What is it?
Using office supplies and instructions from the Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction book series by John Austin, create tiny catapults, bows and arrows, and other “weapons” then compete in challenges with them.
You may be able to find what you need among you existing office supplies, or solicit donations of materials. In this case, you could potentially run the program without buying anything. I had a healthy budget to work with and ended up spending about $50 on building materials.
Why do it?
There’s a little bit of every STEAM element—science, technology, engineering, art, and math—in this program. Not many activities hit on all that, particularly not ones with this high appeal for pre-teens and teens. It’s a great program for disguising educational elements behind a ton of fun elements.
A Word About Weapons
Our culture has a complicated relationship with weapons. Personally, I am a pacifist through and through and I still think there’s something really cool about a big honkin’ crossbow. (As long as it’s not being shot at any people. Or animals. I may like crossbows but I’m also a vegetarian.) It’s possible to channel that “coolness” factor into an activity that builds STEAM skills, creativity, and a sense of healthy competition, without glorifying violence. You definitely need to be comfortable with it, though. If you’re unsure, don’t feel like you have to do this type of program. I stuck to projects replicating medieval-type weapons, nothing modern, because I was more comfortable with that. We also called the program “Build to Battle” to avoid referencing weapons in the title.
Safety Rules and Procedures
Provide goggles for kids to wear in case of flying shrapnel (aka, on the off-chance they send a piece of a clothespin flying toward someone’s face or something).
Whatever you have the kids “firing” with their weapons, make sure it is not dangerous and is easy to clean up. (FYI, marshmallows may seem like a good idea, but are not easy to clean up when they’ve been accidentally stomped on.) Some of the things Austin suggests using in Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction, like toothpicks and skewers, are too dangerous for my comfort. I use pom poms and Q-tips whenever possible.
Tape off an area of the room as the “firing zone.” No one can go into the firing zone except at designated times, which you decide. At those times, you will make sure no one is firing anything. “Weapons” can only be fired into the firing zone and nowhere else.
Depending on what project you use, you may want to pre-prep some of the materials. For example, if something needs to be cut with a knife, do that part yourself ahead of time.
Choose a few activities from John Austin’s Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction books. You will need to be selective. Some of the activities in the books are too hard, too expensive, or too dangerous for a library program setting.
These are the books. If you can only get one, I suggest the first one.
When choosing your activities, the biggest factor after safety is whether you are comfortable with the project. You should be able to make it and have your finished product work properly. Use your own product as a sample at the program. If you manage to make it work, but aren’t sure quite how you did it or if you could do it again, or if you don’t think the kids could do it, then choose something simpler.
These are projects I have done with middle school kids with success. Since kids come with a wide range of abilities and interest, I like to have a few projects to try, some easier and some harder, and let them choose which they want to do.
Tri-clip Bow, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction 3: Build Siege Weapons of the Dark Ages, p. 235-238
This is extremely quick and easy. It works well as a warm-up and confidence booster. I used Q-tips instead of matchsticks or toothpicks.
Simple Crossbow, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare, p. 55-58
This is possibly me favorite. It’s simple and gets really impressive range. The downside: it requires taking apart a ballpoint pen, which is a lot harder than it looks. Definitely prep the pens yourself ahead of time rather than having kids try to do it.
#2 Catapult, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare, p. 129-134
Another one’s that’s great for its simplicity, though there’s a trade-off; I don’t think it’s quite as cool as some of the harder ones.
Hanger Slingshot, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare, p. 79-82
This has wicked range. You will need to keep an eye on how the kids are using the hangers, though; a cut-up hanger could become dangerous.
Siege Catapult, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare, p. 143-150
This is a classic project that some of the kids are likely to have done in some form before. The result looks really cool. Its range is respectable if you do it right, but it’s not huge. It’s not the easiest project. When I make them, I often have to do some tinkering to get everything in place for it to stay together and work well.
Plasticware Crossbow, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction 3: Build Siege Weapons of the Dark Ages, p. 149-156
None of the kids actually took me up on the opportunity to make this one, I think because it looks complicated and they were intimidated. But if you have a crowd that likes a challenge, I did get this one to work, and it was awesome.
To give the program (and projectiles) some focus, it’s best to have some kind of game or goal. Some ideas:
-Have kids build structure out of some light, easy-to-knock-over object (I used our stash of toilet paper tubes). Then challenge them to destroy each other’s structures with their mini weapons.
-See who can shoot or propel a projectile the farthest.
-Set up a target and have them try to hit it.
If you have any questions or want to talk to me about this program, feel free to leave a comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org.