skeleton next to paper plate

Modeling the Backbone and Spinal Cord

To provide a tactile model of the backbone’s construction showing the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord and the function of the spinal discs.

This activity is included in many elementary school science texts in the unit on the human body. As an introductory activity in the study of basic anatomy, this activity works well for students with visual impairments because of its tactual and auditory components. The threading of the tubular shoe lace shows how the vertebrae in fact surround the spinal cord. 

The macaroni accurately represent the separate vertebrae, which are difficult to discern tactually on a skeleton. Moving the backbone constructed without the cushioning discs, produces a grinding sound as bone rubs against bone.  The backbone made with discs moves more easily and quietly.  


The model backbone produced is very close in length to an actual backbone. If time is limited or the student has weak hand skills, reducing the number of discs and vertebrae to be assembled simplifies the task and still provides the same instructional benefits. An alternate to this activity uses a shorter string or a pipe cleaner as the spinal cord, and 10 macaroni and 10 gummy rings. If the setting does not allow use of food during activities, soft rubber rings available at hardware and stationery stores can be substituted.

trays with macaroni
Trays with macaroni


  1. If desired, label the head or give it facial features.
  2. Tie shoe lace to head – the spinal cord in now attached to the brainstem.
  3. First thread all the macaroni onto the shoe lace. Move the shoelace and listen to the sound. Remove all but one piece of macaroni. 
  4. Thread a piece of macaroni alternating with a gummy saver cushion.  (If threading onto the string is difficult for your student, see activity below using a pipe cleaner.)
  5. Continue until all the gummy savers have been used.
  6. The remaining un-cushioned macaroni represent the fused bones near the end of the spine as well as the coccyx and tailbone.
  7. Tie off the end of the spinal cord/shoelace at the base of the spine to keep vertebrae and cushions from sliding off. 
  8. If desired, nerves (string) from the spinal cord can be added coming out from the spinal cord between each pair of vertebrae.


  1. Thread all ten macaroni onto the pipe cleaner.
  2. Bend the pipe cleaner at one end to keep the macaroni from falling off. 
  3. Bend the pipe cleaner and listen to the sound of the macaroni rubbing against each other. 
  4. Now remove all but one macaroni form the pipe cleaner. Thread the gummy ring shaped candy alternately on the pipe cleaner. 
  5. Listen as the pipe cleaner is moved. Make other observations about the movement possible by the model back bone. 
  6. Other activities related to studying the backbone include looking at actual skeletons or animals or models of the human skeleton. Some students benefit from locating and touching their own backbones and exploring how their backbones move. 

NGSS Standards:

LS1.A: Structure and Function

Be sure to check out Kate Fraser’s Teachable Moment video: The Spine.

By Kate Fraser

collage of modeling the backbone and spinal cord

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