In this easy STEM activity, kids become engineers and magicians while learning science at the same time! A thaumatrope is a cool device kids can make that gives the optical illusion of animation or motion. Using simple supplies, plus some basic engineering and art skills, kids will have an incredible experience learning about vision and how their brain processes visual information. Plus this simple toy is cool and so much fun to play with!
THAUMATROPE ANIMATION ACTIVITY
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Can you imagine yourself in a time where there was no television, movies, or cartoons? Well, this was a reality for many children many years ago! So, what did they do to have fun? One of the most popular toys during that time was the Thaumatrope. This simple toy will keep you entertained for hours, and you will learn about Optical Illusions and the Persistence of Vision.
What is a Thaumatrope?
The Thaumatrope was invented by a British physician, John Ayrton Paris, in the 1800’s. It is an Optical Illusion toy that was made from a paper disk, with a picture on each side. Two pieces of string were attached to either side of the disk and when the strings were twirled quickly between the fingers the two pictures merge together into one.
How to Make an Easy Thaumatrope
Before you start, watch the video showing how to use the templates and make the Thaumatropes. If you can’t see the video, ensure your adblockers are turned off. They block our video feed.
Materials & Tools
Our design is inspired by the original Thaumatropes. It is a very simple and easy design using paper and string. To do this project you will need:
Old CD or thin, sturdy cardboard (ie. cereal box, milk carton, heavy cardstock or cardboard box)
Rubber bands or string
Thaumatrope templates – these are available to all STEAM Powered Family mailing list members. Simply enter your email to unlock the printable.
Print and cut out all the template pieces. Some pieces need to be colored in or you may have chosen the blank template to do your own design.
If you do not have an old CD, use one of the paper circle templates to trace the circle onto a piece of cardboard. Then cut out the cardboard circle.
Use a glue stick to glue the templates onto either side of the old CD or carboard, taking not of the orientation of the pictures.
Thaumatropes need one picture to be placed upside own for you to see the correct image, when it spins.
PRO TIP! Thaumatropes need one picture to be placed upside down for you to see the correct image, when it spins.
Ensure that the circles for the holes on both sides are lined up.
Use a hole punch to punch the two holes on either side of the CD.
Thread and loop the elastics through each hole. Or, if you are using string cut your lengths of string to about 10″ then fold in half for best results.
Your Thaumatrope is now ready!
How To Use a Thaumatrope
Hold the elastics or string on either side and wind the thaumatrope up by turning it. Hold it out at eye level, holding all that energy in place, then simply let go and watch the magic unfold!
As it starts spinning circles, watch carefully. What do you see?
Think about what you are seeing, and consider what the difference is between what your brain is telling you it sees versus what is actually happening.
What do you see as you look at the circles?
Gradually increase the speed that you spin the Thaumatrope. What changes?
PRO TIP! The more you wind the thaumatrope up, the better the image will appear.
Go ahead and make the rest of the thaumatropes that were in the template or use the blank template to get creative with a different design. The secret, at first, is to keep your designs simple.
Here are some ideas:
A fishbowl and a fish
An empty birdcage and a bird
A flower and a butterfly
Happy face and a sad face
A waving robot
Most importantly, be creative!
How does a Thaumatrope work? The Science
This simple and amazing little paper toy uses the science of Persistence of Vision.
So, what is Persistence of Vision?
Even though the two pictures are on different sides of the disk, when you spin them quickly, your brain does not process the two sides as separate images, it merges the visual information together to create one drawing! This is also known as an Optical Illusion or an Illusion of Motion.
A thaumatrope is a very simple form of animation. Where static images are moved so quickly, it gives the illusion of apparent motion in the images. Your eyes (or better put… your brain) see it as one continuous stream of motion.
The reason our brains do this is to help us understand movement. When you watch a person walking across a room, you do not see every tiny movement that person makes as they walk. Instead, you see a continuous, smooth motion.
Animation also relies on Persistence of Vision. Animation is a way of making a movie from many still images. The images are put together one after another, and then played at a fast speed to give the illusion of movement. This happens because our eyes remember each image for 1/30 of a second, making the two pictures look like one image.
Critical Thinking Moments
What do you notice as the Thaumatrope spins faster?
Continue spinning the circles but try blinking every second.
Does blinking your eyes change the way your drawings look? If so, what are the changes?
Even though there are two different images on either side of the Thaumatrope, when you spin it at top speed, the drawings on the two sides should merge. Your brain does not process the two sides as separate images. Instead, it merges them together to create one image!
If you do not see one correct image as the Thaumatrope spins, you have not put the one image upside down. You should check this before you glue your pictures down.