Library Makerspaces February 2017
Toy Take-apart: Mass Destruction for a Purpose
There are so many products one can buy to let kids experiment with circuits and, by extension, inventions. LittleBits, Cool Circuits, and Snap Circuits come to mind. Each offers affordances to those who use them. But ask yourself: Can your students construct a functioning circuit after engaging with those materials? Do these tools help them see that circuits are circles of energy that flow from wall outlets or battery packs to various components and back to the energy source? That can be a lot trickier. Can we help them see how the components they see in a kit—like speakers and lights—look in the real world? You bet.
Introducing Toy Take-apart
An answer may lie in your donation pile: unwanted battery-operated toys. In toy take-apart (also known as wreck lab), unscrew some screws, pry off the back, and you and your students will be engaged in a fascinating journey through how toys are made and molded; how batteries connect to components; how pieces are stacked and fitted together in a compressed space; how circuit boards, resistors, and capacitors are used; and how a toy’s exterior buttons, switches, and levers translate into circuits on the other side of the plastic. Best of all, when you’re done, you’ve got more components that you can add to your existing inventory of supplies. Why buy speakers or battery packs when you can harvest them yourselves?
A quick note before moving forward: A variation on toy take-apart and wreck lab is appliance autopsy (hat tip to Sean Elliott in Melbourne), where kids can take apart household items like fans, VCRs, old VHS-sized video cameras, or PC towers. These all make great take-aparts. Just keep in mind that these plug in, which means they can handle 120 volts of energy. (By comparison, a toy with four AA batteries provides only 6 volts of energy.) If you want to take apart anything with a plug, keep it unplugged for about a week before deconstructing it. This is because many appliances have capacitors in them, which are components (often shaped like short cylinders or orange ibuprofen tablets) that store energy for later use. Allow time for those capacitors to drain their energy so that your students can work without fear of electrocution.
Ask for donations—some parents are eager for an excuse to shed toys that sing, chirp, or move. Otherwise, look at thrift stores. We frequent the Goodwill Outlet. This isn’t your typical Goodwill; instead, an outlet is where items that did not sell at Goodwill stores get one final shot to be sold before being disposed of. Each Goodwill Outlet has its own culture and pricing system, but you can pretty much count on finding an incredible number of toys on any given day that are priced between $.79 an item and $1.50 a pound. Most Goodwill Outlets roll out enormous carts of merchandise every hour or so, with the old carts whisked off and discarded. I like knowing that I’m getting toys that would otherwise be dumpster-bound and that I’m not robbing needy kids—something worth considering if you work in a low-income neighborhood. Look for toys with a battery pack on the bottom. Skip toys or appliances that have screens, as the screens may contain chemicals that are best left alone. Don’t overlook the possibility of animated stuffed animals—sometimes, these are priced even lower. Keep your eyes open for animated Coca-Cola bears, Santas, or snowmen—they are fascinating to deconstruct!
Gathering Take-apart Equipment
You’ll need some tools and safety supplies as well. We store the following in a lidded plastic tote:
- Safety glasses or goggles
- Thin gloves to protect hands when prying components apart
- Precision screwdrivers (the tiny screwdriver kits that have screwdrivers small enough to adjust an eyeglass screw)
- #1-sized standard screwdrivers (also known as Phillips head screwdrivers)
- Pliers (needle- or long-nosed and slip-joint)
- Slotted screwdrivers (also known as flat head), mostly used to pry apart layers
- A handout to help students identify parts (find ours at http://bit.ly/toy-takeapart )
- A junk box into which students put unwanted parts
- Bowls into which students can place loose screws and batteries
- A garbage can or recycling bin into which unwanted, deconstructed parts can be placed
A few shopping tips: It can be tempting to buy a screwdriver set that lets you switch out the tips, but avoid these, as their shaft is wider and may not be narrow enough to reach recessed screws. Also, screwdrivers are available in either metric (millimeters) or standard (inches); buy standard, even though most toys are made abroad. Finally, while almost everything on this list can be purchased at a dollar store, “bargain” tools are often made of soft metal that does not stand up to repeated use.
Get Kids Started
We ask students to work in teams. This is important for a few reasons. Firstly, sometimes you need one kid to hold onto a toy while the other unscrews it, especially when using tools for the first time. Secondly, it supports the community approach to hands-on work that we value. Finally, four hands work faster than two, meaning that a toy will likely be fully deconstructed at the end of a work period. If kids work alone, you can end up storing an enormous number of half-deconstructed toys that no one wants to explore the following week.
Here are a few tips:
- Safety first! Take out batteries, put on safety goggles, and wear gloves. Remember: goggles are meant to protect your eyes, not your forehead.
- “Lefty loosey, righty tighty.” Push down while turning the screwdriver to the left. (Some kids actually double up on the screwdriver, with one kid pushing and the other turning, until they get the knack.)
- Anything you take apart can go home with you.
- Pick a screwdriver that is the right size for the screws you are working on. (Students are often first drawn to the tiny precision screwdrivers when the external screws usually need the standard/Phillips head screwdriver.)
- If you can’t get a part of your toy to come off, find the hidden screws that are holding it in place or move on and loosen some other screws and components first.
- Put loose screws in the bowl.
- Keep taking apart until there is nothing left to take apart.
- Save unwanted circuit boards, buttons, switches, and components for future projects.
Questions to Consider While Taking Apart
- Follow the wires to and from the battery pack. Where does the energy go?
- How does this toy work? How do buttons and switches on the outside make things change on the inside?
- Does the toy have solder or hot glue holding components together?
- Can you name the components based on the handout?
- What kinds of skills would a worker need to assemble these quickly?
Responding to What’s Inside
We find that children of different ages respond differently to what they find inside. K–3 students tend to find screwdriver use fascinating, enjoy seeing what’s inside, like knowing what buttons and levers look like on the outside, think the magnetic quality of speakers is cool (speaker, meet screws!), and particularly relish cutting apart the wires. They seem less interested in following the circuit around the toy and seeing where things travel. Middle-grade students become more interested in the circuitry itself, identifying parts from the handout. High school students and adults may act like they’re too cool to take things apart, but when you’re not looking, they’ll admit that it’s pretty fascinating that a lever outside a Fisher Price toy actually rubs along an electronic circuit board on the inside!
What Comes Next?
As a follow-up to a toy take-apart session, students could:
- Reassemble their toy.
- Use the components to make a new toy.
- Draw the circuits they found in the toy.
- Put leftover pieces in the junk box for future low-tech inventions
- Make circuit board jewelry.
- Play with Squishy Circuits (squishycircuits.com), which uses playdough instead of solder to connect components, or explore purchased or homemade circuit blocks (cippgh.org/circuit-blocks/.)
- Ask students how many kinds of each item they saw, such as screws and capacitors. Ask how long they think it would take to install each part. How much would they want to be paid for each installed part? How much does that add up to, and how much did the toy cost? What does that translate to in terms of wages?
- Figure out where the toy was manufactured and use a globe to compare that location to where students are now.
Toy take-apart is infectious—we love taking things apart as much as kids do. It creates a sense of wonder and gives new life to cast-off items. Sometimes the value of the batteries and other parts harvested from a toy outweigh the purchase price, so it can pay for itself! Most importantly, it helps students see circuits in the things they play with every day.
Kristin Fontichiaro runs the IMLS funded Michigan Makers and Making in Michigan Libraries projects at the University of Michigan School of Information. She is the author of the upcoming children’s titles Taking Toys Apart and, with AnnMarie P and Sage Thomas, Making Squishy Circuits . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.