An updated version of this post is available here.
The final week in our Engineering unit at Family Inventor’s Lab was Contraptions and Rube Goldbergs: Engineering Interactions between Simple Machines. It was all about taking tools and concepts from our simple machines unit and our engineering unit and combining them in fun and playful ways. This was a day about Tinkering where kids were encouraged to build something, test it, adjust it, test it again, say “hey I wonder what would happen if we added X”, add X and test it again. I was leading a parent education session in another room for part of class, and kept hearing gleeful giggles when they discovered new and entertaining combinations. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get many pictures of the cool stuff they put together…)
Engineering: My co-teacher and I attended a workshop a few weeks ago called “The E in STEM – Exploring Engineering in Early Childhood” done by the folks from Kodo toys (www.KodoKids.com). They said Engineering is all about problem-solving – you find a problem, you work toward a solution. They then said that play is when kids make up problems to solve and they call that fun. And the focus is on the process – once you’ve solved one problem, you set up a new, more complicated one to solve. That’s what this day was all about.
The Launch Table: On one table, we set up a target to aim for, and then put out ramps, levers and fulcrums, pompoms, corks, dowels and blocks. Kids were just shown the target and given a couple suggestions for what to try, and then left to play. I listened in on a couple of parents giving great guidance and asking great questions to extend their child’s learning. “What do you think will happen if…” “Hmm… that’s not heavy enough… can you find something heavier?” “OK, you got great height with that launch, but how can we work on accuracy – aiming it toward that target?” “If you roll this dowel down the ramp, would it hit the target?”
Rube Goldbergs During circle time, we talked about “Rube Goldberg” devices – this is the kind of thing where instead of just turning on a light switch, you set up a ramp and a pulley, where you roll a ball down the ramp, it falls into a basket which pulls the pulley, which turns on the light. Why not just turn on the light switch? Because it’s more fun this way. My co-teacher build this sample Rube to demonstrate during circle, then kids could play with it afterward, and there was another peg board and supplies next to it to encourage kids to build their own. The design was based on this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ye7iAIPhmg
Ball Launcher: We brought back our scarf cannon, but used it for launching balls (soft plastic balls like you would find in a ball pit, and Styrofoam balls.) Kids played “golf” with it, where the goal was to aim the tube so that when the ball shot out, it would roll through the tunnel blocks. They also did a variety of other experiments… a fun one would be to tie a hoop in the air and try to shoot the balls through it.
DIY Marble Run: We had our ball wall there for kids to play with.
Marble Run: We also had this marble run, which is great, and could also be used as part of a larger Rube Goldberg series of actions, as seen in the video on this Tinkerlab page: http://tinkerlab.com/engineering-kids-rube-goldberg-machine/.
Domino Runs: We had dominos so children could set up chains of dominos to knock over. It’s fun to also include some “triggers” for Domino chains – things you can use to push over that first Domino in the chain. Examples we had were our Conveyor Belt from inclined planes week, our Wrecking Ball and pull-back car from Towers week, and a tube that you could aim at the dominoes then roll a marble through. It’s also fun to include some “goals”, such as a target to hit – we used a Duplo tower to hang a musical triangle in so the Domino chain could ring the bell at the end. This is a Rube built by one of the dads:
Water table: We put water wheels in the water table.
Pulleys: There’s all sorts of stuff you can do with pulleys and Rubes, but we just didn’t have enough time to use all our ideas. But, if you have a more extended time, be sure to include pulleys! (Read about our Simple Machines unit on pulleys.)
Spinners: We used old CD’s, decorated them, glued a button in the center with Tacky Glue, then ran a string through two holes. Kids could then put their fingers through the string, wind it up, and let it go to spin. (Similar to this idea on Housing a Forest or this one on Play, Eat, Grow)
Mouse Trap: I ordered the game Mouse Trap which offers a fun pre-made Rube Goldberg, but sadly it didn’t come in time.
At opening circle, we talked about Rube Goldberg and showed one of his books of illustrations (Rube Goldberg: Inventions!), and we explained the idea of putting together a ridiculously complicated series of mechanical actions to accomplish a simple mechanical task. My co-teacher demonstrated the Rube Goldberg she had built (see above.) Sometimes the demo works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and everyone laughs together, then we re-build it and try again. It’s a good way to talk about the fact that sometimes things don’t work right the first time – it doesn’t mean we’ve failed and it will never work. It just means it doesn’t work YET and we might need to work a little harder on it. (My parent education session this day was on “Willingness to Fail is the Key to Success” and on the Growth Based mindset, intentionally matched up with the kids’ theme of the day.)
We read the book Lights Out, which tells the tale of a piggy who needs to figure out how to turn off his lights from his bed after he falls asleep. It’s a wordless book that shows a VERY complex series of contraptions – fun to read if you add sound effects – “thwack” goes the broom on the seesaw; boingeduh-boingeduh-boing goes the ball down the stairs.
At closing circle, we read Mechanimals about a farmer who builds mechanical animals, including a pig that flies. Some books we’ve read for previous themes that could tie in to contraptions are: Awesome Dawson and Wendel’s Workshop from Robot week, Violet the Pilot and Rosie Revere, Engineer from Wind week and The Most Magnificent Thing. You could also include Dumpster Diver – described in my list of books about Inventors. (These are all affiliate links for learning more – books can be purchased from Amazon, or you can get them from the library.) If you know of a great book about a kid building contraptions or Rube Goldbergs, tell me about it in the comments!
Song – we didn’t find a song we loved for this week – best idea was Button Factory, which turns the child into a “kinetic sculpture” of movement. (Find videos on YouTube if you don’t know the tune.)
Apps and Videos
On YouTube, just do a search for Rube Goldberg, and you’ll find PLENTY of videos to entertain you.
A fun way to prepare a child for this class or to review the ideas could be to explore a “contraptions” app. This is completely optional!!!! Parents who don’t like their child to do screen time, can feel free to skip this idea. My favorite is Inventioneers. Pettson’s Inventions, by the same company, is also quite good. Bad Piggies, from the Angry Birds Universe, also is a contraptions app, and there are others. If your child ONLY does the app and builds virtual contraptions, I think that there’s limited learning potential here. But, if they work with real, physical objects hands-on, then explore in an app, then return to the physical objects, I think it can be a nice tie-in.
Inventioneers: This app is available on Android and IOS. It is free in the Kindle app store. It’s all about Rube Goldberg type processes – you drop an apple on the character’s head, he turns on his blower, which turns a fan, which moves a gear, which knocks the basketball off the platform onto the seesaw and into the basket.
A 6 or 7 year old might be able to play it alone if an adult played the first few levels with them to give them the basic concept. A 4 or 5 year old can enjoy watching an adult play it. You usually don’t get the answer right on the first try – you set up part of the process, press play to test it, adjust it, test it again, set up the next part of the process, test that, adjust it, and so on. Talk it all through with the child. Tell them what you’re trying and why. Ask them why something didn’t work and what you can do differently. It’s definitely a learning process which requires lots of tinkering.
If you want to play more with this idea, it’s easy! Just put out loose parts, like blocks, bells, pulleys, dominoes, marbles and more. Give your child a challenge to complete. Encourage building a step at a time. For example, if the goal is to ring a bell, maybe they first build a domino chain to ring it. Then they add a wrecking ball to trigger the dominos. Then they add something to bump the wrecking ball to get it started and so on.
I’ve pinned several ideas here: www.pinterest.com/bcparented/preschool-rube-goldbergs/
The best discussions on the topic are: Rube Goldberg machine on Tinkerlab, and Gadgets and Contraptions at Science World. Enjoy!
Addendum: Next year, we will add in this Duplo kit for a fun extra “contraption”.
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