Cardboard Automata Simple Machines

Simple machines are super awesome and easy to make with everyday materials. Read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to. One of our favorite simple machines to make is the automata sculpture, which uses cams and cranks to move a sculptural element. This activity allows the students to experience the components of the simple machine while also personalizing their creation to tell their own story. Having a few examples of different automata components is helpful, but there are also great videos that show the inner workings of these unique sculptures (consider watching this video montage of an automata museum display or this CBS special on automata with connections to the popular book and movie, Hugo).

Gather Materials:

  • Cardboard boxes and scraps
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Hot glue
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Markers
  • Small found objects for added weight if needed

Make It:

The Tinkering Studio has a great set of instructions for facilitating cardboard automata with children, including best practices considerations and ways of tying the sculpture to storytelling. We recommend letting the students experiment by building a generic automata with a simple cam follower and crank mechanism that will allow them to switch out different cams (circles, ovals, etc.). This allows them to really get hands-on experience with the different movement possibilities, which can further spark their design and let them experiment with how they can animate a scene or character to tell a story. These creations can be a great writing prompt to spark their storytelling imaginations or they can be a culminating activity to visualize an existing story they have written or previously read.

Design Experiments to Consider:

  • Try adding multiple cams for additional animated characters.
  • Try adding different components to create sounds related to the story.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

  • The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects and Activities that Make Science Fun by Kelly Doudna
  • Gear Up! Marvelous Machine Projects by Keith Good
  • Looking Closely at Cardboard Automata (1st grade at Mount Vernon Private School)