August 19, 2006

World's Best Marble Roll

Do you remember your first ball roll? For my kids, it was the George Rhoads kinetic scultpure in the lobby of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

That colorful arrangement of contraptions is an amazing display of rolling, flying, knocking, tinkling, bouncing balls. It was always the highlight of my kids' visit to the doctor. And it reminds me how much I loved ball-rolls growing up: I loved the "1, 2, 3" steel ball roll segments on Sesame Street. The huge overhead rolling-ball kinetic-energy demonstration was my favorite part of the Boston Museum of Science.

We all love ball runs. What is the best way to bring the magic of a rolling ball sculpture home?

Chaos Tower

In search of a way to build my own kinetic sculpture, I bought a Chaos Tower kit several years ago. You can't get these big sets in toy stores, but you can find them for sale a few places online.

The Chaos kit comes close to approximating the George Rhoads experience: the colorful plastic pieces include all sorts of whimsical contraptions like trampolines, bells, traps, and so on. A motorized ball lift lets you run your kinetic sculpture forever.

It is also huge: it is easy to build a set as tall as an adult, and once you build a contraption it could be suitable for public display. I was delighted after joining Google to find a big Chaos Tower (and a nicely organized tray wall full of extra pieces) assembled in one of the high-ceilinged elevator lobbies. And once you build one at home, it really is like having a Rhoads sculpture: the kids are mesmerized. Actually, it is like an imperfect, unfinished sculpture without the glass - you feel compelled to reach your hand in and drop an extra ball here or there, and once in a while a bouncing ball will miss its target and fly across the living room.

The only problem I had with the Chaos tower at home was its longevity: I found it too easy to jam the ball lift, burning out the motor (although the Chaos company sells lots of replacement parts, they don't seem to sell replacement motors). And when my (enthusiastic but rowdy) small kids tipped over the tall contraption, we discovered that it easy to damage the ends of the hollow plastic tubes holding everything together. So it probably is not not really the right ball roll kit for a house with little kids.

But if you are a grownup who wants to build your own kinetic sculpture, or if you have older kids, the Chaos tower comes highly recommended from me.

Duplo Tubes

What is the right ball roll set for little kids? One of my childrens' earliest toys was the big oversized Lego sets called Duplo. Duplo is a very nice toy: in addition to being easy and rewarding to put together, they also have characters that both parents and the kids enjoy (Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer). One thing you may not have seen with Duplo is Duplo Tubes: it is a ball roll set for very young preschoolers. You can put together spiraling tubes that look like playground tube slides, and you can drop oversized plastic balls through them.

Block N Roll

Although their dad liked to assemble long Duplo tubes, the kids mostly built very short ones, playing "hide and peek" with doors at the end of the tubes. The Duplo tubes are hard to assemble into long paths because they pop apart pretty easily.

In search of a more elaborate ball run toy for my kids to build, I got a box of Block-N-Roll blocks. These very clever blocks are Lego (and Duplo-) compatible, but made by Taurus Toy (i.e., they are not made by Lego). Block-N-Roll seems like a good idea, but unfortunately, these non-Lego blocks proved just a little bit too difficult to really be a hit: in addition to snapping together vertically, the blocks have little horitzontal dovetails that were too tricky for my little ones to put together.

Marble Maze

After our Block-N-Roll and Duplo experiences, I figured that perhaps ball roll toys were too difficult for my preschool/elementary kids. So I was surprised when I brought home some swag from work: the Google Marble Maze, and found that the little ball roll delighted my daughter Piper to no end. It was fun and rewarding enough that she quickly fell in love with the toy and claimed it as her own - and it didn't hurt that it came in a little bag with a handle.

If you want to find a non-promotional-item version of the toy, the Galt Marble Run looks pretty similar, though I don't think it comes with the cute bag.

Bandai Spacewarp

Encouraged by my daughter's newfound enthusiasm for rolling balls, last year I ordered a Bandai Spacewarp for Christmas. This Japanese ball roll set is probably the most elaborate make-your-own ball roll toy that you can buy for your desk. It includes lots of contraptions - binary switches, ball traps, and so on - and it comes with flexible track that you can form into loop-d-loops as well as a clever ball elevator that can bring up balls along three separate paths with a single screw. I was attracted by the fact that the supports are made out of metal, and that the screw-design ball lift appeared unlikely to jam.

Unfortunately, it was not only way too difficult for my kids to enjoy; it was too difficult for me to enjoy. I did not have as much fun with Spacewarp as I had with Chaos tower. For me, it took too much effort to tweak the continuous rolling track - not only do you need to keep the two rails nicely parallel for things to work, the continuous design means that you have to really plan ahead and build nonstop, instead of hacking on it one little piece at a time. When it comes to ball rolls, I am more of a dabbler and a hacker than an architect.

Maybe I will revisit this toy when I am smarter and have more patience.

Fancy European Ball Runs

So I always have my eye out for easy-to-make yet elaborate-to-run ball runs. In toy stores, we have played with a bunch of fancy European imports that look outstanding, like Quadrilla, Cuboro and Scalino. These wooden toys don't have the same sort of kinetic intricacy as the Chaos or Bandai toys, but they are kid-friendly, stackable, buildable sets.

They are also expensive. Although these beautiful toys are very tempting, we have never brought one home, because we have discovered an extremely economical alternative: the World's Best Marble Roll.

The World's Best Marble Roll

The marble roll that the kids are having the most fun with is a completely home-made contraption that does not come from a kit. You can see it in the video below.

Everything you need to make a marble roll like this can be had at a craft store for less than $20. At Michael's, we got a box of 1000 popsicle sticks, a hot-glue gun with a huge bag of gluesticks, and a couple wooden cups to catch the balls at the bottom. At the local drugstore we found a bag of standard glass catseye marbles.

To make a marble roll on your own, you need to make a bunch of V-shaped or U-shaped tracks for the marbles to roll down; and you need to build a sort of scaffolding superstructure for the tracks to hang on to. It is helpful for a grownup to do this groundwork, because it can get boring for the kids. But the kids can actually help: it doesn't matter if the scaffolding is straight, so you can take pieces of popsicle stick art made by the kids and work it into the scaffolding. The end result is very homemade and wonderful.

The great thing about using hot glue and popsicle sticks to make your own marble roll is that you have complete flexibility: you're not limited by the type or number of blocks that happen to come in your kit. And the contraption ends up being pretty strong - glue is stronger than stacking.

And since it's so economical, when you feel like you've had enough, you don't feel bad breaking it down and tossing it in the trash. We've used the popsicle sticks and hot glue for making marble rolls, bridges, giant people-figures, and pretend swords, and we haven't come close to using up our thousand popsicle sticks yet.

Posted by David at August 19, 2006 08:44 PM

Nice review of the different sets, and very inventive with the popsicle sticks.

I loved these things as a kid, too. I still do. My best birthday present ever (around #7) was a ball clock like this one:

I have it to this day, but unfortunately it stays in the closet most of the time - it makes too much noise to leave it on regularly. :(

Posted by: Patrick Calahan at August 19, 2006 11:36 PM

What a wonderful page - My 7 year old son got addicted to the japanese motion videos on Google videos, and keeps wanting to build something himself.
I'll try the popsicles route - already have a glue-gun.
Am also thinking of the Chaos Tower as a possible present for him.
Thank You !

Posted by: Sebastian Antony at November 21, 2006 11:08 PM

I've dug around for hours trying to find something like this and then I find a bunch of them in one place. I love the internet.

Posted by: David Amor at December 26, 2006 12:04 PM

Don't forget Frigits, the marble run that magnetically attaches to your refridgerator.

Posted by: Mark Glandon at January 15, 2007 07:05 PM


Posted by: at January 22, 2007 07:35 PM


Posted by: Emily at October 1, 2007 05:23 PM

Thanks for the info. My 5 year old son and I are going to the craft store right now! Thanks!

Posted by: Mike and Maddox at October 22, 2007 03:35 PM

Great page! Fantastic that the homemade marble run was the best, congratulations!

Posted by: Stig Eide at December 27, 2007 03:21 AM

Bought Quadrilla for my kids for Christmas. They are 6. It seems too complicated for them. I ended up building a big run and playing with it while they went somewhere else. The problem is each block has varied exits - not very obvious. It isn't just tubes and slots. Sometimes a ball goes in one side and drops or shoots out at an angle or does something else not altogether intuitive. I think this toy really is more appropriate for slightly older children. But we will keep trying. I am also collecting cardboard tubes of all sizes for a homemade run.

Posted by: Helen at December 29, 2007 03:09 PM

Very informative site. Thanks. Can you also share video of Chaos tower?

Posted by: Saurabh Desai at March 4, 2008 01:05 PM


Posted by: heehaho at March 9, 2008 03:16 AM

My daughter had to make a marble run out of ONLY newspaper and masking tape for school (she is in 4th grade). She found the video entertaining but a little intimidating! I'll keep you posted on how her project works out.

Posted by: Kylie at June 18, 2008 05:37 AM

Thanks! Researching how to make our own marble run for ideas, inspired by your article, me n Miss 9 went to Crazies and got a cheap glue gun each and 400 paddle pop sticks... she is just loving it... and I am being challenged doing the scaffolding! She is continually putting marbles thru it and having a ball. Love how you can just keep building up too.... LOL

Only negative is if another kid uses it, and it coincidentally happens to lose some equilibrium, all hell breaketh loose!!!!

Thanks for the inspiration... I think I might even give a "kit" as Xmas pressies to the kids I know who will get into this with older siblings, or are old enuf to just challenge themselves to outdo our creation! :)

Posted by: Donni at December 6, 2008 05:30 AM

Great job on the marble run!

I am impressed!

Posted by: Grease at March 18, 2009 10:29 AM

Excellent articlet
love it

Posted by: cris at October 4, 2010 01:11 PM

okay. u need to write a little book on a how to!!

Posted by: laura glaesser at December 3, 2010 12:10 PM

Hi! Thanks for a grEAT, informative article. I am wondering if you could share any info/links at all on more detailed instructions/tips on building a popsicle stick marble run. It sounds a little challenging, yet fun!! My little 3 yr. old boy is SOOO enamored w/ marble runs on YouTube. Dominoes, too. But it's really all about the marbles :) I can't decide between a plastic (more funky parts, but less quality/expensive)....or a wooden marble run (more predictable/boring...but more quality/expensive)
So, I'm leaning towards making one. Obviously, I'd be doing most of the work. But, may be a fun project. Anyway, thanks again for any info!

Posted by: Julia B. at December 8, 2010 02:53 PM

I want to make one of these roll marble roll contraptions to take to book signings! Can you send me any diagrams?

I notices a posted by: laura glaesser at December 3, 2010 12:10, saying you should write a book. Are you? Have you?

Posted by: Rich Maxwell at August 16, 2012 11:58 AM

That is the most annoying background music in the history of all mankind. Whoever composed it should be shot. Better yet, he/she should be forced to listen to it for maybe 6 or 7 hours straight and then, if they haven't killed themselves, should be shot.

Good ideas about making your own chutes and rails although won't last too long.

Posted by: Dirk Diggler at October 20, 2012 09:14 AM
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