I introduced Perler beads as a maker option in the library this year, and I wanted to share some advice I wish I'd known before I started.
Perler beads, or fuse beads, are very small cylinders that can be arranged on plastic peg boards. You can use an iron or heat press on the design to melt the beads together, and then you have a 3D design that can serve as a nameplate, bookmark, earrings, key chain, or decoration.
I've seen this in secondary libraries (and I got a useful start from Kelsey Bogan's high school library blog tips), and I wanted to bring it to my elementary library, too. I wanted to have this as an ongoing station that's available all the time, but I see 800 students, ages 4 - 12 each week -- I would almost certainly have beads everywhere--so I needed more of a guided system. If you want to try them in your library or classroom, here's how I got started:
Scheduling the Makerspace Time
I started with an after-school craft club, made up of about thirty 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, who stayed for about 45 minutes after school. We did origami, rubber band bracelets, washi tape cards, and Perler beads. It was good to test drive the projects with a motivated group of students before I rolled it out to library classes.
For our makerspace workshop days, full classes came in, and students could choose from a variety of table station activities, including Perler beads. Since we have such a large school, we needed a lot of materials prepped and available for back-to-back classes. Some crafts were ready when students left the library, but Perler bead designs have to be ironed (and cooled). I couldn't do that while I was also supervising classes, but having volunteers on hand to iron them right away would have been really helpful. As the designs stack up, all those peg boards are used up, and space becomes limited to safely store the (relatively fragile) un-ironed projects.
I used sticky notes for student names and stashed them underneath the peg boards so that when I ironed them later, I knew which design belonged to which student.
As students are building their designs, it helps if they don't use one single line of beads (these are too fragile and might not fuse together). They should also avoid going right to the edge of the peg boards if possible (this makes it easier to iron).
What to Buy
You need beads, peg boards, a heat press, parchment paper, designs, bead storage, designs-in-progress storage, and finished design storage. You might also want work trays, tweezers, and bead vacuums.
Beads - So Many Beads
My biggest, most crucial tip is this: if you want students to be able to follow design patterns (not just free-design), buy the beads in pre-sorted packages. I saved money by buying two giant tubs of beads like this:
I don't want to confess to you how many seasons of various shows I went through over school breaks as I sorted 11,000 beads into fifty or so color containers - and I still wasn't finished. I had a very dear volunteer help with some of it, and very dear students come in over some recesses who sorted a few hundred, but it is not a sustainable process for a school as large as mine. Nobody has time to sort that many beads!
I did also buy additional packages of pre-sorted beads, and we went through some specific colors very quickly, so it's a good idea to get a lot of red, black, white, yellow, navy, and brown, in addition to orange, green, tan, pink, and purple. The extra colors in some designs, with fun names like toothpaste and butterscotch, do make a difference for shading and detail, but you could probably get away with standard colors and more basic design patterns.
I also bought a few design pattern books like this one, and some of the bead kits I bought came with design patterns. You can find designs online, and it would be a fun project to invite kids to make their own patterns on graph paper, too.
You will also need a heat press to fuse the beads together. It's a good idea to get one with a safety stand so you can rest the hot iron on it. Mine has a cord; it hasn't really been a problem, but a cordless one might be a little more convenient to handle.
Parchment paper protects the beads and the plastic peg board from the direct heat of the iron. I got 6-inch square pre-cut pieces, and because no library ever has enough money, I have been able to re-use the paper sheets multiple times before they wear out. They don't stick to the iron (of course you don't press it longer than a few seconds at a time). However, you do have to be careful about arranging the paper on the beads so you don't bump them off the peg board, especially at the edges, before they fuse together.
An alternate method is to apply masking tape to the finished design and iron over that, and that is definitely easier when you flip the design over to heat press the other side, but taping it is a tricky business - easy to accidentally pull up beads the students have arranged. Parchment paper works better for me.
Some of the best advice from Kelsey Bogan's blog (linked above) was to buy lots and lots of peg boards. If you have class after class building designs during one day, you need to have enough for each new student until you can iron the finished designs and remove them from the peg boards. Also, it's possible that you might warp some of the plastic boards due to heat from the heat press, so you might need replacements on hand.
Peg boards are available in lots of shapes and sizes - I got a lot of these squares, as well as some circles and hexagons. I also got some smaller plastic boards in the shape of flowers, stars, and hearts (some of these are included in Perler bead kits or with design books).
I tried two different sizes of food containers to store beads - larger tubs for storing colors, and smaller condiment cups for individual students at their work stations. The idea was that they could scoop out the colors they needed from the larger containers and take them back to their tables.
In practice, the lids on the larger containers were unwieldy for lots of students (although secure when latched), so I wish I'd found a better solution. The condiment cups worked pretty well - I ended up just filling several of them with red or yellow or popular colors and scattering those (with lids on) on each table. I did have some multicolor tubs out, too. Some students were more invested in using specific colors, so having plenty available to refill was helpful.
It's really good to think about this in advance - storing the sorted beads, peg boards, and designs in progress takes up space. I bought some plastic containers with latching lids to store the sorted bead tubs, and I bought some flat plastic case containers to protect and store the student designs that were finished, but not yet fused.
Originally, I planned to layer the designs on top of each other inside the cases, but I was too scared I would mess up the ones underneath, so I only used a single layer. I had to find space for the cases outside of the main library area so no students would accidentally bump in to the finished designs.
I did actually buy some recyclable trays for students to work on, thinking they could use them to safeguard their designs or bead cups, but they really haven't needed those - they just work on the table surface and it's worked pretty well.
I also got some tweezers to help handle the beads. Some students really like using them - others prefer to use their fingers.
It's not a must-have, but I also got the mini rolling bead vacuum, and it is so satisfying to use that students argue about who gets to clean the floor under the table. Of course, it collects all the beads together, so whatever falls will be mixed up and go in the multicolor bin.
If I had only upper elementary or secondary students, I think this would work really well as an ongoing station that students could come in and access. However, because I have very young students and my library space is designed so that they can touch and reach everything, I schedule Perler bead design work as an activity that happens during designated times. Rolling storage carts - one for designs in progress, and one that holds beads, design books, and peg boards - works best so that I can wheel the supplies out while they're in use.
This activity does require a lot of supplies, and it can get expensive for large numbers of students.
My students were highly engaged in this activity, although it was challenging for a few of them. Many of them chose to come back during recess times to finish more intricate designs.
Learning activities included reading and following diagrams with designs, experimenting with spatial awareness as they created their own designs, and persisting with an artistic activity from start to finish.
How have you used this in your library or classroom successfully? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments!
One of my librarian courses this semester was about instructional technology, and I loved getting to try new apps and tools. I have asked my students to use Book Creator before, but I had never made a complete project myself.
I'm sharing this short book, which can be read aloud to you if you use Chrome. I borrowed some vocal talent from a semi-reluctant teen for the complaining relatives in the story! I'm thinking of giving students the option to choose one of the four design challenges presented in this book for a maker exercise this week . . . and then extend it by having them design their own maker challenges in digital twisted fairy tales that they create. It might be a great exchange idea for our Canadian buddy class, too.
This year, our school held our first-ever Maker Night, which was a fundraiser for our technology program. Here is some information about how we put it together, in case you're thinking of trying something like it at your school.
We held our Maker Night at the end of March, on the evening we had already had Maker Day at our school. Maker Day was a free event that included 100% of our students during the regular school day, but that evening, we charged for tickets to attend Maker Night.
Recently, my elementary school hosted its second-ever Maker Day. It was a huge success (again), and here is some information about how it worked, for those of you who are looking to try something like it. Please see my post about Maker Night, which was our technology fundraiser this year, and which was held the evening of Maker Day.
Our school has a two-year-old maker committee, which started by touring makerspaces at different schools in our district before starting our own. We wrote a district grant for our makerspace, which included a part-time person to help manage it the first year. All classes were expected to attend every third week, so that all teachers could see some examples of "making" in action. These lessons began with fairly common challenges (marble roller coasters in tubes) run by the part time teacher, and expanded to coding experiments and eventually, teacher-led tasks that connected to curricular units.
My school has a great tradition of maker-thinking when it comes to Valentine's Day. Our fantastic instructional technology specialist runs a contest for students who build Valentine boxes that use simple machines (she does this for pumpkins in the fall, too). However, students don't need to make their Valentine boxes move to be interesting:
I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students and families in IA, CT, NC, MO, TX, and Canada. I love being a teacher-librarian!