Maker Monday: Electricity

This summer’s Maker Monday programs (for ages 8-18) have included a variety of opportunities to explore and create. During a recent Monday, a gaggle of kids and teens joined us at the library to learn about electricity and play with some new toys. After sharing the Makey Makey with preschoolers during a storytime the previous week, I wanted to include older kids in the fun. Along with the BrushBots we made, the Makey Makey offers a perfect tool for talking about electricity in a way that makes the learning process fun and relevant.

Makey Makey Set Up

Here’s how the program went:

Makey Makey

We began by talking about electricity. We shared how we use electricity and its sources. I introduced them to the tiny, but powerful, world of atoms, protons, electrons, and neutrons. Our discussion included the ideas of neutrality, balance and how energy moves. The conversation also included a static electricity experiment (rubbing balloons on our hair) and the significance of the closed circuit or loop.

Need some videos to refresh your knowledge about electricity? Check out the old School House Rocks electricity video or Bill Nye’s video. Here’s a helpful information sheet that might come in handy also.

At this point, the kids were ready to put their new knowledge to work. None of them had ever seen a Makey Makey before and they were all curious to see what it could do. I showed them this brief video to get them thinking. “How do they do that?” was my favorite comment!

We then spent about 30 minutes testing the conductivity of various items and using the tool to make music and play games as a group. I encouraged the group to throw out any ideas they might have about how the Makey Makey should work. I shared with them the recent study about preschoolers and their ability to figure out tech gadgets more easily than much older college students. The researchers found that the preschoolers didn’t have preconceived ideas of how they should work, making it easier to explore how the machine works. They openly explored what was possible. Engineers and makers often do the same thing I told the group.

As we began to try out the Makey Makey we focused on the basic set up, using just the four alligator clips that turn a banana, or purple play dough, for example, into an arrow key. All the while, I reinforced the idea of the loop or closed circuit. This was the idea I picked as a take home for the group. Here are some of things we tested with the Makey Makey.Testing Conductivity

I explained that we were going to explore the Makey Makey together and then after building BrushBots whoever wanted to play with the Makey Makey again would have time for that. We began with a set of four bananas and then started switching out individual items ending up with alligator clips connected to four different objects. The coolest part of the test was creating a closed circuit with people! We got everyone to stand in a circle, with one person holding the negative (ground) and another person holding one of the positive clips. In between the two was the rest of the group. We were able to play music when we touched hands. We got a few smiles, for sure…

The materials I used for this experiment:
a Makey Makey
computer with USB for accessing video and sites (we projected the websites on the meeting room’s large monitor)
4 bananas, pencils and paper (to test the conductivity of graphite), 4 colors of play dough, large marshmallows, plants/leaves, blocks of wood (smaller the better), aluminum foil, paper clips, each other
a variety of sites for testing the Makey Makey

After playing with the Makey Makey, most of the makers needed a break. The two hour program is long enough to really play with some of these tools and ideas, but a snack helps keep everyone exploring. It worked out perfectly.


We’ve had big crowds attend our Maker Monday programs and most weeks I don’t require registration. This week, I had to change that. I only budgeted for 24 brush bots so kids could take home the bot and keep exploring. I signed up 23 makers, leaving one for an example and back up if any parts broke. I explained how to make a bot and once again talked about electricity and the importance of the close circuit. The makers divided themselves into two groups and got to work at the tables where they found the bot parts. All of the parts are easy to find separately, especially if you’re making a smaller number of bots. For this program I bought two BrushBot party packs that came with stickers and were slightly cheaper than buying them another way.

Once the BrushBots were complete, it was time to race them! One of the regulars to the Maker Monday programs started designing and building the race course out of the cut paper towel tubes I brought along. Other racers quickly jumped in to help. The bots raced on the table between the cut tubes, not inside the tubes.

What we learned: Tape must be added only on the course if it doesn’t cross the track because the bots struggle over the tape. The tubes make a nice border, keeping the bots moving forward. Also, racers should have time to modify their bots during different heats. Our race was pretty informal, but the racers definitely fiddled with their designs to see if they could make it buzz down the track straighter, for example.

BrushBot race course

24 bots (2 BrushBot Party Packs)
wire strippers
decorating materials
paper towel tubes for side rails
blue tape for finish line

After building the bots, several makers wanted to go back to the Makey Makey which was perfect. Some makers ended up racing and modifying the course, others played with their bots and the rest played tetris with a pencil drawn game controller or piano with marshmallows.
Makey Makey testing
Other librarians are using Makey Makeys also! Check out posts by Liz at Getting Giggles and Amy at The Show Me Librarian.

Family: Sound & Music

As part of the summer series of Family Storytimes, we explored sounds and music this week.  I was actually giddy as I set up! It wasn’t because we had a guest who regularly reads, plays guitar and sings, but that was great. It wasn’t because of the fun books he read, but those worked well. It wasn’t because of the cute tissue box guitars we were going to make, but they were a hit. It was because I was going to blow the minds of preschoolers with the Makey Makey!

For the first half of storytime, our guest played music, sang and read stories related to sound and music with families. Whenever he comes to storytime, he reads and I pick the books, plan the theme, and take care of the second half of storytime. I usually pick out the books for him because I plan the storytime themes before I know when he’ll be reading. (It also helps to have a plan if he’s sick or can’t make it for another reason at the last minute.) He’s an excellent addition to storytime and has been joining us every six weeks or so for years. We talk often about how storytime went and change what we need to.

Hilda Must be Dancing (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004) by Karma Wilson and Suzanne Watts
The Loud Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) by Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska
Squeak, Rumble Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!: a Sonic Adventure (Candlewick, 2012) by Wynton Marsalis and Paul Rogers

Activity Stations
This week I created four activity stations. The only way I can do this is employing the talents of a summer teen volunteer who is quickly settling into the busy storytime routine.  I can have her run one station while I run another. The other two stations were either independent stations that have directions for caregivers or require only minimal help and I can assist from a nearby station.

Tissue Box Guitar
I explained to kids that, all over the world, people make instruments out of what ever they have around them and that was just what we were going to do! Marsalis’ book really demonstrates that sounds come from all kinds of “instruments.”


You’ll find examples of this craft all over the internet, but Instructables has step-by-step instructions if you need help. I had cupboards full of donated tissue boxes and paper towel tubes that were perfect for this craft, so start gathering! Before storytime, I went through the collection of rectangular boxes and made sure they had holes only in the bellies. (Some boxes have holes that run from the center around one side and obviously don’t work for this project.) I also made sure the plastic was removed from the hole.

Caregivers and kids selected a tissue box, drew the outline of the paper towel tube on one of the short ends of the tissue box, cut out the hole (slightly smaller than drawn to create a tight fit), glued the tube if necessary, attached rubber bands, decorated and then played the new instrument.

tissue boxes (one for each child)
varying sizes of rubber bands (each size makes a different sound)
paper towel tube
glue gun (used by the teen volunteer)
foam alphabet stickers
construction paper for decorating the belly of the guitar
crayons and markers

Basket of Musical Instruments
I have a small collection of individual, kid-friendly musical instruments that I placed in a basket for families to explore. Some musicians played together while others made their own music. I encouraged caregivers to ask questions of their young musician, observing what kind of sound each instrument made, how the sound could be changed, and if it was loud or soft.

Coloring sheets
I printed out several music-related coloring sheets and placed them at a table with markers and crayons. This helped ease the crowds at the other stations.

Makey Makey/Sago Mini Sound Box
I regularly use new media in storytime and programs for kids of all ages, but I was especially excited to introduce everyone to the Makey Makey at storytime. I first heard about the Makey Makey from Stephen Tafoya in a discussion on the Little eLit listserv and knew I had to get one. I bought one and played with it at home with my two kids before bringing it to storytime.

The basic idea is this. The Makey Makey is an invention kit that fools a computer into thinking its a keyboard, thus allowing you to turn almost anything into something that can create sound, type text, be used to play a game, or create an image.


Playing a SCRATCH piano with bananas and the Makey Makey

I love the Makey Makey for several reasons.

  • It gets kids (or teens or adults) creating while using digital technology in addition to consuming it.
  • It makes some ho-hum digital content more dynamic and gets kids and adults playing and talking together, encouraging joint media engagement.
  • Using it warrants basic scientific questions. What happens if you do this? How does this work? Why did it stop working?
  • It allows kids and parents to learn about the big concept of electricity in a kid-friendly, hands-on way.
  • It introduces parents to Arduino, an open source platform for manipulating electronics in cool ways that artists, designers, and hobbyists can work with to make great things.
  • It seems like magic, but isn’t! I believe that if kids realize they can make music with play dough or bananas, they can do anything!

I set up a laptop and the Makey Makey at a table with enough space for several kids and adults to experiment together. I also had four bananas and four containers of different colored play dough. On the laptop, I had the Makey Makey Piano-2 site ready to go. This provided a visual keyboard on the screen so kids could see and hear what happened when they touched the banana or blob of play dough.

I did a quick demo of how the tool worked and gave a brief explanation of electricity. For many kids and adults, this alone was mind bending. (I have to admit I learned a few things about electricity preparing for this storytime.) The best part, though, is that each time a child sat in the player’s chair, we talked about how electricity works and demonstrated how it works at the same time. Several three year olds got it and applied their new knowledge as they manipulated the new toy. It was amazing. Caregivers were b-l-o-w-n away. You just have to make that happen at storytime sometimes.

As each child took their turn controlling the Makey Makey, I asked them if they wanted to use play dough or bananas to make music. Once they chose, I showed them how the tool worked and hooked up the alligator clips (either by sticking each of the four clips into a different blob of play dough or clipping them to the end of four different bananas). I showed them how they had to hold the ground/Earth/negative clip in one hand and then, with the other hand, tap one of the four “keys” they created. I gave each child enough time to understand all of the pieces involved which was key (no pun intended). Every child was patient as they waited for their turn, which blew my mind.Makey Makey Set Up

At the table, I also had an iPad with Sago’s Mini Sound Box app loaded on it. I wanted to offer another way to make digital music and sound through touch and provide a second option for play while kids waited for the Makey Makey. The app, a nice choice for toddlers and preschoolers, gets kids making music and sound by tapping, shaking, and moving the iPad and the images on the screen. I really like the fact that this open-ended app employs multi-touch so kids or kids and adults can play together. I engaged the device’s Guide Access feature so I wouldn’t have to worry about kids leaving the app accidentally while I was using the Makey Makey. A few kids explored the app and a couple of parents asked about it, but most kids weren’t particularly interested.