As the final session in our Biology unit, we talked about Robots. We explained that robots are machines that humans build to do jobs that humans don’t want to do or can’t do. We talked about Biomimicry and how robot inventors take ideas from nature and evolutionary adaptations.
Robots are a very popular topic for kids age 3 – 7, and is easy and fun to do in a preschool or kindergarten setting, home school, or at a robot-themed birthday party. Here are the activities we did:
Tape three markers to a over-turned plastic cup. Tape a 1.5-3v motor and a battery pack to the top of the cup. Mount a cork on the motor shaft to unbalance the motor. Take off the marker lids, connect the motor and the battery, and watch it scribble!
I have a complete tutorial with more lots photos and videos here: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2017/05/22/scribble-bots/.
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: It can be challenging to paint on foil – try mixing some glue into the paint.) Doing scribble bots and this project on the same day made for a very full class and many kids wanted to continue working on these models for more time than we had available.
Many kids incorporated a design element from a previous class, the robotic finger, to make arms for their robots so their robots could give hugs.
Next time we’ll add in a couple ideas I learned at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix. They spray-painted plastic containers silver to make them look more robot-like (although that might mean you can’t recycle them later, so I might not opt to do that.) They made “eyes” for the robot with coin batteries and LED Lights. You cut slits in the tub, slide in a battery, then use the “legs” of the LED to straddle the battery, so one side is on the positive side of the battery and one on the negative.
Giant robot: One year, we built 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 tackle him and knock him over again and again and he was too fragile to withstand that.
Fun at Home with Kids has a nice “life-sized magnetic robot” which could be fun.
We also have made a giant robot mix and match. We took several large size boxes. Then enlarged images from this printable from Picklebums and taped them on the boxes We had three boxes with options for heads, one body box with a few different body choices, and a leg box with a different set of legs on each sided of the cube. We printed arms on card stock to tape on. The idea was that kids could stack them up in lots of different combinations to make different robots. Seemed like a great idea, but it failed to engage the kids. We may try it again, in case it was a fluke of that day.
Duplo Hockey Robot: We put out a project from the Duplo simple machines kit. I like using Duplo kits in class, because the older kids can practice following pictorial directions and building the exact model described, and the little ones just free-play with the Duplos.
Build a robot picture. We used these great printables from Pickle-Bums. Plus paper, scissors, and glue sticks.
Assemble a 3-D or jointed robot: We printed robot designs the kids could cut out and assemble – good small motor practice. Here are some printables you could try:
- 3-D robot with features you glue on – Alex 1
- 3-D, jointed robot from Education.com
- Mostly 2-D robot which stands: Noise
- Jointed robots – instead of gluing on the arms and legs, fasten them on with brads so they can move: Alex 2, Church House, Crank Bunny or Sparkle Box. Some of these could be mounted on popsicle sticks and used like 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. Tip: 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. These are best for ages 6 and up – they’re tricky to assemble. For this year’s class, we just printed a few color blocks and pre-assembled them for kids to play with.
Explore Robot Toys
We had four toys out for kids to explore: This crab shaped Table Top Robot ($11) is very fun… you turn it on, set it on a table, and it scuttles sideways till it hits the edge of the table, then turns, and scuttles till it reaches an edge again. We just set it on a table near the entrance so as soon as kids came into class, they got engaged in watching a robot do its work. It will occasionally fall off the table (once every 10 minutes or so) and needs to have some legs clipped back on every time that happens, but otherwise it’s a fun and easy way to show three factors that make a robot: sensors, processor, actuator (see below.) (To be honest, it’s not a real sensor and processor… it’s really just a mechanical thing… but we can pretend for the kids that it is “sensing” and processing, because it appears to be doing so.)
Code & Go Robot Mouse and maze. This programmable mouse allows you to type in a code (forward, forward, left, forward), then press a button to move the mouse robot through its maze. [Read my full review and discussion of this here.]
Sphero SPRK+ STEAM Educational Robot. You use a smart phone app as a remote control to drive this little ball all around the room. At its top speed, it really zips! [Read my full review and discussion of this here.]
Cubelets robot blocks. These probably don’t seem like robots to anyone who is expecting a humanoid shape. But, they do have a sensor that activates them and makes them move. (It’s just a switch, so they don’t really have a “processor.”) Read more here.
Math and Learning Activities
I made up some domino math sheets with a robot theme…. the idea was taken directly from Katherine Marie.
I made a Robot Job Matching Game, (click there for a free printable of it) bycollecting pictures of robots doing a job and humans doing the same job so kids could match them up. I wanted to illustrate that humans create robots to do jobs they can’t do or don’t want to do or want to automate.
Free Play Activities
Flip Book. I used this free printable from Gift of Curiosity to make a flip book where kids could mix and match different robot heads, bodies, and legs. (Note: I printed the flip book on paper, then stapled those to a card-stock back before cutting the papers – this just made it a little more stable / sturdy than just the cut paper would have been.)
Sensory table: Last year, 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 spinner game, plus 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.]
Famous Robots: It’s important to tie in kids’ previous knowledge of a concept as you teach them new ideas, so I wanted to have pictures of robots they might have encountered in fiction (movies and TV) that would ground them in some experience of what a robot is (and also allow us to talk about how today’s robots are no where near the scientific sophistication of most fictional robots. I printed copies of these posters (#1, #2) on 11×17 paper. I also made my own poster with just a handful of robots I thought kids were most likely to be able to identify: Wall-E and Eva, R2-D2 and C-3PO, Baymax from Big Hero 6, Iron Giant, and Transformers.
Snacks: A bowl of snack mix… pretzel rods, cheerios, and Chex with a sign saying “nuts and bolts” and string cheese or licorice ropes with a sign saying “wires” and maybe some candy shapes for “buttons”.
Pinterest is full of pictures of robots assembled with mini raisin boxes for feet, juice box for a body and an upside down applesauce cup for a head. Looks cute, but that’s a lot of fructose for one sitting. Inspiration Made Simple has a cute robot lunch, including sandwich, cheese, and celery.
Intro to Theme: We asked What’s a robot? (A machine people build that does stuff.) Why would we want to build robots? (To do things we can’t do or don’t want to do.) What makes a robot different from other machines? (A true robot has three things: sensors, processor, and actuator.)
We used the crab robot (see above) and a Roomba Vacuum Cleaner to demo this idea.
Song: we sang a simple song to the tune of The Wheels on the Bus, from Fingerplays and Action Rhymes.
Concept Discussion: We referenced back to the past few weeks of classes, asking them to imagine a robot they would want to build:
- 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 to be sure that they are well suited to their surroundings?
- What tools would they need? Remember in adaptations week, 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 (which we learned about in bugs week) to protect them?
- What kind of sensors does your robot need? Does it need to hear? See?
Design time: Within our two hour class, with ages 3 – 7, we just discuss these questions in circle time, but don’t pursue them in depth. We don’t have enough time, plus, 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 in a home school setting, or working with a group of kids who are all over age 5, it would be a great learning experience 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 questions about what job their robot will do and in what environment to start guiding their thoughts. Note: this is a pen and paper drawing exercise… even if you’re making model robots in class, it would be too hard for them to try to duplicate any of their wild ideas with real materials… In a drawing, their imagination can run wild.
Book: I wrote my own book for this class. Robots. (Click there for a free printable book.) It addresses all the basic concepts I cover in this post, with a special focus on biomimicry.
I also made a companion video which includes video clips of lots of different nature inspired robots and videos of the animals that inspired them.
Group Games for Closing Circle
Robot Maze: If you had one or two kids, I think you could do a life-size version of Robot Turtles game / the robot mice: Tape out a maze on the floor, with a goal (a jewel or a piece of cheese). Give a child commands to get there – they can only move when you command them. OR have one child be the turtle / mouse, and the other child commands them.
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 Game Online: There’s 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. It builds on the programming ideas taught by the robot mouse or the Robot Turtles game.
There’s plenty of books about robots. Some are definitely better than others! We got a few non-fiction books on robots:
- Zoobots: Wild Robots Inspired by Real Animals. It’s much too long to read aloud… we just showed the pictures and did brief verbal summaries of each page. (Here’s my short text version of the book.) But I really like how this illustrate the key concepts of: scientists take ideas from nature to create robots to do things humans can’t or don’t want to do… here’s a sample of my short text: “Scientists wanted to develop a robot that could fight forest fires. It needed armor to protect itself from heat, and it needed to have lots of flexible legs so it could move across rough ground. They used a roley-poley bug as the inspiration for the exoskeleton armor and its legs, and it carries a tank of water or fire extinguishing chemicals to spray at a fire.”
- 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.
- National Geographic Readers: Robots; Robots at Home by Zuchora-Walske, and Helper Robots by Furstinger. All for ages 6 – 9, good overviews.
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.