This project is for ages 3+ as it uses small parts which are dangerous when swallowed. Supervise young children.
Ready to make an already awesome toy even more awesome? All you need is less than $20 in special supplies (copper tape, LEDs, and button batteries), tape, scissors, and some magnetic tiles to start to snap together basic circuits.
If you don’t have magnetic tiles, you can also use these same supplies to make paper circuits.
These magnetic tile circuits work better than I ever could have imagined. I put together the first ones after our kids were asleep for the night. I had poured a huge glass of wine to prep for some trial-and-error fussing with the tape and connections, hoping it would work as well in practice as it did in my mind, and BAM! It worked perfectly the very first time. You should really give this project a try. The set up is a breeze and it will provide hours of quality play with these already amazing toys.
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Watch the video at the end for a quick demonstration on how to make each piece to the simple circuits. Also see below for some basics of circuitry and strategies to explain them to young children. We made three types of tiles in this demo: battery, LED, and copper foil-only. Feel free to add other things like motors and resistors, just make sure to use the correct battery and setup (we used two AA batteries for the motor in the link). If the instructions below sound complicated, just watch the video- it’s much easier than it seems.
To make the LED tiles:
- Note that the LEDs have + and – sides, just like a battery. The LEDs in the “Materials” link above have a short leg (-) and long leg (+).
- Attach two pieces of copper foil tape in the shape you want (peel off the backing to reveal the sticky side), leaving a small gap between the pieces. Ensure each piece of foil tape wraps around to the other side by ~1 cm (see below).
- Open the legs of the LED a little so they reach the two pieces of foil tape by bridging the gap. Use scotch tape to secure the LED onto the tile, ensuring a leg is touching each piece of foil.
- Mark the positive and negative sides. (**When you hook up the circuits, the tape coming from the negative side of the battery should lead to the negative side of the LED.)
To make the battery tiles:
- Affix a piece of copper foil tape from the center of the tile (again wrapping around to about 1 cm on the other side).
- Take another piece of foil tape and affix it on the back side of the tile first, wrapping around to the other side a little, but don’t press it down all the way.
- Place the battery on top of the tile, negative side down, so it makes contact with the first piece of tape.
- Turn the loose end of the second piece of tape upside-down so the shiny copper side makes contact with the top of the battery.
- Tape the foil to the battery.
- Tape the battery to the tile.
- Watch the video if this isn’t making sense. It’s really easy, I promise.
To make the tiles with just conductive tape:
- Stick the foil tape in whatever shape you want!
- When making turns with the tape, don’t allow the tape to break- it needs to be one continuous piece. Bend the tape with your fingers as you make the turn, ensuring it doesn’t rip all the way through (a little is ok) so the electrons have a continuous path through the tape.
- Make sure each end of the copper foil tape wraps around to the backside of the tile about a centimeter. This is so when you build 3D structures, there will be contact between tiles. Below, in the picture of the backside of some tiles, the red tile is incorrect as it does not have foil tape wrapping to the other side. The green tile is correct.
- Also make sure the part of the foil that wraps around the edge is always right in the center of the side so when you assemble structures, the foil will always match up and connect.
- Don’t store the battery tiles in a way that would complete the circuit. In other words, when you’re sticking all the tiles together to clean up, make sure the tile you stick to the battery doesn’t connect the two ends of the battery’s foil. This will quickly drain the battery.
If your LED fails to light, try these things:
- Wiggle your structure, some edges might not be seated properly.
- Check that the foil tape leaving the negative side of the battery is leading to the negative side of the LED (the shorter leg on the LED). Flip the tile if not.
- Make sure the forward voltage listed on the LED package is less than or equal to the voltage of the battery. (But don’t go too high over (i.e. a 9V with one 3V LED), it will burn out the LED). If you’re using the LEDs and coin cell batteries linked in the “Materials” links above, one LED will need one battery to light it. If you want to light two LEDs, you will need two of those batteries.
- Check that the LED legs are securely in contact with the foil leads (just press on the scotch tape a bit)… especially if a large tile tower just fell down. 🙂
- Check that no foil has ripped if you’ve been playing for a while.
- Make small (two or three tile) circuits to ensure the batteries and LEDs still work.
To explain basic circuits to kids (or yourself 😉 ), there are two analogies you can use for the flow of electrons. For people familiar with water flow rate and pressure, you can compare it to the flow of water through pipes. For younger children, or those who aren’t familiar with water pressure and the like, describe the copper tape as a race track for electrons. It’s not as accurate as the metaphor of water flowing, but most younger kids cannot understand those concepts yet.
Circuits and the analogy of a race track for young children
Our three year old doesn’t understand water pressure or flow rate yet, so there’s no way the analogy of water flowing was going to be helpful. She loves playing with the circuits but doesn’t really need to understand resistivity and current to do so, right? So to help her successfully play with them (getting the light to turn on), we described the copper tape as a race track or road for the electrons. She has seen race tracks on numerous TV shows, and she plays ‘race track’ around the apartment all the time, so this was an analogy that worked for her. I told her the battery is like the start and finish line. The electrons are all gassed up like race cars on the negative side. They want to zoom out of the battery around the track and back into the battery on the positive side. If they are able to make it to the finish line, the LED lights up. The important thing is that the copper race track stays connected, or else the electrons can’t finish the race. So whenever she tries to build a circuit and it doesn’t work, we ask her if the roads are connected. (That’s usually the problem, but it sometimes is that the battery/LED polarity is mismatched.) This has been a great play-to-learn exercise for her since it requires that she thinks spatially to connect the circuits throughout her 3D shapes.
For a detailed explanation of basic circuitry and how to use different batteries and resistors, click here!
More ways to play
- Check out my other blog post for puzzles with the magnetic tile circuits that help develop spatial reasoning skills.
- Use the tiles to learn about series and parallel circuits.
- Incorporate resistors for older children, which also doubles as a math exercise.
- Browse the hardware store or Amazon for switches, motors, resistors, photoresistors, and more to really dive in.
- Use the tiles as a DIY nightlight that can easily be turned on from bed (my daughter’s idea!).
We hope you have a great time doing this activity. Whether you’re an electrical engineer or have never touched circuitry in your life, this is an engaging, fun activity for all ages. Show us what you and the kids create by tagging us on social media and including #IBravedTheElements for a chance to be featured!