Marker Bots :: How We Did It

In case the “how to” guide from The Exploratorium (PDF or Instructables)  isn’t detailed enough, I thought I would share how I facilitated our scribble bot experience. Don’t mistake this as the only way to present this activity…just our way.

Scribble Bots - Take 2.

Scribble Bots – Take 2.

1.Gather your materials.
You want to encourage as much self-discovery and creativity as possible, so gather as many craft/office supply items as you have around the house. It doesn’t matter if you can’t figure out how they might be used, your children will surprise you.

Supplies needed:
– markers
– single AA batteries
1.5-3 V battery with wires attached*
hot glue stick, cut into various lengths**
– masking tape (or painters tape)
– thick rubber bands (that hold together broccoli)
alligator clips (in case your wires break) or for extra reach
– recycled containers, plastic cups, strawberry baskets, etc.
– twist ties, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, paper clips, clothespins, mini-cocktail umbrellas, etc.
– newspaper (or big paper, old cardboard boxes) to scribble on

* There might be other places to buy these from, but many of the electronic places (Radio Shack) sell them without the attached wires. You have to solder them on yourselves. If you aren’t up for that, order a bunch of these from Kelvin since they are so cheap, but the shipping is expensive. Plus, the wires pop off pretty easily and you might want some backups.

**We made our counterweight with a hot glue stick, but other suggestions includes balsa wood and playdough. All of these things can be stuck to the motor pretty easily by hand.

marker_bot_suppliesAt this point, you may want to make a few examples (see how to below) for the kids to understand the concept of a scribble bot. Be sure and make all sorts of different examples since the kids will often try and mimic your creations before moving onto their own designs.

Some supplies - paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

Some supplies – paper cups, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, etc.

2. Prepare your environment.
In this case, our environment was the dining room table. While the kids were playing after lunch, I cleaned off the table, laid down newspapers and butcher roll paper and brought out all of the markers, odd bits and clean recycled containers I could find. I’m not sure if this means we have a crafty household or are leaning toward pack-ratishness, but I had all of these materials on hand.

I put the smaller supplies into baskets (or bowls) that were easy for us to access. Each had a space to test their creations. There were two rolls of masking tape between the four of us. You need at least one roll for every two students.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

3. Place a battery, motor and thick rubber band in front of each chair. Call the kids.

The first thing that you want the kids to discover is how to make the motor work with the battery. See if they can figure it out. Be patient. Very patient. Ask questions until they get it.

If they are getting frustrated, show them how to hold the wires on either side of the battery to make a compete circuit. Add the rubberband around the battery to hold the wires in place. You now have an easy way to turn your motor on and off.

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

Save the bands that are wrapped around fresh broccoli

The wires on the battery are a bit flimsy and can easily break off from the kids pulling too much or from the vibration of the motor. One option was to purchase small heat-shrink tubes (for electronics) that can be found at hardware stores and use a hair dryer or lighter to shrink them onto your wires. I used a lighter and didn’t get as close to the motor as I should so they still popped off, but a hair dryer (or heat gun) should do quite nicely. Or, get yourself some alligator clips/leads and use those when the wires snap off.

4. Show them the examples or watch a video. Or don’t.
There’s a lot of debate about whether to show examples or just hand them a motor and some markers and just suggest that they make a bot that scribbles. You decide.

My kids and I watched a video from my course and they started out copying the design of some of the kids from the Exploratorium, but then moved on and modified or made their own creations as they gained confidence. You can see what we made here and here. You can always do a web search to find more examples.

5. Add your counterweight.
The hot glue stick is meant to be the counterweight to propel the motor and thus create a scribbling bot. The kids will need to experiment with many different sizes of weights, angles of markers, etc.

Let the child decide which way to add the glue stick to the motor. Push the hot glue stick onto the motor (while it’s off). An adult’s muscle may be needed for this part.


If the wires break off, use wired alligator clips to connect to the battery.

6. Design the bot.
Let them go and design away. Resist the urge to help them or fix it for them. If you see that something is obviously not going to work – that’s okay. Let them do it anyway. As long as they aren’t harming themselves (or the furniture), it will be a fabulous lesson in testing and re-testing…not to mention a good dose of growth mindset with regards to trial and error. Feel free to step in if you see tears on the horizon. You don’t want them to be frustrated, but you do want it to be their experience.

7. Listen.
Listen as your child describes their bot. Ask them about their design and their thought process. “Why did you decide to add the tape there? Your marker color choices are very interesting…how did you decide on those colors?”

8. Reflect. Later.
A few days later…or the following week, casually bring up the activity and discuss ways that you might do things differently. Are there any other things in your house that you could turn into a scribble bot? How else might you use a motor and battery? How is your fan powered? Your alarm clock powered? etc. What other everyday items use batteries?

Want to try again? Do you think we could work with watercolors or oil pastels? Do you think we could make a special type of pattern? The possibilities are endless.

Daddy's scribble bot made a pretty design.

Daddy’s scribble bot made a pretty design.

The end of our second time making scribble bots - this time we experimented with crazy designs...that didn't always work.

The end of our second time making scribble bots – this time we experimented with crazy designs…that didn’t always work.

Update: For those teachers that want to incorporate more free-form activities, but aren’t sure they can justify the time, check out this middle school science teacher’s post. He has some ideas on how to encourage scientific inquiry – with a purpose.

Good luck and happy creating! If you make a bot, post a link in the comments for everyone to see…