Friday, July 22, 2005

Toys from trash

Can one learn science while playing and tinkering with toys? Is it possible to create toys and science activities from waste/throwaway material and thus be gentle to the environment? At the Muktangan science exploratorium, an activity and science center in Pune, one can see this happening.

This wonderful science center is located in the Pune University campus and is the brainchild of Dr. Jayant Narlikar, a person well known for popularizing science and reaching out to non-specialists. At the center, children learn to make toys, gadgets and paper foldings, and are able to freely tinker with interactive scientific demonstrations. The atmosphere is very friendly and the staff extremely enthusiastic. Mr. Arvind Gupta, an experienced toy maker and educationist along with two other instructors Ashok and Vidula, runs the center.

The unique thing about the toys and experiments is that they are often made from throwaway household things. Or if not throwaway, then very low cost material. A goal clearly is to design the toys and activities so that they can be accessible to the poorest of children and have minimal environmental impact. A few sentences from the preface of one of Arvind Gupta’s books will give you an idea of the underlying philosophy, “…we must not forget that each scrap of paper was once a living branch or a tree trunk. That each ballpen refill, broken pen and all other plastic comes from crude oil. The earth’s resources are limited and we must use them sparingly with love and care. Today’s throwaway culture offers new challenges for reuse, whether it is tetra packets, batteries, bottles or ballpens. So, don’t waste, don’t abuse; instead recycle, reuse. This is the only way of making simple and environmentally sustainable toys.”

The demonstrations encompass various scientific principles – air pressure, stability of objects, production of sound, moment of inertia, magnetism, eddy currents, current induction, etc. The ideas for toys are also innumerable and I will mention only a few. There is a pump which can be used to blow balloons which is made from two empty film roll boxes, a six inch piece of an old bicycle tube, a drinking straw and sticky tape. There is another pump, which is made from only an old toothpaste tube, a broken balloon and a piece of drinking straw. These pumps nicely demonstrate how valves work. There is a mecanno set which made from matchsticks and bicycle valve tube. And there is a small electric motor, the material for which costs Rs.10 including the cost of the battery! There is no exaggeration – I have made such a motor and it works!

Groups of school children, science teachers and general public visit the center and it is really wonderful observing the excitement they feel there. One can see here serious faced adults turn into playful children! The center also makes visits to schools and I had the chance to visit a municipal girl’s school with Ashok during one such visit. The children had a wonderful time.

Arvind Gupta has nicely documented this work and his books and writings are available at He does not believe in copyright and wants to share everything that he knows and has created.

I hope many more people can come to this center and also interact with Mr. Gupta.


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