Introduction: Circuit Tiles!

Picture of Circuit Tiles!

For all the wee Edisons and Teslas to be, circuit tiles are the best! These are a great way to introduce people to circuits in a fun, ridiculous, iterative way. This is great for just one person exploring or an entire class working together. And your collection can keep growing over time! It's like Pokemon, electronics-version.

  • What: Circuit Tiles!
  • Time: ~ 1 hour per 10 tiles
  • Cost: ~ $1 per tile, depending on elements
  • Concepts: Circuits, current, voltage, parallel vs. series, resistance
  • Materials:
    • Wood for tiles (A chopped up 2x4 works well)
    • Thin screws (We used 1.5")
    • Electronic Elements (motors, lights, switches, potentiometers, power sources, etc)
    • Wire (thin wire for hooking up electronics)
    • Gator Clip leads
  • Tools:
    • Saw (power saws make it go way quicker)
    • Sandpaper
    • Drill
    • Hot glue gun / hot glue
    • Soldering iron / solder
    • Wire strippers
    • Pliers (optional)

This project is an adaptation of one that my science teacher made for me in elementary school, for which I am very grateful. My hope is to share it with other educators out there.

Need a lightswitch? An impromptu pager? A veritable cornucopia of christmas light patterns? Circuit Tiles has you covered! Let's start!

This came inspired by The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium. Check them out!

Step 1: Make Wood Tiles

Picture of Make Wood Tiles

An easy way to make these is to just shop up a 2x4 into smaller pieces. For our dimensions, we used 3.5 x 3.5" which worked out pretty niftily for most electronics items. Sand them down to make them look purdy.

Step 2: Drill Screws In

Picture of Drill Screws In

So many screws! So little time. Find some skinny steel screws (ours were 1.5"), and you're going to screw them just a bit into the wood, so it's nice and secure. By the end, you have what looks like a bunch of torture devices. But no, silly, they're learning devices.

For most simple electronic elements, two screws will do, but for a couple, you may want use make 3 or 4. Go for it!

User JoBar007 had the tremendous idea of using slotted screws for the negative terminals and phillips head screws for the positive terminals, so you could have a "+" and "-" sign on top of the screws. See photo in comments. Brilliant!

Step 3: Electronics Time!

Picture of Electronics Time!

From here on out, you can do everything with a hot glue gun, soldering iron, and wire cutters. You're going to take electronics elements, glue them to a tile, shorten their wires to the right length, and solder them to the screws. Not too bad, right?

Here are some tips:

  • Test out all your elements with your power source before gluing and soldering
  • For elements that need wire, solder to the element first, then the screws
  • Soldering to a big exposed screw can be hard. Wrap the wire in a screw thread and spend a bit of time heating up the screw so it takes the solder.

Let's get to the different kinds of things you might have!

Step 4: Power Sources!

Picture of Power Sources!

For circuit tiles, I've found that 3V is a good target for many simple electronic elements, so a battery pack with 2 AA or 2 AAA should work great. It also means no zaps for the kids, and not much risk (the only problem is sometimes things heat up).

Solar panels are also fun, and so are watch batteries. Go power crazy.

Step 5: Lights!

Picture of Lights!

Oh the lights! There are so many great lights to use. 5mm super-bright LEDs work out great, and do a great job about teaching about polarity of currents, and how they affect LEDs. Another great light to use is incandescent X-mas lights (chopped off the string), as they work with both polarities, and you can really use potentiometers well with them.

Step 6: Motors!

Picture of Motors!

Things that move are just the best. Adding things to the ends of motors make the spindle motion much more visible. A piece of scotch tape works great, corks work great, you really can't go wrong.

Motors that have an off-center center of mass are great, and are how things like pagers work. These tiles will jiggle and slide across the table, too.

I also just wanted to show a close-up of the cutest little motor in all the land. Look at that widdle iddy biddy guy!

Step 7: Switches

Picture of Switches

There are so many types of switches out there! Light switches, clamp switches, push-buttons, sliders, the works.

If you want to get even more ridiculous, Jameco has come amazing switches like combination lock switches, key-lock switches, decibel switches, centripetal switches, so you can have a lot of fun.

Step 8: Potentiometers / Dimmers

Picture of Potentiometers / Dimmers

The cousin of switches, potentiometers and dimmers work great in series with lights, motors, and buzzers. With the right resistance, you can make faders that work really well. Test them out with your lights and motors to find the range that works for you.

Also, many of these will have more than two tabs to solder to. Check the combination that gets the fade you want, and solder up.

Step 9: Add Other Wacky Stuff!

Picture of Add Other Wacky Stuff!

There are so many things you can find in machines, or that you can make yourself!

Here are a couple other ideas for things that have been great in the past:

  • Fans
  • Buzzers
  • Electro-magnets
  • A resistor tile
  • A tile of different materials to see which ones are conductive
  • Homemade switches with aluminum foil.

Let us know what ones you figure out!

Step 10: Bring Your Circuits to Life!

Picture of Bring Your Circuits to Life!

Using gator clip leads, your circuit tiles can become a circuit wonderland. Have fun connecting, disconnecting, and bringing these elements to life!

If you're working with a class, here are a few challenges you can give them to start uncovering truths about electronics:

  • Make an LED light up
  • Make a motor spin
  • Make a motor spin the opposite way
  • Make two motors spin at the same time
  • Make a light and a motor go at the same time
  • Add a dimmer to a light
  • Add a dimmer to a motor
  • Make a buzzer that goes off when a switch is down
  • Make two lights alternate being on with a switch (like a stoplight)

Have some good ol' fashioned voltage-induced fun!


ssraf made it! (author)2016-09-26

Dear Oakland Toy Lab,

My name is Rafael and I teach technological innovation in Brazil in a company called Nave a Vela.

I've been to Singapore in July and had the privilege to attend to the Maker Faire 2016 where I got in touch with circuit tiles from I was instantly inspired by the thousand possibilities and brought the idea to my team. Later, I found your webpage and got more information!

We are now using it in classroom and I even did a workshop on that in FabLearn Brasil. The children loved it!

Now, some experience sharing:

1. Children loved to do it. Also, the possibility of ravaging old electronics fits wonderfully with this activity. However, once the circuits are built, we struggle a bit to do things with them! Does anyone have any suggestions regarding that?

2. I'm struggling with having them to understand the transistor use. Does anyone have any idea of circuits that include transistors?
3. Inspired by, we used a spring instead of the screws. Our experience shows that

Thanks a lot!
Have a great time

bxmas13 (author)ssraf2017-12-16


I like your use of springs for the connectors. The springs will make it a bit easier for my younger child to make connections.

Thanks for the idea!

millershari (author)2016-08-17

These work beautifully on foam board as well.

datagub made it! (author)2016-06-05

I saw these at the children's museum in Pittsburgh (April 2016) and my kids have been talking about it ever since. I had begun trying to figure out how to make them on my own, but am not skilled in this sort of thing. Once I found this post, everything has been so fast and easy. Thanks so much for sharing it with everyone!

P.S. my kids (4&7) absolutely love it!

cutelittledevil (author)2016-02-23

Love this, we are looking in to giving workshops to kids at our hackerspace. This will sure come in handy. Thank you.

Yonatan24 (author)2015-08-29

Nice, It's just like littlebits but home-made and waaaaay cheaper!

Nah yee chern (author)2015-07-13

hi, i just want you to know that my family used this idea for the singapore maker faire attracted many kids.i also used springs instead of nails so wires with stripped ends can be attached easily.thanks for the idea

Bullock STEAM MakerSpace made it! (author)2015-04-27

Very inspired by your instructable (obviously, lol). Thank you for the great spark!

DennisF (author)2015-04-21

Instead of using wood screws, how about using brass stand-off posts like the ones used for mounting a PC motherboard to the case? You could then attach your wiring using a lug that could be screwed into the post.

rocketguy (author)DennisF2015-04-21

Not the point, you use the jumper wires with gator clips to facilitate experimentation and rapid connection/disconnection. Lugs are harder to use, and will wear out sooner.

DennisF (author)rocketguy2015-04-21

I agree and I presented my statement poorly. The lugs are only for static connections between the device/circuit and the post. By all means, use gator clips between tiles.

rocketguy (author)DennisF2015-04-23

Ahh, I see what you mean.

Actually, the gold standard for reliability is a soldered connection. Screws come loose, etc. You could conceivably use a crimp and some blue threadlock to mitigate it, but soldering is simpler.

On mine they were brad nails instead of screws, worked fine, and actually a little easier to solder to.

Of course, that all assumes you have a decent soldering iron (well worth having IMHO, but I'm a tool geek).

DennisF (author)rocketguy2015-04-23

You certainly could solder the lugs to brass stand-off posts. I'd be tempted to use a bit of paste solder and a hot air gun if I was going to solder them but I'd be most likely to leave it and let the kids tighten the posts.

kludge77 (author)2015-04-22

This is fantasic!

Geli12 (author)2015-04-18

Little Bits Affordable DIY Edition

rocketguy (author)Geli122015-04-21

Frankly I think it's even better than littlebits, which I'm not a fan of, because it demystifies electronics and electrical circuits. This is possibly the most important aspect of learning the subject that can be transmitted here. little bits is over packaged and essentially consumer electronics pretending to be DIY.

rocketguy (author)2015-04-21

My mom did this for me in 1972, and my fate was sealed.

really well done!

frazelle09 (author)2015-04-19

As a grandpa who would like to make something like this for his (our) twin grandchildren (5 years) what would you suggest as a first "10" items? Since we're learning, too, we need the specs on some of the more esoteric ones...

It looks like we need at least some sort of battery (and/or small solar cell), small motor, switch... A list with specs would be a great addition - we could go out and get the parts together and even make the blocks!

Have a great morning! :)

Hey frazelle09!

I'm so excited you're making this with your grandkids! Here's a list of ones that would be good to start with! Most of these are available online at or at RadioShack.

1-2. X-mas lights (cut off a string of lights, soldered to both terminals)

3. LEDs (5mm super-bright)

4. 1.5-3V DC motor (search "DC motor" on Jameco)

5. 2 AAA Battery holder (search on Jameco)

6. Light Switch (standard one, can find in hardware store)

7. 10k Ohm Potentiometer (search Jameco)

8. Push button switch (search Jameco)

9. 5V Piezo buzzer (will work at 3V, search Jameco)

10. 3V Pager motor (search Jameco)

Have fun! Let me know if you have any questions!

bananap (author)frazelle092015-04-20

linux grandpa ftw

DIY Dave (author)2015-04-17

This really great. I enjoy teaching people about electricity, so I think I'll make some

Hey DIY Dave, that is great news, and excited to hear about how the teachings go!

jet84 (author)2015-04-18

this is the best idea, thank you so much for sharing I have so fun ahead of me with my 5 and 11yr a multi lesson in salvaging electronics, woodwork and volt-tastic fun :)

Oh yay! This is a great comment to read, and yes, my favorite way to create these is by taking apart other electronics. It all becomes real! Have so much fun.

Gartholameau (author)2015-04-19

Thank you for a wonderful instructable. This is definitely a project to undertake with my grandson. Well done.

So happy you're doing this with your grandson, and thank you for the comment!

Odie Sr.O (author)2015-04-19

This is the greatest thing since the birth of my last grandkid ! ! One other thing that could be added is the standard circuit drawing for each object on the block so the student could relate to this when they saw a diagram of a schematic. Great learning tool from a former teacher of electronics. . .

Odie, that is a great idea about the schematic, and often we have students draw diagrams of what they have linked up as a starter for that. I love your idea, and may integrate it in to the original instructable.

RecepI (author)2015-04-19

Great Instructable! I'm sooo making sets of these! I've been using the GEMS guide for electric circuits exploration with my 4th graders. These tiles will be great for demos and to extend their experimentation. Thanks Oakland Toy Lab!

This is a great comment to read! And so happy that you're going to be able to use this with your 4th graders, which is the perfect age for this. So so happy, and let us know what you learn!

instructablejim (author)2015-04-19

A guy could also paint the heads of the screws red (+) and black (-). Or use red and black markers and mark the wood? Just a thought. Great instructable tho!!!!!

Great idea for the color-coding! I'll look into making that with some of the future tiles!

richieacc (author)2015-04-20

This is a really great idea! I'm going to have some kids over during the next school holiday and make this with them. I've been dying to find an easy way to teach kids about this stuff. I really like the idea of the + and - screw heads. I think I'm going to implement that. And perhaps a hex-head screw where polarity doesn't matter. What I'm also going to do is use a sharpie to draw the part diagram on the block between the screws, that way, the kids will learn how to read/create a circuit diagram. Then I'll be able to make some cards with circuit drawings on them and the kids can build those. This is so exciting!

Hey richieacc, that's a great idea about the circuit diagram, as this is a great introduction to the visual representation that is involved. Let us know how it goes with the kids, and what you come up with over the break!

webmanoffesto (author)2015-04-19

This is a GREAT idea. I knew there had to be an alternative to LittleBits kits. Those are great but cost $85 and up.

DennisF (author)webmanoffesto2015-04-20

I did something like this when I first started learning electronics back in the early '70s. It's definitely worth it for simple components like relays, switches, LEDs and motors. This would especially cool with servos and stepper motors. A side benefit is that children see that not everything they could want has a cost associated with it. The downside is that this phase won't last long. The child will either move on to something else or will get even more curious and will move on to perf board circuits or straight to PCBs.

Electronics is a great vector for teaching mathematics and physics and I think it should be taught as part of the K-6 curriculum. This would be appropriate for that age group.

Hey DennisF!

This is great to hear that it harkens back to when you first started out in electronics, and it looks like it led you to a good place!

I agree this is perfect for the introductory level between about Age 6 and Age 10, and the hope is that soon it leads to a desire to do other projects. The neat thing is that one can continue to prototype ideas within this set with more complicated elements involved that kind of grows with the kid.

I'd be excited to hear what you think should come next!

computeruser28 (author)2015-04-20

maybe if one wants to make them physically connect with one another, one could make puzzle-like slots on the sides or a dovetail-like joint. more work but would be fun matching up stuff as well as connecting them into something functional :)

A super fun version for the electronic carpenter. Fun!

juanmxal (author)2015-04-20

Es un proyecto muy interesante.

Muchas gracias, juanmxal. ¬°Espero que tengan la oportunidad de hacer algo!

dan3008 (author)2015-04-17

a litteral breadboard :D Nice

Alderin (author)dan30082015-04-20

Heh, make a "loaf" of them for storage? Keep them in a bread box? When you put too much current through one you make toast? :-)

topdoc2r (author)2015-04-19

Great idea! When I was a kid, I had a bunch of those Radio Shack kits with spring terminals in them, this is every bit as good and you can scavenge a lot of it. I agree with the above comment for putting schematic symbols on the tiles as a reference too.

Well done!

kristoforo (author)2015-04-19

Very cool idea.Lego Electronics Home release.

bvsmanya (author)2015-04-19

Great instructable for introduction of electronics to kids.

cslatton (author)2015-04-19

This is really great, for kids or a makerspace! thanks!

ynze (author)2015-04-19

Wonderful! Fav'd!

blkadder (author)2015-04-19

This is a great instructable. I wish something like this was available when I was a kid.

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