If you ask me what my favorite STEAM toy is, hands-down the answer is a marble run. There is so much to learn from making and building marble runs and kids LOVE them!
I consider myself a bit of a marble run connoisseur. Over the years we have both made DIY marble runs and purchased and played with a number of marble run toys and I wanted to share some of what we have learned here.
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Marble runs are the best STEAM toy!
Who doesn’t love toys that teach? Here are a few reasons why marble runs have so much to teach:
- A marble run is packed with engineering. There is so much engineering as you construct marbles runs. Since marble runs rely on gravity, they must be built vertically and children will have to engineer a firm base for the track. Marble runs can be built up from a base or attached to a wall with tape of other fasteners.
- Let’s talk inclined planes! A marble run is an inclined plane or ramp. Ramps are sloping surfaces that connect two or more levels. In classical science an inclined plane is considered one of the six most basic machines because it takes advantage of the laws of physics to perform a task and change a force. Inclined planes are often used to load and unload heavy objects or move thing up or down levels. Marble runs use gravity to assist in moving the marbles down the track.
- Problem solving A marble run toy is full of problem solving for kids. In order to make sure the marble can complete its journey down the track, kids must test out different arrangements of the ramp parts. They also have to figure out what to do if the marbles are going too fast and jump the track. Inherent in building is the testing and troubleshooting to make the marble’s journey smooth.
- Encourages teamwork Just look at the teamwork happening in this giant playground sized run! Even if you are building a table top version it’s fun to work with friends to build and test your solutions. One of the central tenets of STEAM is to encourage kids to work together and due to their size and complexity we find kids love working as a team to make a marble run.
- It’s sensory play for older kids. Like slime, marble runs offer a form of sensory play for older children who often don’t have as many opportunities for this type of play. First the sound is incredible! The sound of many marbles traveling down a track is enticing on it’s own. Then there is lots of motor skill development involved in handling the marbles and in building the tracks.
DIY vs. Store Bought
Should you buy a marble run toy or make your own? The simple answer is you should do both! You truly cannot have too many marble runs. I love the building challenge presented to kids when asked to build their own marble run toy out of different materials such as Lego, recycled objects, pool noodles, and more. They will have to think differently about common everyday objects and how to use them to create a toy from scratch.
We also love store bought marble run toys too, namely for their ease in being able to pull them out and build whenever you want and also because they are usually easier to take apart and store. There are a number of toys ranging in price from affordable to heirloom quality and I’ll share our faves below. Before you purchase one, my suggestion is to buy a tin of marbles and have you children design a simple marble maze. If they love that project you can start making some homemade versions and then invest in store bought marble run toys.
Marble Run vs. Marble Maze
I’ve included marble mazes in this post because they are a fun precursor to marble runs, which take some time and planning. Marble mazes are simply a flat surface with a maze constructed of low walls that you move a marble through by tilting the board. They are more of an individual design project rather than a group project.
DIY Marble Run Ideas:
How to Make a Marble Run Out of Lego
Making marble runs out of Lego bricks is super easy since most of us have base plates and a collection of Lego bricks at home! For preschool aged kids I’d start with Duplos and use a ping pong ball as the “marble.”
How to Make a Marble Run out of Paper
Because marbles are fairly lightweight you can build a simple maze and run using paper as the walls and ramps. Start with the simple paper plate version below. It’s great for little ones and a good fine motor activity.
Elementary school aged kids can make the continuous ramp out of cut and stacked paper plates. And if you have a serious maker in the house you may want to try making a paper roller coaster. This is an incredible printable product great for older kids and as a classroom project.
How to Make a Marble Run Out of Recyclables
Put recyclables to use! Cardboard tubes make excellent ramps and columns for whatever your imagination can think up! If you try a wall mounted versions be sure to use masking or painters tape to adhere it to a wall. It won’t damage the paint and can be repositioned for any adjustments that need to be made.
From my book STEAM Play & Learn Cut the top off of a pizza box and tape the walls to secure in place. Use play dough “snakes” to create a maze for your marble to travel through!
How to Make a Pool Noodle Marble Track
Pool noodles are perfect for marble runs because they are flexible and when you slice then in half lengthwise a marble easily rolls down the center. Find them at the Dollar Store over the summer and use a mat knife to slice them in half. Use duct tape to hold them together!
How to Make Marble Runs from a Large Box
Furniture boxes especially the long, thin ones from IKEA make the perfect base for large scale marble runs!
Choose a Marble Run Toy to Buy
In addition to the DIY marble runs above, the marble run toys below are also fun to play with. And psst….they make really nice presents for mini engineers!
- Vertigo This is an heirloom quality toy. The sets are on the pricey side but they are gorgeous! The set is colorful, beautifully made, and my kids and students love playing with it. Because this set has a lot of components it does require following directions to make work. For this reason this set is best for older kids or for younger kids to make alongside an adult.
- TEMI Duplo Style This set matches with Duplo bricks so even younger kids should be able to build with this on their own. The downside is once you children outgrow Duplos they may not want to use it.
- Blocks and Marbles A simple classic block style set. This is great for younger kids who can easily understand the different components and start building quickly.
- Marble Genius This is an inexpensive set that has lots of fun parts! I We love the twirling wheel parts and the roller coaster style ramps. This is great for kids ages 4+ but they will probably need some help putting the set together. Since this set gets tall quickly the base must be built well or the run will fall over.
- Dragon Coaster I don’t have this but wow does it look cool! This would make a fun gift for at the maker in your family!
Are you marbled out??? If your kids get hooked on marble runs the next logical thing to make is more DIY toys! I’ve got 40+ ideas for homemade toys to make here. And each of them packs in a STEAM lesson to boot!
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