Introduction: SkyParade: an Invitation for Open Ended Creativity With LEGO

About: The LEGO Idea Studio develops hands-on #LEGOtinkering experiences at the LEGOFoundation to foster a deeper understanding of the LEGO Idea and learning through play.

SkyParade is an invitation for kids of all ages to build a unique LEGO cable car and send it out over a course made out of string. It works best as a drop in activity in which kids can create anything they can imagine in the spirit of the LEGO Idea.

Step 1: Elements to Build SkyParade Cable Cars

To run SkyParade you need a few core elements as well as a random assortment of LEGO Technic beams, bricks, and pins to build cable cars. You can supplement these with lots of different LEGO system elements, as well as other materials like pipe cleaners, googley eyes, and whatever else you can imagine.

Core Elements

LEGO Power Functions Motors

The LEGO 'M' Motor is easiest to find, but any Power Functions motors can work. Note how all the motors have holes for Technic pins on the front face. This is the easiest and strongest way to connect the motor to a cable car.

Power functions Battery Pack

Any compatible power functions battery pack will do. The easiest and cheapest to find is the LEGO Power Functions Motor Set (8293), which contains a motor, lights, and a battery pack that takes 6 AA batteries. It's heavy but it works. The rechargeable power functions battery (8878) is lighter and has a dial that allows you to set the speed, which is nice but not absolutely necessary for Skyparade. (If you also want to do the Art Machines activity, the rechargeable battery pack is a much better choice.)

Wheel Hub 86652

A 43.2 mm grey Technic wheel hub for medium tires is the simplest drivewheel for a SkyParade cable car, especially when you put a rubber band inside it to provide more traction. This wheel naturally hangs on to the cable, but you can also build any kind of drive wheel that has a deep center and walls to either side to keep the cable car from falling off the paracord string.

Depending on how you want to customize your SkyParade activity, you can choose a variety of other elements to have on hand. Participants will be building a car that goes places - perhaps interesting places they themselves cannot go such as tunnels or over buildings, depending on how you setup the course. This makes a nice inivitation for narrative aspects of play. So consider giving the activity a theme based on anything you think your creators might like, from 'Space Gondolas from Planet Zorg' to the 'Cable Car Commute of the Future,' and selecting elements to fit that theme.

Step 2: The Build Table

As with all Tinkering activities, it's helpful to provide the learner with everything they need to explore the range of creative possibilities in the design space. The build table setup for SkyParade provides the learner with the core elements, a variety of other LEGO or non-LEGO elements, and a short test string so they can see how their cable care behaves as they iterate on it.

As with all activities that depend on the creativity and initiative of the learner, you'll want the build table to be in a comfortable, cozy space. It helps to seed that space with diverse examples of different SkyParade cable cars or other related objects or images to provide inspiration. Facilitators should welcome people as they approach, orient them to how the power functions battery and motors work (often these are the least familiar elements to participants), and invite creators to build something that's both new and interesting to them.

The Test String

The test string role is to provide a place close to the build table for brief experiments - often just to see if and how the cable car moves and how it balances. Having this test string directly on the build table allows creators to iterate quickly. Creators can try their cable car on the string to see how things work, make a change to adjust the balance, and then quickly test again to see the result of their change - all without needing to leave the build area. Once they are satisfied with their cable car, they can try it out on the longer SkyWay strings you've setup close to the build table.

To make a test string, use medium sized screw clamps mounted upside down on the build table so that the bottom of the clamp sticks up. Tie a piece of paracord between the clamps, fairly taught, about 30 cm above the surface of the build table.

Step 3: Lowering the Floor: the Base Model

SkyParade uses motors and batteries from the LEGO Technic Power Functions collection in unconventional ways that are a bit beyond what they were designed for. Since most people aren't familiar with these moving elements and how they work, it can be source of frustration in the early stages of engaging with the activity. In the design language of constructionist learning tradition, we would say that these elements risk making the floor too high - in the sense that we want a 'low floor' or 'low barrier to entry' so that it's easy for creators to begin to engage with the activity and make something new. We want to minimize friction so that they can easily dive in and start creating.

As with all tinkering activities, it's important for the facilitators themselves to become familiar with all the elements and to try the activity themselves first, so they can empathize and be prepared to help creators if they get stuck.

Increasing the Tinkerability of the Battery Pack and Motor

The rechargeable power functions battery pack doesn't have Technic holes for mounting Technic beams, but does have LEGO "studs." Often creators will start by sticking the motor on the studs on top of the battery pack. This connection is not strong enough to hold the motor to the battery, especially when the cable car is hanging from a paracord SkyWay. So it's good to build a small frame of Technic bricks that are 'locked' around the battery pack with Technic pins. This will provide more ways to mount the motor.

The motor itself has mounting holes for Technic pins on its face, which is the strongest way to secure anything to it. So pre-filling these holes with Technic pins will help hint to the creator that they can use them to connect it to other things. You can also try pre-attaching the motors to a Technic beam.

Base Models

A base model is a simple model that works as a foundation on which people can tinker further - especially for those who haven't yet developed much creative confidence or have no experience with the LEGO Technic building system. A good base model design should be easy to understand, have lots of possibilities for adding on to or changing it, and also be a little bit boring. After all, we want people to build their own ideas onto the base model to make it into their own unique cable car.

Sometimes facilitators will hand out base models to give to people who are just starting the activity. Other times they will carry them around and use them to illustrate different ways of solving common challenges that creators are likely to encounter, like how to mount the motor to the battery pack.

The base models shown in the images here are just prototypes - not finished products. As a facilitator and designer, you should try making different base models - perhaps ones that have big LEGO system plates with lots of free studs to invite people to build houses or other structures on top of them. A good base model is a not-quite blank canvas.

Step 4: Setting Up the SkyWays

The paracord string on which the SkyParade cable cars ride is likely to be the first thing people see as they approach the activity. Much of their motivation for creating a cable car is to see what it does when it goes out on a SkyWay - especially if the string takes their cable car someplace they themselves cannot go. In one SkyParade event, my colleague Christian Hansen and I setup a string over a small pond which added an exciting tension to the play, since everyone knows battery powered toys are not supposed to be over water. We added an old badminton net underneath as a safety measure and used waterproof pants for fishing to wade out and retrieve cable cars that fell into it. Other times we've tried having the string go someplace high, where the creator of the cable car can't go themselves. Wherever you set up the paracord SkyWay, make sure that if a cable car falls off unexpectedly, it won't hit anyone.

Paracord is light, inexpensive, and provides decent traction for the cable car drive wheels. It's good to use bright colors or cord with reflective elements woven into it when setting up SkyWays so people won't accidentally walk into them.

You can experiment with different SkyWays that encourage different explorations. "Climbing Walls" are made of strings at successively steeper angles that invite creators to explore concepts of traction and power. One family spent 3 hours developing a SkyParade gondola that could climb higher and higher angles, eventually climbing straight up a vertical string. "Ring grabs" are inspired by brass rings held outside carousels that children could reach out and try to grab as they went around. Build a "ring" holder to hold rings made of anything (we like pipe cleaners) in such a way that a passing SkyParade cable car, when designed correctly, can grab onto a ring and carry it away.

While things like ring grabs and climbing walls appeal more to those who are focused on challenges, SkyParade is designed as an open-ended playful activity - one that people can connect with and learn through in many different ways. STEM challenges can be a good invitation for some, but don't let them crowd out the space for broader explorations based on whatever skill or interest your creators brings to the activity. A unique strength of open-ended project based activities is that they invite people to engage 1) at their skill level, and 2) in any way that interests them. The ability to dive in and create something meaningful is itself an important skill that activities like this should invite learners to develop.

Step 5: What Are They Learning?

Exploring an open-ended activity like SkyParade is an invitation to create something new, in the spirit of the LEGO Idea.

"With the LEGO bricks we can build anything we can possibly imagine, as if they were glued, and yet they can easily be taken apart and reconfigured into a new idea. When we do this we are not only creating, but evaluating, reflecting, and recreating to achieve new possibilities. We learn through play in a self-motivated and fun way." - The LEGO Idea

Through the process of designing, reflecting on their design, testing, and re-designing, the creator of a SkyParade gondola is exercising their creativity. This kind of learning through playful exploration is useful to most people who are curious enough to try the experience. But the specific content of what each person learns depends on the learner and their interests. Some will explore and play with concepts like traction, tension, or balance. Others will integrate the activity with existing interests in narrative or aesthetics. Still others will propose new skyways or new challenges (and as a facilitator, you should encourage and support this!). When an open-ended activity is successful, each child uses their existing knowledge and interest to create something unique and meaningful, which in turn helps to inspire the imagination of the creators around them.

Step 6: Going the Extra Mile - Around a Corner

One way to add another dimension to SkyParade is to invite kids to create their own SkyWays - so they’re tinkering with the environment their gondola travels in as well as the gondola itself.

New ideas for gondolas will be inspired by a new SkyWay they’ve set up, and new SkyWays will inspire new design directions for their gondolas.

We’ve been tinkering with a 3D printable piece that lets SkyWays turn at a right angle, making it possible to create loops, corkscrews, and even jumps.

Not being 3D modeling experts, we've quickly put together a 3D printable piece in Tinkercard that will get a SkyWay around a corner, the 3D Printable 90º SkyParade Turn. Since it’s on Tinkercad, you can easily play with the design and print them out. There are tons of possibilities; from vertical turns to forks in the road, that are worth exploring. Whatever you make, let us know in the comments so we can try it out!