March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

I’ve Got Cardboard and a Sphero. Now What?

Bowling with Sphero Photographs courtesy of Alisha Wilson

“Hi, I’m Mrs. Wilson, your librarian. Can I interest you in a book or maybe a robot?”

Without a doubt, the resources and experiences we offer students in our libraries have multiplied with the arrival of maker space culture. I vividly remember the excitement on the day our very first Sphero arrived at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, FL, where I am a librarian, in 2015. My fourth-period assistants quickly named him Wall-E, and students were thrilled to drive him all over our library.

Over time, though, even the coolest things can start to seem ordinary, and students can walk right past an expensive piece of technology without a glance. It’s a natural reaction, which makes changing up the activities in your library crucial to keeping kids excited about what’s available and what might be coming in next.

Sphero Apps

The first way to diversify the activity with your Sphero is to make sure you’re using all the apps on offer. We use several in our library: Sphero, Sphero Chromo, Flappy Ball, Sphero Exile, Rolling Dead, Sphero Golf, and Sphero Edu. Each offers a different activity, function, or game.

The standard Sphero-related app offers a variety of missions students can complete to earn points and unlock new features. This is an effective starting point for students who are new to the technology. Apps such as the Rolling Dead combine augmented reality into a game that can be played with the Sphero. When your students are ready to move from just driving the Sphero to controlling it with code, the Sphero Edu app offers graduated levels of coding experience, from drawing to using code blocks to writing text programs in JavaScript for more advanced coders.

Activities for Sphero  

A good cardboard collection and a Sphero or Ollie are perfect tools for inspiring creative inquiry and play in your library. Both offer many possibilities, individually and together.


Set up a bowling alley for Sphero using a flat piece of cardboard weighed down and surrounded by old reference books. Buy a plastic bowling pin set from the Dollar Store and you have a fun activity that your students will definitely want to try. A good activity for helping students move through various levels of coding.

Tip: Create score cards or have a dry erase board nearby for students to compete with each other. My students love to play this with another person or with a group, similar to real bowling.

Obstacle course

One of the first activities was navigating a maze made of tape that ran all over our library. My assistants would time students as they drove Wall-E through the maze and would record their times on a leaderboard. It was a great starter activity. If you want to up the challenge, have students make an obstacle course out of cardboard. If you have a Makey Makey or littleBits, you can take this activity a step further and challenge them to incorporate sound or movement into the course.

Tips: Tape off a designated building area for the actual maze.

Set out cardboard sorted by shape and size as well as materials like tape, cardboard saws, and Makedo screws if you have them.

Post a challenge sign outlining what you want students to do. I’ve found it helpful to have a student start the course so that others will feel more comfortable adding to it.


If you want a surefire way to engage students, try painting with a robot. For this activity, we connected PVC pipe from Lowes to form a rectangle and lined the pipes with cardboard toilet paper tubes to prevent Sphero from hopping over the border. Then we placed black butcher paper inside the rectangle to cover the entire surface area. So that we could easily refresh the “canvas” when needed, we taped a smaller white piece of butcher paper in the center, and used various paint colors to mark the degree points of zero, 90, 180, and 270. Another option: make your painting area entirely out of a large cardboard box cut to size and place the smaller pieces of butcher paper inside the rectangle as needed.

Tips: Make sure you are using washable paint. We also used the plastic Sphero Nubby Covers for added texture and extra protection, but you don’t have to. Spheros are waterproof, so it’s OK to wash them off after the activity.

Cut the white pieces of butcher paper in advance so they are readily available to change out as needed.

Splish splash

Because the Sphero is waterproof, giving it a water-related challenge is definitely worth trying. Use a plastic kiddie pool or a rectangle plastic storage bin filled with water, and have Sphero try to rescue an object such as a floating toy or figurine by getting it to a safe zone. Consider incorporating a design challenge by having students create a boat out of foam, plastic, or cardboard. They will need to seal their design with duct tape to prevent leaks and sinking.

Tips: Lay a plastic tarp underneath your pool and set it up near the front of the library with a challenge sign with directions on what you want students to do, and the process for checking out the Sphero. The location will not only draw attention to the activity but also give you more control over the area.

Ollies are not waterproof (because of the charging port), so only try this activity with a Sphero.

Activities for Ollie

Ollies do not have as many apps as the Sphero, but they can do more tricks and drive faster; they can also be programmed and used with the bowling alley or obstacle course.


Students love playing Skee-Ball with Ollie in our library. To create our game, my assistants painted a large cardboard movie advertisement box from our local theater and cut out Ollie-size squares. The students assigned point values to the squares to make it more challenging. The objective is to drive or program Ollie to get as many points as possible.

Tips: Allow students to practice and figure out how fast they’ll need Ollie to go to win various point values and how to navigate Ollie into the space. Increase the difficulty by giving kids a set number of tries to gain the most points. Keep a leaderboard nearby and let them try to top their own scores and their peers’.

Ramp park 

Because Ollie is great at performing stunts and tricks, have students create ramp parks out of cardboard and decorate them with paint or paper. We store these year round, even if they are not on our floor. If students want to work with Ollie, we can pull them out for added fun.

Tips: Have students create themes and names for their ramp designs. Some name theirs after themselves, while others take inspiration elsewhere. Some of ours are named the “Cheese,” the “Ellie,” and the “Everest.”

SLJ 2017 Maker Hero Alisha Wilson is librarian at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, FL.

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  1. I recently had a cardboard obstacle course using Spheros and it was actually a disaster! Once the Sphero went into a cardboard box– like for a tunnel or under an arch– it would get confused and lose its direction. We would have to take it out and re-center it in order to make it drive properly again. Did you ever encounter this problem? I suspect my cardboard was too thick, but it was frustrating nonetheless.

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