Simple Machines – Engineering for Kids


We began our year with a unit on Simple Machines. Our goal is to introduce the basic concepts, give them lots of hands-on exploration of the principles, and encourage them to look for simple machines in their world.

Big Idea about Simple Machines

A simple machine is a machine with few moving parts, or no moving parts.

The big idea behind simple machines is they make it easier to do work. (They may reduce the amount of work it takes, or they may change the direction of the force you apply – which can make it feel easier to do the work.) But the more inspiring way to describe this to a young child is to say something like “do you wish you could lift heavy things like mommy/daddy does? Simple machines can help you do that. Doing things the smart way makes you stronger.”

This post includes resources that are helpful for a full unit on Simple Machines. To see lesson plans for activities and circle time demonstrations / books for each individual machine, click here: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Wedges, Levers, Screws, Wheels & Axles

What is force? What is work?

In scientific terms, work is using a force to move an object. If you use force and nothing moves (like if you pushed on a brick wall), that’s not work. Pushing, pulling, and lifting are all “work.”

Note: although we didn’t do it in our class, it could be a good idea to first introduce the idea of “force” and how to measure how much work it takes to do something. Some books about force I would recommend are Forces Make Things Move, And Everyone Shouted, “Pull!”, and Move It!: Motion, Forces and You. (Note: Amazon says Forces Make Things Move is for ages 4 – 8, but I think there are far too many words for us to use it in a groups circle in a classroom setting with this age group.) Here are some additional ideas for how to teach about force, from Mrs. MyersTeach Junkie and iijuan12.

Books about Simple Machines

There are LOTS of books on simple machines, so many that I have a separate post all about Simple Machine Books. Check it out for details on them all.

I get all my class books from the library, so I get lots. If I had to buy on a limited budget, my top choices for my class of 3 – 6 year olds would be: How Do You Lift a Lion? by Wells, Move It! Work It! by Salas, the Simple Machines to the Rescue series by Schuh (note: this is the series with titles including the word “vs.” such as Raising a Bag of Toys: Pulley vs. Inclined Plane, NOT the series by Dahl with titles like “Levers to the Rescue” – that series is fine, but I’m not a big fan) and maybe the How Toys Work series by Smith.

For 6 – 9 year olds, I’d opt for Simple Machines series by Armentrout or Simple Machines by Tieck. Again, check out the other post for all the details.

Songs about Simple Machines

In our class, we’re using Simple Machines by David Newman: find the song and lyrics here:

Other options are:

  • Move It Work It from Capstone kids (see companion book above) which is to the tune of Kookaburra. Find the song here.
  • the Simple Machines song from Hubpages unit on simple machines. It’s done to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Find it here.

Videos about Simple Machines

Note: some parents prefer not to expose their kids to screen time – if that’s you, then skip the recommendations on videos and apps. There’s nothing your child can learn from them that they can’t learn from books, discussions, and hands-on experiences.

I like videos that can display simple machines in action, and describe the concepts while you’re viewing an example. There are several good ones on individual machines – just search YouTube. Here are my favorite overviews.

  • Bill Nye the Science Guy – Simple Machines   Best for ages 5 – 10, although my guy has liked Bill since he was 3. About 20 minutes long.
  • Sid the Science Kid. They did a fabulous series on simple machines. Sid is aimed at preschoolers and is set at a preschool, so very appealing and easy to understand for a 3 – 6 year old. There’s The Broken Wheel (Wheels & Axles); My Slide (Inclined Plane), Sid’s Amazing Invention (Lever), the Tree House (Pulleys) and Climb, Ignatz (summary of the series.) They’re available streaming on Netflix, or can be rented on Amazon (they’re listed under season 2 of Sid.) Each episode is 23 minutes, although some of that is filler (theme songs, etc.) that we tend to skip past.
  • Physical Science for Children: All About Simple Machines. 20 minute overview.
  • This is a nice 3-minute summary for adults about the concept, but it goes by too fast for young kids:

Games and Apps:

There’s a couple of online computer games you could play with your child that teach about simple machines.
  • “Twitch” is a fun online game, but you’d need to play with them and narrate their way through it to help them understand it better.
  • is also a fun online game. Best used as a review, after your child has learned all about Simple Machines.
  • There is an app called Simple Machines on ITunes, but I have not played it.
  • I like the app “Pettson’s Inventions“, available on Android, Kindle, and ITunes. The same folks also do Inventioneers, which is free and a little easier to play. In both, you assemble Rube Goldberg type devices to do simple tasks – 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. 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 your 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.. A 6 or 7 year old might be able to play it alone if you play the first few levels with them to give them the basic concept. With a 4 or 5 year old you’d need to play it all the way through with them once, then they could probably do it on their own.
Here are my posts including activities and curricular ideas for each of the individual machines: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Wedges, Levers, Screws, Wheels & Axles

Note: All the activities described in my posts are from Family Inventor’s Lab, a parent-child cooperative class in Bellevue, WA. We are a play-based, STEM focused class for preschool through early elementary (kids age 3 – 7). We do a wide variety of fun, hands-on activities to learn about Science, Tools, Engineering, Nature, and Art. We also sing songs and read stories. Most of our activities are cheap, easy, and use everyday materials that most families would have in their homes (or their recycle bins!), so that our activities are appropriate for classroom teachers, parents who homeschool, or after school programs.


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