Monday, January 2, 2012

Electrify Learning with Playdough: Five Squishy Circuit Kits to Giveaway!

Would your child want to learn about electrical circuits using this type of teaching material?
photo: AnnMarie P. Thomas

photo: AnnMarie P. Thomas
 ....or would she rather use some playdough instead?

WHAT: Squishy Circuits Kit
DOES:  Perhaps the most non-intimidating and playful hands-on way to teach and learn about electrical circuits- even the little ones can do it!  Grown-ups should still stick around to supervise.
INVEST: $19.99
TOOLS: Think Like a Scientist/Engineer, Express Yourself
SEE Giveaway Instructions at the bottom of post

If you prefer the latter image then you are no different from me or Number 1 or the numerous parents to whom I have shown this kit.   Just a few weeks ago, I showed this kit to a friend of mine and within thirty seconds of turning the power on, she asked me, "Where can I get this?"

And What the Heck is This Anyway?

There is a newly developed kit based on a successful concept hatched and raised with care at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.  I saw this concept in real life at the Maker Faire and believe it was the most memorable learning experience that Number 1 and I had out of the gazillion booths we visited (we were there both days from start-to-finish and only dehydration could send us home).

The concept is called Squishy Circuits and it was developed in the UST Design Lab at the University of St. Thomas headed by AnnMarie P. Thomas, Assitant Professor of Engineering.   

Basically, it is all about using playdough to create electrical circuits using battery packs, LEDs, buzzers, and small motors.  Because it is playdough, it is easier and safer to use.   Seriously, it's playdough! What could be less intimidating? 

Professor Thomas who had long been fascinated by non-traditional circuit technologies told me in an email interview that for years, she would occasionally mention how fun it would be to sculpt circuits with conductive and nonconductive clay.  One day, it really did happen.

With the grace of a true teacher, she credited a lot of the work to her student, Samuel Johnson, then a first-year engineering student who wanted to do a non-circuit related project using playdough.  Instead Dr. Thomas offered Samuel a job trying to build playdough-based circuits.

He accepted and within a few months, Dr. Thomas and her team started putting Squishy Circuits into the hands of kids and soon afterwards the recipes for the dough were published in Make: Magazine. By the Spring of 2011, Dr. Thomas was featured in a legendary TED video that further spread the Squishy Circuits concept around the world. Below is her TED talk.  "It's been amazing to hear about schools in other countries that are using the circuits in their classrooms." Professor Thomas also reported the good news that parents are learning circuit principles along with their kids using Squishy Circuits.

As you can imagine, if you saw this video, you might try to do this at home yourself and I certainly did after seeing it at the Maker Faire. Without much planning, I basically walked into a Radio Shack one day and bought a bunch of materials.  I went home, made the dough and nothing happened.  You really do have to solder some pieces to the wires to help with conductivity and I am not so into having a soldering gun in my house.  I would likely find Number 1's name or even the names of favorite beyblades etched on the wall one morning so no- no soldering gun for us. Instead, I found Matthew Schmidtbauer.

Matthew developed after a summer job with Dr. Thomas.  The store is not affiliated with the University of St. Thomas or Dr. Thomas in any way.  However Matthew, who like Samuel Johnson was a student with a summer job working with AnnMarie Thomas.  After seeing the enthusiasm and hearing from some parents who needed more help, Matthew decided to open up a store and make a kit to be used by parents, teachers, and of course, kids.

He is only 20 years old and still in college.  Don't you just love that?  I still can't get over the fact that undergrad students are getting paid summer research jobs.  It is obvious that the University of St. Thomas is a very special place because I doubt that undergrads working in academic departments at other schools are doing anything more than clerical work. I will definitely steer Number 1 in this direction when he gets to high school.  I don't care if it is ten years from now.  I will remember. has only been open for a few months and already they have orders coming in from around the world.  It's not surprising but still exciting!

Kids and parents constantly surrounded the University of St. Thomas' Squishy Circuits booth at the Maker Faire in New York City.

It's More Than Just Playdough with Batteries

I don't always enlist the help of an expert for articles here in this website but Number 1 will be the first to remind you that his mother stinks in science.  Thankfully, I was able to call upon David Wells, the Curriculum Developer at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) to take a look at this kit and let me know what his thoughts were as a teacher of science to kids of all ages.

"The use of playdough is beneficial because everyone knows how to use playdough," he said.  "There is a whimsical quality to playdough that just inspires you to interact." This is probably why my eyes opened wide upon seeing Squishy Circuits instead of rolling backwards when I see anything about teaching electricity like a circuit board.

David estimates that hands-on learning of electrical circuits would generally happen for children in middle school because there is a level of safety and understanding that is required.  However, after watching Professor Thomas' TED video, he was intrigued.  Coincidentally he had been planning to do a professional development workshop at Sarah Lawrence College and decided that Squishy Circuits would be the curriculum.

When he brought Squishy Circuits to these early childhood educators, he reported great success. "They loved making the playdough, they loved playing with it, they loved playing with the circuits.  None of them had circuit training or understood necessarily the flow of a circuit."  That describes my experience as a parent too.

To David, making the playdough is an important component of the activity.  Not only does the measuring part become a math activity but simply put, David says, "For me, as an educator, I feel the best way to learn is by doing.  As you’re learning, you’re kind of revealing to yourself the benefits of that experience."

He is right about that.  When Number 1 and I made the insulating playdough together, Number 1 immediately remarked how it must be the sugar in the recipe that must stop the electricity.

"Yes, that's a good observation!" says his mother who "stinks at science" and no idea if he was right or not.

It's through that self-discovery and experimentation that you actually learn. (David Wells, NYSCI)

But truth be told, this kit and the whole concept in itself really does inspire my favorite kind of learning. You are basically trying stuff out to see what will happen.  When teaching Squishy Circuits to kids, David Wells just provides a quick demonstration of how the components work and the rest is up to them.   If the students run into a problem, David would usually reverse the questions back to them and help the kids figure out the answers on their own.

"And when they do figure it out, you see this light: 'ohhhhhhh'....,"  David reports.  The kids would then go to the next level.  "It's through that self-discovery and experimentation that you actually learn." David pointed out that if he were to just tell them the answer, that light would never go on.  Not only do the kids find the answer but then the excitement of finding that answer is what David says will inspire them to create other experiences from which more learning can take place.

All that for only $20?  Even if I am feeble in science, I know a good deal when I see one.  That's why I've purchased kits for friends and my kids' science teachers for the holidays this past season (also, because I wanted to look cool to my kids' teachers).  David also reminded me that with Squishy Circuits, there would never be a cap to learning.  Children may find themselves in Radio Shack or hobby stores looking for more things with red and black wires to see what else they can do.  To me, that only affirms that giving Squishy Circuits to anyone is a gift that "keeps on giving."

 Circuits can be pretty too! photo courtesy: AnnMarie P. Thomas

A note about the playdough:

If you've never made it before, do not be afraid!  It is easy!  I used to be totally flour-phobic (I have a measuring problem) until I had to start buying gluten-free products whose prices pushed me into baking bread myself.   If you ever find yourself needing to lead a gluten-free life, join the GFCFrecipes Yahoogroup.  These folks are so supportive of everyone, even flour-challenged klutzes like me.

Additionally, the Squishy Circuits kit provides a recipe card for both conductive and non-conductive dough.  When I give the kit to someone totally unfamiliar with Squishy Circuits, I give them a little conductive dough from my stash (the conductive dough lasts really long) so that all they have to do is put the batteries in to begin.  (You might even get away with using store-bought playdough if you have some in the house, although it wouldn't work as well.)

Also, if you are thinking of making GF playdough then consider using 2 parts rice flour to one part corn starch for the non-conductive dough and for the conductive dough, try using potato starch instead of corn starch.  One person on the GFCF list reminded me that potatoes can conduct electricity but I haven't confirmed this with Professor Thomas or Matthew Schmidtbauer.  I have tried using tapioca starch as well and it makes the dough a little sticky but then kind of bouncy too which is actually quite fun in itself.

HOW TO WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN (5 kits to give away!) is giving away five kits to the readers of Toys are Tools.

To enter to win a kit, please leave a comment below (counts as one entry) and tell us what you think about Squishy Circuits. PLEASE make sure you put your email address in your comment below if it is not visible on your blogger page.  It is safer to write your address like this:

toysaretools at gmail dot com

Bonus entry guidelines for this post only:
  • BECOME A MEMBER of Toys are Tools (counts as two entries).  If you're already a member and you leave a comment on this post, your membership will also count as two entries.
  • LIKE Toys are Tools on Facebook  (counts as one extra entry)
  • FOLLOW Toys are Tools on Twitter  (counts as one extra entry)
  • BLOG about this giveaway and leave a link to the URL  (counts as one extra entry)
  • TWEET about this giveaway (one a day counts as one whole entry)
    Here is the tweet to use:
    #Win- Playdough kit teaching electrical circuits to kids #giveaway from @toysaretools ends, 1/12
This giveaway is open until Thursday, January 12 at 11:59 EST, and is for residents of North America only (and Hawaii).  You must be 18 or older to enter.  Winners are randomly chosen through  I will alert you by email and announce it on my facebook page.

This post is dedicated to the fine folks at GFCF Recipes Yahoogroup.  Thanks for helping me get over my fear of baking.  It allowed me to come to a point where I didn't even think twice about having to make my own playdough to use Squishy Circuits.  It really is very easy. 


Where to buy the kit:

Where to learn about the concept including videos showing how to make the dough, how to teach it to very young children, and much much more:

Disclaimer:  Toys are Tools anxiously awaited the opening of and after they did, we requested and received product samples for review. There were no obligations to write a post.  

Winners have been announced on the Facebook page.


  1. This looks so cool. My son loves to experiment with things and his sister follows suit. Thanks for the chance to win: mmstangerjunk (at) comcast (dot) net

  2. I am a member. Thx. mmstangerjunk (at) comcast (dot) net

  3. I like you on FB already. ;) mmstangerjunk (at) comcast (dot) net

  4. And random question: Do you make GFCF playdough? I think you shoudl psot the recipe you use. Thx!

  5. I saw the TED talk on squishy circuits a while ago and it seems like it would be totally awesome for my engineer-since-birth-- and make playdough more interesting for him while his younger brother plays endlessly with it!

  6. "liked" on fb. Jennifer Mercurio

  7. Jennifer Mercurio, I need an email address for you. believe it or not, it's not on your blogger page. if you don't want to leave it in a comment box, then please email it to me
    toysaretools at gmail dot com

  8. Ok, first, my comment -- I LOVE this! These are so awesome and my son would love it. Frankly, my nearly teen daughter would love it too. amomsviewofadhd at gmail dot com.

  9. LOVE this stuff. If I don;t win it, I'm buying it! Off to like you on FB... I'll link to your post on

  10. What a fun idea. Love your blog followed you from Sunnymoms, I am now a member.

  11. I and my kids loved this when we saw it MakersFaire this year.

  12. We tried this at NYSCI and Sofia had a great time. What a fun way to learn about science!

  13. I think I am a member! suzanne dot sichting at gmail dot com

  14. What an awesome toy. What age can you start at? I know it mentioned early education.


  15. I would definitely want my son to try this. Thanks for the chance to win. My email is or "n dot maksin at mlgpllc dot com".

  16. It looks great for my son. He loves circuits. My e-mail is or gajjkm at gmail dot com.

  17. This is a great idea. My kiddo is fascinated by currents. my email is ksbryant at gmail dot com.

  18. Jenn. Very cool blog and very cool toy! I'd love to get a kit! I'm at
    I would like to use a kit at my February Tech Kids Unlimited Workshops for special needs kids at the JCC Manhattan.
    best--beth rosenberg

  19. Beth, thanks for the kind words! In terms of classes... What is so great is that the video instruction is free and accessible and so easily digestible too! You might tell them to watch it the night before and let ideas brew in their heads before the first day of class! The link to the University of St. Thomas' Squishy Circuits' site that has all the videos are at the bottom of the post. The kids in our house (the ones who hadn't seen it at the Maker Faire) just watched a video and started to squish away. It was a snap. They just love figuring stuff out on their own.

  20. Martianne, the gluten free playdough I made was basically just taking the recipe that was listed in the kit. So for example, for the conductive dough, it was 1.5 cups of wheat flour and so instead I used 1 cup of rice flour and 1/2 cup of potato starch and that was it. GFCF Recipes yahoogroups also has recipes and you can use theirs to modify your circuit dough recipes. It's rather easy. Now I can make a batch in 10 minutes. try a little tapioca starch to add some bounce.

  21. I want to play! I might even share it with my kids.

    Thanks so much for finding and reporting on such a cool toy!

  22. It sounds like the coolest toy. Wish I had known about it before the holidays!

  23. Confession. I couldn't wait to see if i won. I have already ordered two!

    Jenn, you find the coolest stuff!

    When is Maker Faire 2012?

  24. Oh, thanks! But I think it was my son and his friend that discovered it first. He makes everything fun, even a piece of string..... At the NYSCI website events page,, it says that the World Maker Faire will return to NYC on Sept 29,30m 2012. You will see us there for sure.

  25. I saw her talk on Awesome! Would love a shot at a kit for my l'il scientist.

  26. Very cool. Look forward to trying this with my kids. joel at zeptosoft dot you know what.

  27. This looks great!
    bag(dot)lady(dot)aj at gmail

  28. Would love to win the kit!

  29. This looks like fun for kids and adults. Thanks for the giveaway.
    Email is Michelle dot costumes at verizon dot net

  30. I would love to win the kit! I signed up for Toys are Tools. Email is jcg88 at bitstream dot net. Thanks!

  31. What a great idea! Looks like a great activity for my science-loving son.

  32. This looks great Jenn. My son loves science and math and this looks very enticing.

  33. Thanks. I am a recent member and follow on facebook. This looks like a great kit. cmclarstrom at gmail dot com

  34. I saw this at Maker Faire and my 8 year old boy was fascinated. We do some home made electrical projects at home with LED's and wire and batteries-and would love to add this to our home projects. Even the name is great- Squishy Circuits- it's even fun to say! I would buy this if I don't win it! cd clifford
    cdclifford at verizon dot net

  35. Lisa Rowley thinks this is totally cool! My son may be inspired to use this as part of his science project this year if we win a kit!...

    Lisas.lists at gmail dot com

  36. I have two science loving boys who would love this! Please enter me in the contest to win a Squishy Circuit. Thank you! I am a fan on FB too. - Amy
    cyclonesfamily at bellsouth dot net

  37. Science is fun, interesting and exciting and this is one of those "toys" that seems to showcase that, which is great. Our son is excited by science and I hope his excitement stays with him.
    sb at stevenbaines dot com

  38. Very cool! It's a perfect father-daughter project to keep them busy on the weekends!

    jhmin3 at comcast dot net


  39. Thx for the GFCF playdough recipe. :)

  40. This is cool--what a fun way to promote scientific thinking.
    meerav3 at gmail dot com

  41. so great! i love these! cherylr at ohyeahloveit dot com

  42. Great activity, I must say! if you let children do this, they will learn a lot about the concept of science. They will learn and enjoy play time as well.

  43. Jenn, this is also fabulous for increasing hand strength to the fingers, and overall fine motor control as well as visual motor control..what a great idea this is!!

  44. For me personally, I’ve found that for younger children they grasp the (admittedly advanced) concepts of circuitry better with a (safe) hands-on approach. One of the best ways I've found is by using something called Snap Circuits. They take all of the advanced level calculations out of building circuitry. With a simple google you can check them out. Now your kids won't be making award-winning robots with them, but the circuits will emphasize some very important and fundamental physical principles they'll need (like polarity, contact, current, etc.) and the kids will have some fun doing some pretty cool, albeit simple sciency things like turning on and off LEDs or driving small toy motors and watching them spin. They enjoy it so it's good. I found this beginner kit online and it seems to be pretty good: