How to Make a Homemade Zoetrope?

A zoetrope is a traditional toy that continues to arouse the curiosity of today's children. Today, we'll explain how to make a homemade zoetrope.
How to Make a Homemade Zoetrope?

Last update: 20 May, 2021

Making a homemade zoetrope is easy and fun, but do you know what one is? Who invented it? Learn all about this optical toy that kids will love and then start organizing a family craft get-together. Are you ready to get started?

What is a zoetrope?

Since the invention of photography, man has been on a continuous race to create images, even incorporating movement. It was the prelude to the appearance of cinema, or the “pre-cinema stage”, in which various devices were invented, among them the zoetrope.

This optical device was devised in 1834 by the mathematician William George Horner, although it became popular as a toy around 1860 under the name of “magic drum” or “wheel of life”. Its mechanism shares the same principles used to compose cartoons.

A zoetrope showing a horse and rider.
© Co-production Spain-Germany; Get In The Picture Productions, Cine Chromatix

The device also works in the same way as cinema and creates a succession of moving images. It’s a kinetic illusion that combines character drawings and movement by taking advantage of the effect of light and the persistence of the images on the retina. Since, as the drum rotates, the figures are linked in order to achieve the effect of a scene in action.

How to make a homemade zoetrope with children?

Crafts are creative, playful, and addictive activities that children love to do. Plan the construction of a homemade zoetrope and you’ll see how much fun they’ll have with it. To carry it out, you’ll need the following elements:

  • Drawing templates for the zoetrope or white cardboard
  • A round cardboard box
  • Black cardboard
  • Silicone glue
  • A ruler
  • A pencil
  • Scissors
  • A precision knife
  • A plastic or styrofoam cup
  • A pushpin

Step-by-step instructions:

  • Draw two shapes on the black cardboard: a circle the size of the diameter of the box. A rectangular strip of the same size as the inner circumference of the circle and protruding from the edge at twice the height. For example, if the wall of the box is two inches, the strip of cardboard should be about four inches wide.
  • On one of the edges, mark and cut quarter-inch slots, separated by a space of two inches. Cut with the precision knife and remove the trimmings so that you’re left with a grooved strip.
  • On the opposite edge, make small 1/2 inch triangular cuts and fold a tab.
  • Glue the slotted cardboard to the inside base of the box by gluing the tab.
  • Place the black cardboard circle on top and cover the tabs.
  • Cut a strip of white cardboard the same length as the black one and the same height as the edge of the box.
  • Mark six divisions with a pencil and leave a half-inch on each edge to glue.
  • Draw a figure in a sequence of movements in each space. You can also download templates of drawings in sequences from the internet, print them, and then paste them on the black cardboard.
  • Glue the strip of cardboard with the drawings or the template to the inside wall of the drum.
  • Mark the center of the base of the box.
  • To make the rotating system, turn the cup upside down and place the box on top, resting its base on the cup.
  • Push the pushpin through the box, the cardboard, and the cup, and the homemade zoetrope is ready to rotate!
A homemade zoetrope.

An ecological cartoon machine

The zoetrope’s a simple and easy device to make at home; you can even use reusable material to have an eco-friendly toy! For example, use a round box of candy or chocolates to make the base and cereal boxes to make the drum.

You can also combine the manual work with an internet search for templates to have several models with different characters. This way, you’ll be encouraging the learning of different contents in the same activity: Information and communication technologies (ICTs), reading, drawing, DIY (Do It Yourself), geometry, and mathematics.

“Children don’t play to learn, but they learn because they play.”

-Jean Piaget

Plan an afternoon with the kids to make this homemade zoetrope, an activity that involves putting into action several skills such as creativity, manual dexterity, their artistic side, and above all, the desire to play and have fun as a family. What are you waiting for to get down to work?

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