Monday, April 16, 2012

Marble Run Painting

I'd had this idea in mind for quite some time when Calder's grandpa Dick started complaining about a 148-piece marble run set he'd recently purchased. 

"It's impossible for one person, one adult, to put the thing together. I don't know how they expect kids to do it." When he asked me if I could use it for anything, I warned him, "Yes, but we won't use it as a marble run. It'll be an art project experiment."

"Fine with me, because it'll never be used as a marble run."

The intimidating part was attempting, despite Dick's experience, to assemble it myself. I tried, more or less, to follow the picture on the box, but since we weren't actually using it for marbles, I had the advantage of not having to worry about whether or not I'd left a clear pathway for marbles to roll, although I did my best.

The finished thing was delicate, for sure, confirming Dick's theory that the manufacturers did not have actual children in mind when they made this thing. I balanced it on a large piece of styrofoam so I could carry it into the hallway one afternoon to show to him. 

"Did you glue it together?"

I answered, "We will as part of the process," but I then did anchor it to the styrofoam with a few hits from the glue gun.

A few days later, I noticed that Calder's mom Brooke was scheduled to be our art parent and figured this was the day meant to try the experiment. Borrowing from what I learned during our tall painting experiments from last year, I mixed up several dozen Dixie cups of glue paint (about 1/3 glue to 2/3 paint). I then flipped one of our small tables, and lined the concavity underneath with a couple plastic sand bags left over from hardware store sand. Borrowing from what we learned in the aftermath of our tall painting experiments from last year, I laid down a large square of 1/4-inch plywood under everything, then set the marble run, styrofoam and all, on top of it.

The kids then poured cup after cup after cup of glue-paint onto and into this marble run.

I particularly liked having the table upended like that because it allowed kids handholds on the table legs should they need them to steady themselves. The children worked fast and poor Brooke spent most of her time refilling cups. 

As far as the kids are concerned, it was going almost exactly as I'd envisioned. It was the kind of thing for a kid to get deeply into for awhile, but there's a limit to the fun-learning, so then you move on, leaving a space for someone else. Most of the kids, of course, were all about the dumping, doing it as fast as they could, but a few grew contemplative and began to study how their paint flowed and mixed as it made its way through and down the sides of the apparatus.

As far as my vision for what the finished product would look like, I'd imagined the entire thing being encased in a rainbow of glue-paint, but two things were thwarting that: 1) the plastic surface was too slippery, allowing most of the paint to simply run, often quite "oozingly," but inevitably to the styrofoam and then onto the wood; and 2) marble runs are designed to keep marbles "in," and if the whole thing was to get covered, the paint was going to have to overcome physics and spill over onto the outside.

I figured as I watched the kids work that the solution to the first problem will be to let the whole thing dry, then go after it with a second and perhaps third coat: the glue-paint would create a "stickier" surface to which future coats could adhere. As for the second problem, I tried to team up with kids and work together to dump so much paint into the same place at the same time that the whole thing clogged temporarily and overflowed. It worked somewhat, but it really needed more paint than would fit in those tiny Dixie cups.

Still, it was looking pretty cool as we approached the end of our session, and I was anticipating at least a couple more sessions, especially once all that glue had hardened and we had a sturdier canvas upon which to work.

My back was turned when it happened. I heard first a crash then a wail: Calder had fallen into it, landing on his hands and knees in the lake of glue-paint that had collected at the bottom. As Brooke lift him to his feet, cooing, "Don't worry we have a change of clothes here," I took in the devastation. Much of the top section had broken off in several pieces. As Brooke escorted her boy away, I quickly reassembled the marble run, although I had no hope of getting it to look anything like the picture on the box.

I finished off our remaining minutes serving as art parent, refilling a few dozen Dixie cups as a gang of us worked to smooth out the imprint of Calder, although the flowing paint had already done much of it on its own. It took me awhile, despite myself, to shake off the disappointment I felt: Oh, poor me! I'd been anticipating this for so long and now, now . . . Oh!

Of course, the children had already pretty much had their experience. The ones working with me now were doing it mostly out of the fun of being part of a team, working with Teacher Tom, the actual science-art experiment over for them. Dick had gotten some use out of this impossible marble run, which is all he cared about. And Calder was soon back among us, cleaned and ready for something else. In other words, I was the only one whose agenda had been thwarted and it is in the job description of a teacher to set aside his own agenda, so I did . . . At least for this day.

When we finally got around to cleaning up, we had a problem, of course. We were going to be needing that table, perhaps not for the rest of this day, but certainly by tomorrow. I asked a parent to help me pick up the entire thing, table and all, and balance it on a high counter where it sat until class was dismissed, leaving me alone with it. I knew if I left it on the table bottom over night, the odds were pretty good that it would be next to impossible to remove in the morning, so it had to come out. 

The other problem, something I learned from our previous experiments is that although it might appear that the paint had stopped flowing, it hadn't: it would continue spreading, slowly, for several more hours, which means I couldn't just put it atop a different table. Besides, it would be days before it dried and I was going to need some way to move it around. I finally settle on laying down a tarp, then carefully lifting the artwork by the underlying plywood and positioning it on the tarp. This way I could give the paint almost unlimited area in which to expand and I could move the thing by dragging the tarp.

It's now sitting at the school, were it will be alone during our spring break week. When we return, if it's not too stuck to the tarp, it will be time for the second coat.

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mj said...

That looks like so much FUN!! (And really really messy)

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Incredible!! Beautiful mess.

Anonymous said...

Nice looking marble maze with the paint.
Just so you know, we have that marble maze, and its really quite a lot of fun to play with- I think part of the point of being wobbly is to make you really think about how to make it more stable (its not impossible)- and there are LOTS of ways to put it together... or just make a smaller one. Its better for older kids 4+ (fun for adults too). Next time you get one, you might consider using it for its intended purpose -though I admit the art project sounds fun. Kids can discover a lot of things trying to put it together and they love dropping the marbles through (or stopping them).
I've really been enjoying your blog- thanks for posting!
Best wishes