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Thaumatropes are a great way to teach animation without a computer because they show how the brain blends pictures that change quickly. Part of a picture is drawn on one side of a disk, and the rest of the picture is drawn on the other side. When the disk is quickly spun, the two images merge into one. A thaumatrope takes about 30 minutes to make, and doesn't require any special equipment.

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Thaumatropes, whose name comes from the ancient Greek word for "wonder turner," have been around for almost 200 years, just like other animation toys like the zoetrope and the praxinoscope. These mechanical toys created the illusion of motion by quickly switching between a few images. But they were more like GIFs than true animation. The magic lantern has been around even longer; over 400 years in Europe and over 2000 years in Asia. This type of projector uses hand-painted slides or photographic glass slides to project an image. Operators could generate an animation effect by quickly switching between two slides, similar to how thaumatropes work.

Why this activity?

Most animation is made on a computer. Creating an animation toy helps students

  • Engage students (kinesthetic learning)

  • Develop fine motor skills

  • Reduces screen time

  • Develop visual and spatial abilities

Making animation toys can also help students understand history. Film animation has only been around for about 120 years or so. Before that, animation was mechanical. It’s a little easier for students to relate to how things were in the past if they can play with some of the toys from the past.

Thaumatropes make excellent holiday crafts. Students can make Halloween or Christmas themed thaumatropes as well as a simple Mother’s Day gift. They can also be used as a substitute for Valentines.


Make copies of the thaumatrope template on cardstock before you start the activity. Regular paper is not stiff enough. Kids will need two circles for each thaumatrope they want to make. I cut the template into a strip of two disks ahead of time so that the craft table wouldn't get too crowded. You will also need the following on hand:

  • card stock

  • markers

  • glue sticks

  • hole punch

  • rubber bands or yarn

  • scissors

Start by showing how thaumatropes work. You can show students the video in the resources section or, even better, have some thaumatropes on hand for students to spin. You can either make a few examples using the template for this lesson or ask students to donate thaumatropes after you do this lesson with a class.

Explain how to make a thaumatrope by creating one in front of the class or showing the tutorial from the resources below. Students should begin with a simple drawing, such as a face with a smile or eyes, in pencil. Before they glue the disks together, they check that the images are aligned correctly by placing the two pieces back to back and rotating them vertically to check for alignment. When it’s facing you, each image should be upright.

Thaumatrope example

Show the class how to make a thaumatrope by making one yourself or by showing the tutorial from the links below. The first thaumatrope they make should be something simple to draw, like a face with a smile or eyes, and should be in pencil. Before they glue the disks together, they should put the two pieces back to back and turn them vertically to see if the images are lined up correctly. When you look at it, each picture should be right-side up.

The thaumatrope pattern has two disks since one disk of card material isn't firm enough to spin easily. When they use two disks, they can also see both parts of the image at the same time, which makes it easier to draw them. By putting the two disks on top of each other and holding them up to the light, they can line up the parts of the image.

After gluing the pieces together, they need to make two holes in the disks and put the strings or rubber bands through them. If you can risk students shooting each other, rubber bands make thaumatropes spin faster. The last step is for students to use markers to ink in their pencil drawings. Sharpies are great for this because the tips are so small.

Most students will have time to make a second thaumatrope. For their second thaumatrope, students should aim to build something more complex than their first. For design ideas, students should look at the thaumatrope examples in the resources below or search the Internet for thaumatrope designs.


Presentation Slideshow - Includes ISTE standards

Student instructions with thaumatrope template: Includes step-by-step instructions for creating a thaumatrope and includes some ideas for thaumatropes.

Thaumatrope tutorial: step-by-step on how to create a thaumatrope It differs from the student's instructions in that she uses one paper circle rather than two.

Mr. Wizard video: This is an old video, but it does a good job explaining how animation toys work and shows several different examples of animation toys.


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