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A Balancing Act: Calder's Stabiles

The inventor of the mobile and stabile was the American artist, Alexander Calder. In this lesson students will create kinetic art by experimenting with fulcrum, and balance. The final results are “moving”!

  • Grade 5
    Grade 6
  • 60 to 90 Minutes
  • Directions

    1. Introduce students to the world of Alexander Calder by showing various images of his work. (Images available at Share the book Sandy’s Circus by Tanya Lee Stone as a read aloud. This book will help to relate the life of Alexander Calder as a young boy growing up and finding his passion in art. Mention that Calder believed that color was secondary to his work. He used mostly black, white, red, blue and yellow. His opinion was that red was the color most opposite to back and white.
    2. Talk to students about the differences between 2-D art and 3-D art. In the theme of this lesson, creating a stabile, give examples of sculpture that is kinetic, those that move, respond, make sound. As students are examining the examples you provide with the lesson discuss symmetry, asymmetry and balance as it is used in art, math and science.
    3. Provide time for students to make sketches for their stabile constructions. Objectives for design will include: organic shapes, geometric shapes, stabilizer bar, notches, height, width and depth, balance beam, counterweight.
    4. Before sketches begin, orient the students by providing the size of materials that will be given for the project. The following paper sizes are suggested however can be adjusted by the instructor to better fit the group being taught. Each student will receive two different sized sheets of double colored cardstock cut to 8” x 8” (20 cm x 20 cm) and 4” x 8” (10 cm x 20 cm), 2 chenille sticks, 2 art straws, and Crayola Pointed-Tip Scissors.
    5. Remind students to think of unity and balance both in science and artistically. Using a variety of geometrical shapes of various sizes or doing the same with organic shapes will create unity and harmony within the finished sculpture. Encourage students to share their design ideas with each other before working on the sculpting materials. Teachers may wish to provide scrap papers first to allow students to practice paper sculpting techniques. Students will need to have knowledge of how to cut, notch, curl, punch and fold heavy paper. If part of the lesson includes color.
    6. Begin making mobiles by folding the 8” x 8” (20 cm x 20 cm) piece of cardstock in half. Draw lightly on one side to make guidelines for the shape of this base piece. Carefully cut out along the guidelines with the paper folded creating bilateral symmetry. Along the bottom edge of this piece, decide where notches will be placed to attach to the stabilizer bar. Cut two notches approximately 1/8” (0.32 cm) wide. The length of each notch should be no more than 4” (10 cm), depending upon the height of the stabilizer bar.
    7. Demonstrate how a stabilizer bar will help keep the larger base form from easily tipping over. Fold the 4” x 8” piece in half then design its shape to complement the shape of the base. Cut only the top side leaving the bottom flat. The bottom edge makes contact with the table surface. Cut notches in the top portion of the stabilizer bar to match those in the base. These can be determined by measuring with a ruler so they match the notches cut previously in step one. The two pieces will now slide together creating a sturdy base.
    8. Use the chenille sticks and art straws to create the beam. The art straws help strengthen the chenille and also provide a surface for coloring later. Insert the chenille sticks into the straws; determine the length for the “beam”, or arm, which holds the counterbalances. Straws should be trimmed so that about ½ inch (1.27 cm) of the chenille stick extends out each end. These ends will be bent and looped to hold the counterbalances.
    9. Counterbalances can be created in the same way with straws and chenille sticks. However, these will be much shorter and will be attached so they are perpendicular to the main beam. Students will punch a hole with a regular hole punch in the top-most section of their base. This hole is where they insert the beam and then begin to experiment with the counter balances.
    10. Experimentation is very integral to this lesson. It will take time and practice to find the balance point or fulcrum. Students will also need to be willing to help each other as they work out their counterweight solutions. This part of the design takes more than two hands!
    11. Students will cut out small shapes from left over scraps. These shapes are hung from the two perpendicular bars at each end of the beam. Use hole punches to make a space for hanging these counterweights. Encourage students to experiment with many ideas. For example, more than one small shape can be hung from the counterweight bars. If a shape doesn’t have enough weight, add another small shape next to the first to achieve the balance point. All shapes should be simple, organic or geometric, to resonate with the simple designs of the artist, Alexander Calder.
    12. When balance has been satisfactorily achieved, students mark the balance points on the paper straws. Next they will disassemble their stabiles. Use Crayola Acrylic Paint thinned with water to paint the straws holding the chenille sticks. Students may also use Crayola Markers to add brighter color or design to the base pieces and/or the counterweight pieces. Re-assemble when paint is dry and display completed stabiles in a common areas of the school for all to enjoy.
  • Standards

    LA: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

    LA: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    MATH: Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume.

    SCI: Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

    SS: Explore factors that contribute to one's personal identity such as interests, capabilities, and perceptions.

    VA: Describe and place a variety of art objects in historical and cultural contexts.

    VA: Demonstrate openness in trying new ideas, materials, methods, and approaches in making works of art and design.

  • Adaptations

    Stabiles can be created out of many types of materials. Use Crayola ® Air Dry Clay to create a strong base out of one slab of clay. Follow the rest of the instructions from this lesson plan to make the beams and counterweights. When dry, paint the base as Calder would, use Crayola ® Acrylics in black, white or a primary color.

    What if Dr. Seuss and Alexander Calder collaborated? Make a stabile sculpture in which the wackiness of Dr. Seuss and his contraptions are combined with the balance and engineering of Calder. Wild colors, stripes, fake fur and organic shapes will create a work of art that is fun for everyone!

    Instead of using two tone cardstock, use recycled cardboard from boxes. Increase the size of the stabiles so that they are large works that can sit on the floor to be exhibited rather than the table top. If creating a very large stabile, the beams can be created from wooden dowels in the appropriate lengths.

    Experiment with the counterweights on the stabiles, how could you use marshmallows, packing foam, old pieces of broken jewelry, etc., in your creation?


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  • Creativity.
  • Capacity.
  • Collaboration.
  • Change.
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