The Big Idea: After our Biology unit, we talked about Robots. We explained that robots are things that humans build to do jobs that humans don’t want to do or can’t do. We talked about how humans take ideas from nature and evolution when creating robots. So, we referenced back to the past few weeks of classes:
- What job do you want your robot to do? What environment will they be working in: cold? hot? wet? What did we learn about when we studied habitats that you could use in designing your robot?
- What tools would they need? Remember when we learned about different bird beaks and the different things that birds eat? They need to have the right tool to get their food, right? How do you adapt your robot for what they need to do?
- How many legs will your robot have? 2 like a bird? 4 like a mammal? 6 like an insect? Or 3? Three legs make a tripod, which is nice and stable, but few animals stand that way. (A kangaroo has four legs, but typically stands on two legs and its tail.) What other things does our animal classification unit make you think of?
- When you build a robot, do they need a skeleton (or some internal structure) that helps them stand up? Would they be soft on the outside, or have a hard material like an exoskeleton to protect them?
- What kind of sensors does your robot need? Does it need to hear? See?
In Opening Circle, we read the book Robots Slither by Hunter. The main story line is preschool appropriate language for our little ones “Robots slither, creep and crawl. Robots inch along the wall.” Then there are illustrations of imagined animal-inspired robots, and sidebars with information about real robots and the work they do.
Design time: Within our two hour class format, we don’t set aside design time. Our younger kids just don’t think abstractly yet – it’s better to just get them working hands-on. But if you’re working with your child at home, or a group of kids who are all over age 5, the first step of this unit should be to introduce the big idea, as above, then hand them all pencils and paper and get them to start brainstorming design ideas where they imagine – if they could design any robot they wanted to – what would it be? Ask them questions about what job their robot will do and in what environment to start guiding their thoughts. This is mostly about drawing an idea. Although you can also have them make model robots, as we did, you may want to present these as a different robot, since they might have challenges trying to re-create their grand ideas with cardboard and masking tape.
Model robots from recycled materials: We asked parents to bring in small boxes, toilet paper tubes, and other fun materials, and the kids built model robots. (Tip: if you want to paint on foil, mix paint with glue.)
Giant robot: We also build a giant robot as a collaborative project. Note that he’s a tripod… he had two triangular legs that just weren’t stable, so we had to add a third leg. The challenge with the giant robot was that we had one student who really wanted to knock him over and he was too fragile to withstand that.
Plastic cup robots that draw: We taped three colored pencils to a plastic cup, then decorated with googly eyes and such. (Note: we taped pencils to the insides of the cup at the beginning of the day, then later found out it was much easier to tape them to the outside of the cup. I think you could also rubber band them on or glue gun.)
We then used these “robots” to draw circles on a group art project:
These robots were inspired by this Scribble-bots video and this post on Robots that Draw. The next step would be to add a vibrating motor to it (a little one from a craft store or a vibrating toothbrush would do it) and see what the robot would “draw.”
Jointed robot: We printed robot designs the kids could cut out and assemble – good small motor practice. They could then be mounted on popsicle sticks to make puppets.
Robot blocks: Using this printable from Create in the Chaos, kids colored in pictures, cut them out, and assembled them into blocks which could then be used as mix and match robots. Print these on cardstock! We learned that regular copy paper just couldn’t hold its shape as blocks, so we glued the paper onto cardstock but it would be much easier to start that way.
Free Play Activities
Sensory table: We played robot hide and seek – put robot stickers on index cards, and buried them in the corn meal to find and re-bury.
Robot game: We had a Build a Robot game in the closet we put out, plus a variety of building activities.
Roll the Die: You set 5 blocks around the room (we used cardboard boxes). Kids roll a die which tells them how many steps they can take. When they arrive at the box, they roll the die to see if they can pick up the box, stack the box, etc. This was a good beginning idea, but we needed to figure out the game mechanics in more detail.
The Robot’s Programmer Says: We played a game that was basically Simon says. We explained that robots can’t decide for themselves what to do. They can only follow their programming. So, one teacher was the programmer, saying things like “Robots, put your right hand up.” “Robots, put your right hand down.” “Robots, jump 5 times.” The other teacher would give commands, but the robots “couldn’t hear them” because they weren’t in its programming. “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to spin around and around?” “Can you put your hands on your head?”
Things to Try at Home
Coding board game: there’s a board game called Robot Turtles which plays with the idea of a robot following its commands and with teaching the basics of programming to small children. [I would recommend that if you’re starting with a 3 or 4-year-old, you start even easier than the game tells you to start. Just introduce the basic idea of them moving the turtle only when you command it (or you move when they command) – you don’t even need to use cards. Then add the cards in to do the directions. Then over time add in the other elements for the game.]
Coding Game Online: There’s also an online Star Wars themed coding game: https://code.org/starwars. It teaches the skill of dragging in blocks of commands, then running the program and seeing if the droid does what you wanted it to. Our five-year-old can do this, but I wouldn’t expect a 3 or 4-year-old to be able to understand.
There’s plenty of books about robots. Some are definitely better than others! We got a few non-fiction books on robots (including Robots Slither, described above). The fiction books we liked were:
Clink by DiPucchio and Myers. Age 4 – 7. Sweet story with great text: “The problem that made Clink’s dials drop and his circuits short out was nobody wanted an old robot. He didn’t have cool retractable arms, like Zippy. He didn’t have fancy attachments, like Blade. And he didn’t know the first thing about doing homework and baking chocolate chip cookies, like Penny. The world, it seemed, was no longer interested in a robot who had been programmed to play music and make toast.” Eventually, of course, just the right boy arrives in the robot shop and falls in love and takes Clink home. I personally don’t like the illustration style, but what I do like about the illustrations is that they’re very emotionally expressive. On the page where it has that line about Clink’s dials dropping and his circuits shorting out, we can tell by looking at his expression that this meant he was a very sad, discouraged little robot. At the end, he’s clearly delighted and content in his new home.
Awesome Dawson tells the story of a boy inventor who builds great robots, then one rampages out of control and he builds other robots to defeat it. (Wendel’s Workshop has basically the exact same plot. Neither are overly scary.) Age 4 – 7.
Rolie Polie Olie is a delightful little book about a family that happens to be robots. It’s not educational about robots. But it does provide a nice little lesson about misbehavior and forgiveness. (Rolie gets wild and pops his sister’s bubble, and she’s sad and his parents are mad, and he feels bad, but then it’s all resolved by bedtime.) age 2 – 6.
Boy and Bot is also a cute book. A boy and robot find each other and become friends. But the robot gets switched off – the boy tries to cure him by feeding him applesauce, reading him a story and tucking him in to bed. The robot switches back on in the night and finds a sleeping boy. He tries to “fix” him with oil, an instruction manual and a spare battery. It’s a nice story for explaining that different people/creatures/machines need different things to do well. (This blog has a nice activity plan to go along with the book.) 3 – 6.
If you’re reading to kids and parents, another entertaining option is The Trouble with Dad. “The trouble with Dad is his boring job. If he didn’t have such a boring job he wouldn’t spend all his spare time in the shed making robots.” Age 5 – 7
One I can’t recommend for a group read is Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). A girl built a robot for a science fair project and its on a rampage and she sends a giant toad to defeat it who then goes on a rampage. My 5 year old loved this book when we read it at home, but a 4 year old from class was quite disturbed by it after a teacher read it in class, spending the next week worrying about robots. I MAY use it as a resource in the future, but cautiously. When we talk about the process of designing robots, I want to cover that a human being needs to decide what all capabilities their robot needs. In this book, as the girl tries to stop her robot, she yells at it to stop, then says “I should have given it ears.” Then she writes a sign saying “cut it out” and then says “I should have taught it how to read.” Then she hits it with a hammer and says “I should have programmed it to feel pain.” I may read just these pages, and share it in a conversation with the kids, but not read the full story.
Recommendations? Next year, we’d love to add in some simple robotics kit or a robot toy that can follow commands, or something like that. Do you have any recommendations for products? If so, share them in the comments!
Addendum: Next year, we’ll add this Duplo hockey robot as one of the self-guided activity stations.