Teaching Simple Animation: Fun With Thaumatropes and Other Big Words

Why study animation with kids? Because it's a great vehicle to help them better understand storytelling and sequencing ideas, whether in words or pictures. Simple animation techniques are fun, hands-on projects that incorporate play, creativity and collaboration. Because the underlying processes are the same as for video, animation projects are a powerful way to help kids understand and prepare for more sophisticated media projects.

Animation: An Overview

Animation works because of a trick of the human eye called the persistence of vision. When light is used or controlled in the proper way, the eye "remembers" an image it has seen for a split second. If the image is replaced quickly enough with one that is only slightly different (in the proper way), a two-dimensional graphic can appear to be moving. Shadow puppets are the simplest form of animation. In the late 19th century, people began creating mechanical devices like thaumatropes, zoetropes and phenakistascopes that made the effect more sophisticated. All of the devices are precursors to modern animated movies, and all of them can be made easily by kids.

Storytelling: The Essence of Animation

The fact is that animation, whether a flip-book or full-length Disney movie, is simply telling a story by finding the right sequence of pictures and words. That is a powerful skill for kids to master. Before any animator, filmmaker or video artist begins a project, he or she first does a storyboard to lay out the sequence of actions.

Hand-drawn animation activities are an excellent step to help children become better storytellers and prepare them for a storyboarding project, followed by computer animation, multimedia presentations or video. Start by leading a discussion that helps students explore aspects of a story they may not have noticed immediately, such as how it develops, what's missing, the use of language, how words and pictures work together, and what the story means to them.

The Simplest Animation Device: Making a Thaumatrope

To begin teaching kids about animation, try a thaumatrope. It consists of a paper disc attached to two pieces of string. When the strings are twirled between your fingers, the two images on each side of the disk appear to be one.

Kids of almost any age can make a thaumatrope. Have the class do several thaumatropes in order to see the possibilities before attempting more sophisticated images.

Start with words on each side of the disk, such as two parts of their names, so that they see the importance of positioning on each side of the disk. Then try simple drawings on each side, such as a bird and a tree, before going on to photos cut from magazines. Be sure to clearly and completely model all steps each time.

The Heart of Animation: Flip Books

Once kids have gotten a feel for what animation is about with thaumatropes, it's time to move on to flip books. Flip books offer the most versatility and creativity in hands-on animation projects because they are not limited in length or materials, as is the case with some other techniques. They're inexpensive to create with common materials and require no viewing devices. Most important, the process used to make a flip book forms the basis for all of the more sophisticated animation techniques, including filmed animation. The basic rule is, if it will flip, it will work, so try index cards, Post-it notepads or other "flippable" media.

For a flip book you first need a story, maybe one as simple as a dot moving from one side of the page to the other, or as complicated as a truck that seems to disappear in traffic. A flip book simply takes a storyboard and inserts the intermediary steps needed to create the illusion of motion. Once again, start simple and have kids do several flip books to get the feel of what's possible. The first time, have them use the basic compositional forms of drawing that they're already used to, like dots, lines or circles, so that they focus on placement and sequence rather than the detail within the object.

Now try two simple objects, perhaps two arrows starting on opposite sides and crossing each other. Move on to other drawings and even photos. Once kids have mastered flip books, they know almost everything they need to design other animation projects, including zoetropes, phenakistascopes and even animated GIFs. For examples and ideas, visit some of the following sites:

    • Cosmic Kanga is a flip book you can print out as an example.
    • HaringKids has great examples as well as lesson plans for flipbooks from the Keith Haring Foundation.
    • Flipbooks for a Change! provides some thoughts and ideas on making flipbooks.
    • IVtools is a flip book gallery with some ideas to build on.
    • Fliptomania has many flipbooks for ideas, and you can order printed versions, including excellent examples of how to use Photoshop to build flipbooks.

More Hands-on Animation Projects

Zoetropes and phenakistascopes require a few more props, but they also provide fun projects for exploring other forms of animation and different effects. Once kids understand the sequencing of images from flip books, the rest is easy.