, friction, and balance. Make your own durable materials set to join our investigations of things that roll in funny and surprising ways! 



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. 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?

It’s not a race! 

The process of iterating and experimenting with phenomena like gravity, friction, and balance drive the experience. The collection of materials doesn’t naturally support building the fastest car; instead, it leads to divergent ideas. Positioning the ramps so that they are not inline with one another and keeping the slope shallow cuts down on the impulse to race and leads to more observations and iteration. 

Materials set tied to phenomenareplace this text

The open-ended material set includes pieces that can be connected together and used in surprising and unexpected ways. The elements are made from things like wood, rubber, chains, and feathers and the different qualities of the materials affect friction, stability, speed, inertia, and motion of the contraptions rolling down the tracks. The parts do not work automatically and require the learners to invest in the process of construction.  

Personally Meaningful Explorations 
Rollers can express a personality in the way they move even though they are made with abstract parts. As the creations make their way down the tracks they might seem lazy, clumsy, energetic, or confused. Examples made by staff and other participants encourage conversation and laughter based on how they roll down the ramp and open up possibilities for deeper engagement through storytelling. 



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 rollers and tinkering ideas that relate to movement. 

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Non-round wheels 

Wheels that aren't round can support more interesting and unexpected movements. Cut a combination of non-round (ovals, eggs, irregular shapes, rounded triangles) and round wheels out of plywood, pegboard, or rubber. Wooden spheres with holes through the center can also be used as wheels. Use dowels or Tinker Toy parts as connectors to attach the wheels together. 

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Parts that add personality 

Materials like feathers, springs, chains, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, and pom-poms add personality to rollers. They also can help make movement more dramatic and complex as different parts flop, wave, or wiggle down the ramp. 

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Tubes and sound-makers 

Create sound-making rollers with slices of cardboard tubes or tin cans. Place washers or small wooden balls on dowels that can be wedged inside the tube to make different sounds as it rolls down the slope. 



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A ramp

Create a ramp that isn't too steep so rollers move down it slowly, meaning that learners have time to closely observe how rollers move. Try a 4’ x 2’ surface set-up at table height with a 4” height difference between the start and end. 


Tips and Essential Ingredients

  1. Kick start your own prototyping with Tinker Toy Parts. They provide a way to make strong connections and quickly try out different shapes for rollers.   
  2. Set up for *slow* rolling. Observing unusual motion or sound effects works best when the slope is just enough for the rollers to move. 
  3. Set up for comparing and repeating. Set up a broad ramp that allows learners to see and compare two rollers side-by-side.


Inspiring Rollers Gallery

This material set can be adapted to all different settings, from the museum to your kitchen table! Check out these inspiring examples of the latest rollers we're experimenting with and try to make your own. 

Made with Padlet


Take it Further

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Move from playing to building. This activity allows learners to quickly iterate and test different ideas around linear and rotational motion as they construct with a modular set of materials. Add tools, unique objects, and craft materials that support and inspire construction of more involved rollers that can pull objects, connect to each other, and take rolling explorations in unexpected directions. 

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Make a chain reaction. In this activity, learners explore motion and mechanisms to build Rube Goldberg-inspired cause and effect contraptions using everyday materials and found objects. Learn more on the Chain Reaction project page. 


This activity was co-developed with Wonderful Idea Co. Documentation and testing in collaboration with Artencurs.