We Can Create From Tiny Pieces, Too!

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SWBAT build a tower from smaller pieces.

Big Idea

The students will have a blast making their own Watts Tower from tiny pieces of "junk" to explore the idea of a great variety of things can be made from a set of small pieces.

Teacher Notes

Activity Description

The students make a model of one the Watts Towers using basic art supplies. 

NGSS/Common Core Connections

In the NGSS, one of the performance expectations is to make observations to construct an evidence-based account of how an object made with a small set of pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object. One of the disciplinary core ideas of this is the understanding that a great variety of objects can be built up from a small set of pieces.  Another standard is that different properties make an object suited to different purposes. This lesson highlights those disciplinary core ideas.  


  • pipecleaners--10 per child
  • pony beads--about 20 per child
  • optional:  all sorts of pieces of beautiful "junk,"  such as shells and foam sticky shapes--really just about anything you might have in your teacher cabinet that you might want to get rid of (see photo of materials)
  • small trays for the children to put the "junk" into
  • clay for a base for the pipecleaner towers--I used about 1/5 of a stick per child
  • small piece of cardboard for the entire project or a paper plate



5 minutes

I gather the students to the front to begin this activity.  

Today we are going to be building a model of the Watts Towers.  Who can tell me what a model is?  

We are going to be building our model from some simple art materials that I have here in the classroom.  Let's take a look at our materials and think what they model.  We will be using pipe cleaners, clay, a cardboard base, and beads.  

I hold up a pipe cleaner.  

I know you have all used pipe cleaners before.  We used them when we made our vanilla pollinators.  Think what a pipe cleaner is like.  Think about its properties.  What is a pipe cleaner like?  How would you describe it? 

I want the children to be thinking about the properties of the pipe cleaner.  They need to be thinking about what it would be good for.  This is the basis for them understanding the suitability of materials for certain tasks.

My class is able to describe the pipe cleaner as "bendy" but is fairly strong and holds it shape.  They also come up with the idea that the pipe cleaners would be best for the main structure of the tower.  We repeat this process with the other materials.  We describe the properties of each and what it would be best suited for in our model.


30 minutes

Before we begin the building process, I want the children to expand on the foundational knowledge that we can create our own simple artwork pieces from a small set of pieces, just as Simon Rodia has done.

How do people create something from small pieces?  Have you ever done this?  Have you ever made something, took it apart and then made something else?

I want the children to relate what we have been studying to something that has happened to them in their own lives.  This relation helps them to make connections to what we are going to learn.  The children have some great comments on this topic (see video clip A and video clip B).  

The children are so excited to start on their model of the Watts Towers.  Once we are ready to begin the project, I give them directions on how to make it.  You can give them directions yourself, or you could click here so your children can watch a step-by-step 2 minute video of the process.  Here is also a very short video clip for your students to watch if they don't know how to twist pipe cleaners.

The children work on twisting, bending, adding beads and creating their model of the Watts Towers.  I love the whole creative process!  


10 minutes

After we have completed our model of one of the Watts Towers, we share them.  The children listen intently as each child shows their tower and gives a brief description.  Click for photo 1, photo 2 and photo 3.  

After all have shared, I bring the discussion back to structures and building.

What shape did we use to create the tower?  

I want them to start thinking about how triangular shapes add to the strength and stability of structures.  I am trying to get the children to see that connection, even in this fun project.  I hold a tower up, to aide them in noticing the basic shape of the tower, 

What did you notice about the base?

I want them to start noticing that wide bases add to stability.  Knowing both of these basic ideas of building will help them when they are challenged to create their own towers the subsequent lesson Build a Tower Challenge.

How were we able to build this tower?  Do you think we could take this tower apart and make something different?  What else could we make with these same supplies?

These questions reinforce the idea and help us work towards the NGSS standard PS1.3.  Small pieces can be used to create something larger.  Also, we can disassemble them to create a new object.  Because of this fun but educational project, my class was able to articulate these concepts.