My family is fascinated with marble runs and the like. The last time we went to the DuPage Children's Museum, we watched their kinetic ball sculpture -- which looks like a complicated marble run -- for a good 20 minutes. There's something magical in the science behind such seemingly simple engineering, and so many concepts to be explored while building your own contraptions.
About a year ago, I helped my oldest two children, then ages 4 and 3, make a marble run by taping toilet paper tubes to the back of a dining room chair. We draped a towel over it and pushed the chair against the wall to hide the run from the 18-month-old, which worked for about two days before he discovered and summarily dismantled it. It was for the best, really, because the kids kept losing the three marbles we had and I was tired of searching for them before the little guy put them in his mouth.
However, they recently rediscovered the joys of marbles when my daughter was gifted a bag of them on her 6th birthday and shortly thereafter my mother gave my 4-year-old son my own childhood collection. Lily keeps hers neatly sorted by color in a clear plastic egg carton. Justin keeps his … well, I have no idea really. I did find some in the sandbox the other day. Benjamin, being not quite 3 years old, doesn't have any of his own yet, but that doesn't stop him from acquiring quite a stash while his siblings aren't looking.
When I suggested building a marble run again, the kids couldn't wait to get started. And why stop at one, so we ended up with six: one built by me, one a collaboration, one by Justin and three by Lily. The main materials were a bunch of toilet paper tubes and masking tape. Pool noodles, cardboard boxes, an empty snack mix tub, paper plates and craft sticks were also employed.
The inspiration for mine came from this: a few weeks ago, Lily had cut paper plates into spirals to make funny noses for us all. I thought I'd try to use that same idea to create a spiral ramp for the marble run. I used craft sticks to elevate and stabilize the ramp, but when Justin and I tried it out, the marble rolled off the outer edge of the run in several places. After several attempts, I neutralized the danger zones with more cardboard and tape.
The second marble run was more collaborative, with Lily, Justin and I taking turns deciding how to position each toilet paper roll in the chain. I cut several tubes lengthwise and left others whole, and we taped the whole thing to a long piece of scrap cardboard. Justin was excited about the jump he made by positioning one of his half-tubes a bit away from the tube before it, and Lily enthusiastically fashioned shields that kept the marbles from shooting out at various intersections. I decided to make it a race by having two starting points that then merged into the main run. Ben enjoyed shouting "I WIN" every time he dropped a marble down the chute, regardless of the outcome or whether he even had a competitor.
After that, Lily and Justin were off and running. Justin built a simple, straightforward one by taping toilet paper tubes nearly horizontally to the wall. (Caution: Masking tape can pull the paint off your wall.) He then added my spiral run to the end of his, for a dual-element run. He had a blast trying to get the marble into a bucket at the end of the run, then chasing it around the kitchen when it missed the bucket and bounced and rolled all over the tile floor. Lily built three, spending extra time to design the ends to ensure her marbles didn't escape. Her first run ended inside a small cardboard box, while her second had an ingenious marble keeper at the bottom created with pieces of cardboard taped underneath the end of the run. The third was simply a pool noodle balanced between a table and chair, with a hat at the end to catch all the marbles.
This is an activity the whole family enjoyed. I liked that I was doing something with the kids that took more creativity than being asked to color in the sky because someone's hand was tired or finding only red square blocks; Lily, as always, focused more on building the contraptions than actually playing with them; Justin thrilled at discovering all the ways the marbles could escape from various sections of the runs; Ben loved dumping as many marbles as quickly as possible through the tubes; and Daddy enjoyed watching everyone show off their inventions when he got home from work. We've already spent several hours over the last few days inventing, testing and playing with our marble runs. This is a project we will repeat as our little engineers grow and I look forward to seeing what they will come up with next time.