Welcome to PLIX Inflatables! Imagine and design interactive, inflatable creations using recycled materials—like chip bags! 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!
Activity at a Glance
This activity can operate as either a structured workshop or a drop-in activity.
- Age Range: 10–15 years old (with the help of an adult, this also works for ages 8+)
- Group Size: 10–15 participants
- Number of Facilitators: 1–2
- Activity Length: 1.5 to 2 hours for a structured workshop; or drop-in
- Cost: $1–$10, per participant depending on which tools you use (note that this activity uses recycled materials you may already have on-hand!)
For the mylar and heat version of this project:
For a heat-free version, check out the Paperflatables remix: it requires only paper, tape, scissors, and straws!
The Inflatables zine provides an overview of how pneumatic devices or air-filled structures harness the power of air. It includes instructions for putting together a simple inflatable, as well as inspiration for creating more sophisticated designs based on a range of motions, also known as actuations!
Download here →
The Inflatables pattern cards provide simple visuals to guide the creation of different types of inflatables, each that depend on a particular type of motion (or actuation). You can print these out and leave them throughout the space while you are running your workshops. They're also a great way to kick-start patrons' creative process if they are feeling stuck or are unsure of how or where to start. These pattern cards can also guide the examples that you create for your patrons!
Download here →
The Inflatables activity supplies can be used with a wide variety of workshop prompts. Below you'll find a few that we love 💕— and we encourage you to come up with your own!
Making Example Projects
When preparing to facilitate a creative learning activity, we always recommend populating your space with diverse example projects. A good example project is thoughtfully designed to inspire your patrons, spark their curiosity, and be easy enough to understand to support them in getting started with the activity.
Check out the guide below for step-by-step instructions for making examples for your Inflatables workshop. →
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.
Facilitation Techniques to try with Inflatables →
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
PLIX Inflatables in Action
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:
- Looking for some background music? Check out our PLIX Inflatables Playlist 🎶
- Questions? Ask them on the PLIX Discussion Forum 🙋♀️
- Share your experience running this workshop on social media using #PLIXInflatables 😎
The Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX) is a project of the MIT Media Lab Digital Learning & Collaboration Studio. Except where otherwise noted, all materials on this site are licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Accessibility.