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Since antiquity, people have used their imagination and common materials to invent toys, many of them active, kid-powered, and noise making--like the whirligig. While we will probably never know who invented the first whirligig, evidence suggests this type of toy was independently invented and played with by children on several continents. Simple whirling toys such as the whirligig are described in European literature as early as the 18th century, and would have been as popular in Colonial America as they were in Europe. Additionally, numerous Native American whirligigs made of bone and clay have been found throughout the western U.S., indicating the toy’s lineage in North America.

Because this toy could have easily been made with common materials, one can imagine the whirligig amusing people from colonial times right up to the present day.

Be a part of history and invent your own musical whirligig!

Here’s What You Need:

  • 2-3 Feet of string, yarn, or thin ribbon
  • 1 large button or other round, button-shaped object
  • 1 Pair of scissors
  • One or more adults to assist you (Inventing can be a fun group activity!)

Get Started:
These are basic guidelines only. Be creative!

With an adult’s assistance and permission, use scissors to cut a length of string between 2-3 feet long.

Thread the string through one hole in the button and then through the hole directly across, as shown.

Tie both ends of the string together into a knot.

From the back of the button, pull the string until the button is in the center.

Hold one end of the loop in each hand. Then swing the whirligig around in a circular motion to wind the string. As the string and button spin, they produce various musical tones.

As you pull your hands in and out, the button will spin to unwind and then rewind the string.

You can also create a buzzing sound by holding the he button against the edge of a strip of paper. This buzzing sound is why this toy is sometimes called a “Buzzer” or “Buzzsaw”.

Try making another whirligig with a larger or smaller button, or with a different type of string. Does this whirligig behave differently? Does it make different sounds?

What can you do to improve your whirligig invention? How will you make it different next time?

Take a picture of your whirligig invention and e-mail it to Sparky at sparklab@si.edu. (Make sure you have a parent’s permission to send the photo and include your first name, hometown, and age.)

 

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