• Rebecca Carlisle Cothern

12 ways to integrate STEAM using toilet paper tubes


There’s a lot of buzz around STEM or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). Teachers are buying new games, lesson plans, and resources to integrate STEAM into the classroom- but why? STEAM is wonderful and takes learning and thinking to real world application and problem solving. However, we do not need to go out and spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars on materials to teach it in our classrooms. Instead just start saving your toilet paper tubes and see how many wonderful lessons you can create without spending a dime. I’ve started a list of 12 ways to integrate STEAM into the classroom using toilet paper tubes. But it doesn’t have to stop there, and there are other free resources besides toilet paper tubes. The biggest part of STEAM is to use questions to drive thinking in these areas so students will think outside of the box or multiple choice answer. So get creative and start integrating a little STEAM into your classroom.

1. Characters: Whether you are creating characters to go along with the book you are reading, historical figures, or adding community helpers in your block or dramatic play area creating characters is a great art and engineering activity. Give each student 1 toilet paper tube and a few art supplies (paint, crayons, scissors, glue, etc.) Using just that one tube have them create a character on their own. What features distinguish this character? How can you cut, paint, and glue the toilet paper tube to show your character?

2. Tube Mazes: Use a variety of tubes (paper towel, toilet paper, wrapping paper, etc.) to create your own tube maze. Students will cut and tape the tubs together to form their own maze marbles can go through. Will you want the maze open or closed? Can you make the marble change direction? Will the marble move on its own or will it need to be pushed? How long can you make the maze and still have the marble move through it? What factors will make the marble move faster?

3. Word Generator: To make a word generator use a paper towel tube and a toilet paper tube or for a tighter fit find two different brands of toilet paper tubes that fit inside one another. Once you have these tubes cut the larger tube into thirds and leave the smaller tube whole. You will use two of the thirds and the whole tube. Once the parts are ready you can make a word generator by writing on each piece. To make the word generator write vowels in the middle of the whole tube and consonants on the two cut pieces. Now fit the pieces together. Students will turn the front and back piece to generate different words with the vowels. Is the word a real word or make-believe word? How many real words can you make?

4. Math Problem Generator: To make a math problem generator start the same way as the word generator with the whole tube and two thirds of a cut tube. To make it a math problem generator instead of a word generator write operation signs in the middle and numbers on the two end pieces. Students will turn the numbers to solve different number sentences. What’s the largest number you can make? Can you make the number 15?

5. Instruments: Use the toilet paper tubes and paper towel tubes to create instruments. Students can make shakers, horns, rain-sticks, drums, xylophones, and anything else their minds can think of. Then use these homemade instruments to have a marching band or concert. What can you do with your toilet paper tube to make noise? (Add beans, make holes, cover the end, stick nails in it, etc.)

6. Dramatic Play Props: Why spend tons of money on Dramatic Play props that the kids are going to destroy when you can have the kids make their own. As a bonus kids are engaging those higher level thinking skills as they map out, build, and decorate their props. Some ideas for Dramatic Play props are microphones, vases, flashlights, road signs, etc.)

7. Planters: Need an easy non-messy planter idea for the class. Next time plant your seeds in toilet paper tubes. To make this easy planter line toilet paper tubes in a plastic shoe box. Fill each toilet paper tube ½ full with dirt and have students plant their seeds. Now watching seeds grow for science will be easy. Need to water the plants- water the whole box without getting water and dirt on the counter-top. Want to bring the plants down on the rug to observe- grab the whole box. Don’t worry about little fingers dropping cups and dirt going everywhere. And when it’s time to send the plants home- put the whole toilet paper tube in a baggie. Because the plant is growing ½ way down inside the tube the plant is protected and the dirt is compacted making it the easiest non-messy planter.

8. Sorting Tray: Need a cheap sorting tray to sort objects and data? Try making one. To make this sorting center all you need is the lid of a shoe box and a few toilet paper rolls cut into 1-inch circles. Dip each circle into school glue and line across the bottom of the shoe box lid. Allow the lid to dry and in a few hours you will have your own sorting tray with sorting circles inside. Now you can sort anything in a variety of different grade levels. For younger kids sort by color and shape. While older kids sort by frequency and results.

9. Rainbow Rings: Are you talking about weather and light? Want a fun way to help kids remember the colors of the rainbow? Try making rainbow rings. To make this fun art project you will need two paper towel tubes that fit inside each other or tape two toilet paper tubes together to make a long tub. Now with the larger circumference tube cut 1-inch sections. (You will need 7; one for each color of the rainbow.) Paint each section a different color of the rainbow-red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Once the paint dries stack the rings backwards onto the long tube to make the rainbow rings go in order ending with red on the top. The rings can be taken off and practiced over and over again.

10. Block Center or Construction Zone: Add tubes to a block center or construction zone. Students can use the tubes as building blocks, cut them in half to make arches, or put the pieces together to make something new. Children will be able to use their imaginations as they build and create with these tubes. To help light the children’s fire pose questions such as; “How could I use these tubes to build a library?” “Can I make a tunnel for a car to go through?” or “What if I made a hole in the middle of this tube and put a second tube in the hole?”

11. Art supplies: Use tubes to make cheap and fun art supplies. Glue small foam shapes around the outside of a tube to make a paint roller. Or bend the tube into a shape (circle, heart, square, triangle) to make stenciled paint daubers. And of course a collection of tubes makes the perfect vessel for holding paintbrushes, markers, and pencils.

12. Science Tools: Science tools are some of the largest classroom expenses when it comes to STEAM. But most of these tools can be made using toilet paper rolls. Tie two of them together with some string to make a pair of binoculars. Use a pin and punch out a constellation in tinfoil. Then use an elastic band to attach the constellation on the end of a tube to make a star gazer. Even make a simple kaleidoscope using see through plastic, pieces of colored confetti, and wax paper on the end of a toilet paper tube.

Playing with toilet paper tubes can be fun and the possibilities are endless. So start collecting your tubes and don’t forget the tried and true classic- the peanut butter bird feeder. Thanks for reading. I hope these ideas brought new thoughts and creativity into your STEAM classroom. Enjoy!


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© 2013 by Rebecca Carlisle Cothern. All rights reserved.