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Inflatables

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Welcome to PLIX Inflatables! Imagine and design interactive, inflatable creations using recycled materials—like chip bags!

🥰 Ages 10+ 🕐 1–1.5 Hours 👩‍👧‍👦 up to 15 Participants 🍎 1–2 Facilitators 🎨 Craft Materials

This activity explores pneumatics—a field of engineering that makes use of air under pressure—with applications in a wide range of fields, such as art and architecture; mechanical engineering; fashion; and even deep-sea exploration. Here, you'll combine the power of air with flexible, lightweight materials to bring your creations to life!

Workshop Prompts & Gallery

Transform a headband into lively bunny ears.
Transform a headband into lively bunny ears. (credit: Kyung Yun Choi)
Coach Crunch-a-lot: a pneumatic doll that does endless sit-ups.
Coach Crunch-a-lot: a pneumatic doll that does endless sit-ups.
This inflatable sculpture doubles as a grabber.
This inflatable sculpture doubles as a grabber. (credit: Kyung Yun Choi)
Surprise passers-by with this haunted house pop-up (credit: Allie Affinito)
Surprise passers-by with this haunted house pop-up (credit: Allie Affinito)
The bionic arm brings cardboard to life. Inflatables mimic joints.
The bionic arm brings cardboard to life. Inflatables mimic joints. (credit: Kyung Yun Choi)
Brought to life with air: a sleepy, snoring frog.
Brought to life with air: a sleepy, snoring frog.

Prompts from PLIX

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Toy factory Animate your favorite character (or create a new one of your own) and use air to add a delightful motion. (Examples: a snoring frog; a beating heart)
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Soft cyborg Express different types of motion to make ordinary objects extraordinary. Look at robotics, prosthetics, and augmented humans for inspiration! (Examples: helpful grabbers; augmented limbs)
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Whimsical wearables Design and show off an interactive inflatable that you can wear to a lightweight fashion show or puffy costume party! (Examples: pop-up ears; a curling tail)
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Air-chitecture Sculpt air into beautiful and unexpected structures. Consider adding helium to elevate your art to new heights! (Examples: a giant, floating face; an airborne, enchanted garden)

PLIX Community Remixes

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Looking for a heat-free alternative to making inflatables? Check out the Paperflatables remix that only requires paper, tape, scissors, and a straw!
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Check out the shared design journal created by the Inflatables Co-Design Team for some additional project ideas and methods for creating inflatables!
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For a deep dive on all things related to pneumatics, soft robotics, and origami, check out this reading list compiled by Dave Fink (Michigan City Library, Indiana)
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Take a look at these pneumatic toys created by members of the PLIX community as part of our 2021 winter activity workshops
📚 Book connections from the PLIX community

Materials

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Supply Kit

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SAFETY NOTE: Be sure to use the tools in a well-ventilated area (outside is best, but not often possible!) and with fire extinguishers nearby. Cool running water is helpful to treat minor burns. For a heat-free version, check out Paperflatables remix, which only requires paper, tape, scissors, and straws!
Folded & assembled Inflatables zines 1 per participant
PLIX Inflatables pattern cards (at least one set printed for the group to share)
Mini irons or standard clothing iron 1 per group of 2–3 participants
Cardboard (as surface to iron on)
Clean mylar chip/snack bags 2–3 per participant, depending on size of bag
Plastic/paper straws, in various shapes and sizes 2–3 per participant
Tape
Aluminum foil OR parchment paper/tracing paper (used as a layer to separate the iron and the mylar)
Rulers
Scissors
Optional: Hot glue gun
Optional: Plastic syringes with rubber tubing for hand-inflating examples
Optional: Misc. craft supplies like Sharpies, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, pompoms

Printouts

Zine ↓

PLIX-Inflatables-Zine_v0.2.pdf1806.4KB
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PLIX zines are a supplementary resource for patrons and librarians to refer to. Use this guide to cut and assemble them on 8.5x11" paper.

Pattern cards ↓

PLIX-Pattern-Cards_v0.1.pdf4725.0KB
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Facilitation

Playtest and Plan

Remember: There’s no one right way to prepare for a workshop. Use these steps as a loose guideline for planning to run this activity.

  1. Choose one of our prompts, or come up with a prompt that suits your library community. Our activity guides are for getting you started—feel free to change or create new design elements to suit your local community! All PLIX activity guides are designed for a minimum of 1–2 facilitators
  2. Gather materials and print out the zine.
  3. Make an example project. Try it out with friends and colleagues. Thoughtfully incomplete, good examples feature a variety of approaches and starting points. Use them to inspire learners to make something uniquely their own. Guide to Making Activity Examples
  4. Try the activity with your patrons. Set a date and time. Easily promote your workshop with our editable Inflatables flyer template
  5. Populate your workshop space with diverse example projects. Create and play together!
  6. Reflect on what you’ve done and consider doing a remix!
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Share the love—Did you come up with your own prompt? We’d love to hear from you! Share your ideas on the PLIX Forum or via our PLIX Remix report form.

Facilitation Tips

By design, this activity invites learners of all backgrounds to play with form and function. It is a very new set of tools and materials for most people, so make sure that there is enough material to accommodate participants as they get used to the new craft. When facilitating this activity, we encourage you to support a tinkering mindset. In addition, check out our general PLIX Facilitation Techniques

🌬️ Clear the air

Safety first! Melting plastic can be harmful to our lungs if the fumes linger. Make sure your patrons know you have their best interests in mind by providing a well-ventilated room, or work outside while doing this activity. This will allow them to keep their minds on the design rather than on their future health.

🥜 Plenty more where that came from

Using no-cost, upcycled, perhaps abundant materials (gleaned from tasty snack foods!) lowers the risk of participants getting frustrated. When participants mess up a project, there's plenty more material to use—and all of it would have ended up in the landfill anyhow, so no harm, no foul! Encourage your patrons to make mistakes, because there’s loads more plastic packaging available to keep on trying until they get used to this material. Think about celebrating the mistakes with a Whoopsy Wall or Perseverance Gallery, where those bold attempts that didn’t work out are celebrated.

🎾 Shop ’til you pop

One nice advantage of inflatables is how familiar examples are, yet we don’t often think about how inflatable structures are made. Dollar stores and party specialty shops often have a variety of mylar balloons, inflatable hats, swim floats, and three-dimensional paper structures that might inspire your patrons in an unexpected direction. It's interesting to look at what flat shapes combine to make a 3D topology, and these examples are often inexpensive enough that you can even let your participants treat them as another material to hack and remix!

👽 Blow their minds with bizarre possibilities

Plastics and other lightweight materials have been sculpted into a dizzying array of out-of-this-world shapes. Some inflatables are easy to buy or borrow, but even if you don’t have the budget to buy, you can share a gallery of inspiring images of inflatable rafts, bounce houses, floating parade balloons, and fancy mylar-and-helium sculptures in a rotating slideshow.

🎏 Keep your language light

The physics and engineering concepts underlying this project are profound, but it’s best to maintain an informal, friendly, lightweight tone for this introduction to pneumatics. Keep the conversation focused on creating the form and function through experimentation and craft. Relevant books to have on hand can include origami, pop-up book crafts, balloon animal sculpting, three-dimensional design (like product development and architecture), and even some hippie books about inflatable architecture—for example, we love the Inflatobookbook by Ant Farm. There are also a ton of inspiring videos about soft robotics to share: check out this video from Nature that explains the topic using several examples!

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Dive deeper into creative learning facilitation with our Self-Guided Mini Course. It’ll also help you get started running your first PLIX workshop.

What We ❤️ About This Activity

♻️ Turns trash to treasure! Inflatables is all about using recycled (or upcycled) materials to create; with plenty of material already on-hand, there is plenty of room for patrons to take risks and experiment as they create!

🚶 Multiple paths to success There is no right or wrong way to create an inflatable, so patrons can forge their own path by exploring new methods of crafting designs.

♾ Endless possibilities Inflatables and pneumatics have applications in a massive range of diverse disciplines (art; design; engineering; architecture). This means that not only can patrons explore what interests them most, but also that you can host inflatables workshops multiple times with different themes.

🌟 Sky’s the Limit! There are many ways to augment this activity for those interested by integrating more sophisticated technologies, techniques, and makerspace tools (like 3D printers; microcontrollers and sensors; chemical reactions).

About PLIX Inflatables

This activity was developed in collaboration with Allie Affinito (New York Public Library) and Dave Fink (Michigan City Library, India) as part of the PLIX Co-Design program, in which Media Lab researchers team up with public librarians to create new PLIX programming. The co-design group teamed up with Media Lab graduate student Kyung Yun Choi, whose work focuses on the development of new types of soft robotic systems, and in particular ones that use air (or inflation) for movement.

Other ways to engage with the PLIX Inflatables program:

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