DIY Rattles, Shakers, and Maracas

Whatever you want to call them, making instruments that are shaken to produce sound is a time-honored activity that spans all age groups. Since my school recently had a music-themed week, I've collected some maraca-making ideas to help you shake things up in your classroom. (Sorry.) You’ll find instructions for these kinds of instruments all over the web and in countless books. Here’s a roundup of techniques for creating shaker instruments ranging from preschool-simple up to adult-professional.

A shaker or rattle type instrument is typically (not always) a hollow container in which small objects are placed. Sound is produced, of course, when the instrument is shaken. To make these kinds of instruments you need three basic supplies: small objects to make the sound, something hollow to put them in, and a way to seal it up. A handle can also be added.

The Body of the Shaker

Basically, almost anything hollow and closeable can be used. It all depends on how fancy you want to get and the ages of the people involved.

Cardboard tubes sealed with strong paper on each end, or a paper cup sealed at the top
Empty plastic water bottles
Plastic Easter eggs
Two paper plates
Film canisters
Empty pill bottles (wash first and remove labels)
Metal cans - coffee, juice, tea
Metal boxes - Altoid tins, for example
Papier mache (similar to making a pinata - just use something smaller for the forms, like inflated water balloons)

You can also use dried gourds, available at craft stores in the fall. Many of these come with natural handles and seeds inside, so it may seem all they need is a paint job. Wrong. Dried gourds have dusty mold both inside and outside. Before you use them with kids, an adult should put on a dust mask, take them outside, and give them a light sanding. Then rinse them off. You can drill holes in them so objects can be inserted - just make the holes fairly small and don't let the kids sniff them. Although I have asthma and have never had a problem with gourds, I would avoid using them as a project material with a child who suffers from any respiratory condition.

For a really long-term project, you could dry your own gourds. This one's probably better as a homeschool activity or for a teenager. Just buy some nice decorative gourds at the supermarket and put them someplace cool and dry. For a year. Don't let them touch each other. Turn them over once every few days until they harden, and then let them dry until you hear the seeds rattle. Buy extras, because some of them will rot or otherwise be unsatisfactory.

For a really really long-term project, grow your own gourds. I haven't tried this, mostly because I have a black thumb. I can't even keep a plastic plant alive. Anyway.

Inside the Shaker

You'll want to experiment (or better, let the kids experiment) with different objects and amounts to get just the "right" sound. Also, try combining some of these items!

Unpopped popcorn
Rice, beans
Dry cereal
Ball bearings, BB's
Nuts, bolts, screws
Sand, pebbles, gravel
Jingle bells


Naturally, handle materials will depend on the design of the shaker. In most cases no handle is needed at all. It's usually unnecessary and makes the instrument more likely to break. Still, if you'd like one, consider dowels, tongue depressors, pieces of fallen branches, paper towel tubes, etc.

Sealing the Shaker

Once everything's assembled, you'll need to seal the shaker in some way. How you do this will depend on what you used for the body. For simple instruments, like those made with paper plates, a stapler works fine. Egg shakers should be sealed with strong glue - and I also tape them both ways with colored masking tape ever since the Rice Incident of 2006 (don't ask). A small hole in a gourd can be covered with strong tape or filled with hot glue. Another good option is Gorilla Glue, which has an awesome new quick-setting version.

Shakers in lidded containers may not seem to need sealing, but if you're working with small children it's better to be safe than sorry.

Decorating & Extras

Use any decorating method you like to jazz up your shakers. Young children are fine with stickers or paint. Older kids might like more challenging methods, like decoupage or wood burning (works great on gourds - just wear a mask).

Another fun technique is to add sound-making items to the outside of the shaker. You can do this in addition to what's already inside, or you can have the sound come exclusively from this source. An example of the latter would be the shakere, a gourd instrument with beads or shells strung around the outside.


Rain sticks: Covered in a separate, future post, which will be extremely cool and have a photo tutorial, I promise! :)

Jingle sticks: Nail bottle caps onto dowels and decorate with paint or colored tape. You could also use wire to attach jingle bells to the dowel, and then tape to secure the wire.

Easy tambourine: Get some plastic embroidery hoops (look in the sewing section), various sizes of jingle bells, and some thin but strong wire. Separate the hoops - each hoop yields two instruments - and tie a 3' length of wire around one of them. Thread on a bell. Bring it down to the hoop, bend down the remaining wire, and twist a couple of times. Wrap the wire around the hoop a few times and add another bell. Continue until you go about 3/4 around the hoop, and then tie off the wire. These make a surprisingly nice sound when shaken or tapped against the palm. The hoops and bells come in lots of different sizes and are super cheap, so you can have lots of variety.

Bell wristlets: All you do here is fasten a string of bells around the child's wrist(s) and/or ankle(s). In a pinch just use yarn or plastic lacing. For longer-lasting instruments, use those stretchy woven ponytail ties and sew a few bells on with strong thread. Or get really elaborate and use felt strips with velcro or snap closures. You could also use cloth headbands for a head-shaking instrument! There's a lot of potential here for music and movement activities. You could even have a color-coded set for teaching left/right... Oh, the ideas I get...

Sound discrimination center: The object of this game is to listen and match eggs based on the sounds they make when shaken. Use 6 pairs of plastic Easter eggs with 6 different fillers. Use pairs of colors to make the game easier. For example, fill two blue eggs with pebbles, two green eggs with fine sand, two yellow ones with rice, and so on. Seal with hot glue and/or colored masking tape; store in a plastic egg carton. Voila - for practically nothing, compared to the wooden ones in that expensive catalog. You know the one.

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