I’m a big fan of STEM projects, especially ones that use materials I’m likely to already have on hand! So when I came across instructions for making these cardboard automata, I knew I wanted to give it a try.
This is a project I’d recommend for kids ages 7+, though with some pre-made materials, it could be adapted for younger ages. Give yourself plenty of time to tinker around because that’s where most of the learning happens! There’s a lot of give-and-take, trial-and-error here, and it’s hard to know just how something might turn out until you give it a try. Pushing through the frustration to get to the AHA moments makes it so worth it in the end.
A full tutorial for the project can be found on Exploratorium’s site here. I highly recommend checking out their thorough posts and watching some videos of mechanical artists at work to draw inspiration.
here are two parts to this project- creating a story (on top), and creating the mechanical motions (down below) using what are called ‘cams.’ Depending on the interest of your child, you may want to focus on one part of the project first and go from there.
My 7 year old LOVES to write and illustrate stories of her own so I had a hunch she’d enjoy creating the story (top portion) of the project first. Once she landed on an ocean scene with a mermaid, we talked through the motion she hoped to make, and figured out the mechanics we needed down below. The hardest part was creating the right shape & size cams to create the motion we wanted.
[Check out Exploratorium’s page for really helpful tips] Total, we spent about 1.5 hours on the project.
We’ve been studying seeds, gardening and the story of Peter Rabbit this week. So for my automata, I used pages from a thrifted popup book to recreate the scene of Peter hiding in the watering can.
As my kids get a bit older, I’d love to come back to this project to try more complex storyboards and to study mechanics more in depth. There’s so much to learn!