How to Build a Kaleidoscope
Our giant walk-in kaleidoscope at ScienceWorks is always a favorite place for visitors. Have you ever tried using our walk-in kaleidoscope, by yourself or with friends? Have you ever wondered how it works?
You can make your own kaleidoscope at home, using some simple materials you have around the house. Then you can try your kaleidoscope indoors or outdoors and see what beautiful patterns you can make. Just follow these instructions to make a fun toy to experiment with optics and reflection
Objective: You can make your own kaleidoscope at home, using some simple materials you have around the house.
Difficulty Level: Easy (ages 8-14), Medium with help (ages 3-8)
Download (PDF): DIY Kaleidoscope
Toilet paper roll
Small and colorful translucent beads (approximately 10)
Aluminum foil or silver reflective cardstock
Cardstock or index cards (3)
Colorful contact paper
Procedure: How do you think a kaleidoscope works? Draw a diagram in your science notebook. What makes the beautiful patterns? This is when you will think like a scientist and predict how your kaleidoscope will work.
Now, let’s make a model kaleidoscope. Follow these steps to make yours. Remember, if something isn’t working quite right, you can think like an engineer and make some adjustments.
- Measure your cardstock so it is about ¼ inch shorter than the length of your cardboard tube, and about ⅛ inch shorter than the width of the tube. If you are using a toilet paper tube, your cardstock would be about 4 inches long, and about 1.5 inches wide.
- Cut three pieces of reflective cardstock after you have measured it. If you don’t have reflective cardstock, you could use plain cardstock and cover it with tin foil. Are there any other shiny, easy to cut materials you could use?
- Arrange your three pieces of reflective cardstock so they make a triangle, with the shiny sides facing in. You will have a flat piece on the bottom of the triangle, and the two side pieces will be standing up, sort of like a letter A.
- If you only have plain cardstock, you will need to cover it with foil first. Try to make the foil as smooth as you can when you cover the cardstock. You can stick the foil to the cardstock with a glue stick, tape, or glue.
- Use some clear tape to hold your cardstock pyramid together at the top and sides. This part might be easier to do if you have one person to hold the pieces and one person to put the tape on.
- Slide your reflective pyramid, shiny sides facing in, into the cardboard tube. If you need to, you can use a little tape loop or glue dots to hold the pyramid in place inside the tube.
- Try holding the tube up to your eye and looking through it. What do you see? Can you see reflections on the inside of the shiny surfaces?
- To make a kaleidoscope, we still have a few more steps to follow. Take a square of plastic wrap– you can use a sandwich bag (if you don’t have plastic wrap, you can use a small plastic lid, like from a can of Pringles). Lay some translucent beads on the plastic wrap, and lightly wrap it over them, so they are held in place, but can still slide around. Make sure that you can still see plenty of light through the plastic. You will want your plastic wrap to be big enough that you can put your cardboard tube on it and pull it up to cover about 1 inch of the tube on all sides.
- If you used a Pringles can lid, or other plastic lid, tape a piece of plastic wrap over the top of it, to keep the beads in place.
- Put your cardboard tube on top of the plastic wrap or lid that contains the beads. If you are using plastic wrap, pull it up gently so it is tight. Then you can use the rubber band to hold it in place.
- Cover the open end of your kaleidoscope with plain cardstock, and trace around your tube to make a circle on the cardstock. Use a hole punch or a sharp pencil to make an eye hole in the center of this circle, then cut it out and tape it to the open end of your tube.
- Look through the peephole while pointing the bottom of your tube toward the light. When you turn the tube, what do you notice? Can you see the beads shifting and reflecting to make colorful patterns?
- You can carefully remove the plastic end and look at other objects through your kaleidoscope. Instead of beads, you could try small candy pieces, flowers and leaves, shiny scraps of foil or colored mylar, or colorful seeds.
- You can decorate the outside of your kaleidoscope with colorful contact paper, paint, markers, or make patterns on plain paper and wrap it around your cardboard tube.
- Look at your original drawing of how you thought a kaleidoscope worked again. What did you discover? Is there anything you need to change? Draw a new sketch showing how a kaleidoscope works, now that you have made one.
What’s the Science?
A kaleidoscope works by reflecting light. Normally, light travels in a straight line, but when it bumps into something, it can change direction. When light bumps into something shiny, like tin foil or a mirror, it bounces back in the same direction it came from.
When you point a kaleidoscope toward a light, the shiny surfaces inside reflect the light. The light bounces back and forth off the different surfaces inside the kaleidoscope tube, and it also bounces off the colorful objects you put in the little holder at the bottom of the kaleidoscope.
The small objects move as you turn the tube, so the light bounces off them and makes different patterns that reflect on the shiny surfaces. You can turn your kaleidoscope again and again, and get a different beautiful pattern every time!
Think Like a Scientist and Explore More:
- Try changing the length of your tube, and the length of the sides of your reflective triangles.
- What happens if you change the number of reflective pieces in your kaleidoscope? Can you make a kaleidoscope with only two reflective pieces, hinged together in a “V” shape?
- Could you make a kaleidoscope with more than three reflective pieces? Try different numbers of reflective pieces arranged in different ways, and see what happens. Write your results in your science journal.
- Try taking two hand mirrors and taping them together along one side, so you can open and close them. What happens when you put a toy or other object in front of the mirrors? How many reflections can you see? When you move the mirrors to be more wide and spread out, or more narrow, how does that change the reflection?
- Why do you think objects look like they are moving closer in a mirror when they are farther away in real life? Try moving in front of a mirror, and record what you discover.
You can make beautiful kaleidoscope patterns online using The Kaleidoscope Pattern Painter, designed and programmed by F. Permadi: https://permadi.com/java/spaint/spaint.html
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