100 Snacks

Today was my son’s hundredth day of kindergarten, so the teacher had all sorts of celebrations planned. I helped with the snack counting project, which was a great hands-on math experience. Parents had been asked to donate items. The teacher set out bowls of ten different kinds of snack items (kix cereal, bunny crackers, chocolate chips, etc.)

Counting Ten Sets of Ten

First, the children had to stand in line. They each took turns taking 10 items from the first bowl and putting them in a cup, then ten from the second, and so on. As simple as this activity seems to an adult, the fact is that these kids could not have done this successfully 100 class-days ago.

In that time, they’ve learned the social skills needed to stand in line, wait their turn, and not crowd the other kids. They’ve learned enough impulse control that 18 of the kids managed to do this task without eating any of the items. (One child ate some… I told him not to eat more… he ate more…) Their small motor skills have grown to the point that doing the pincer grasp needed to pick up these small items came easy to almost all. The only challenge was the raisins, which like to stick to each other.

They’ve all learned the counting skills to consistently and reliably count out exactly ten items. And even if they had kids on both sides of them who were verbally counting to ten, they were able to stay focused on their own counting. Virtually no one under-counted. Only a few over-counted or accidentally took a few extras. One child I over-heard counting “9 – 10 – 11 – 12 – 13…. oops, that’s too many. I need to put back 1 – 2 – 3, right?” There is one child who is prone to rushing all of his work, and thus getting sloppy, and he did that here, not counting carefully. I pointed it out to him, but didn’t make a big deal of it, as I knew it would reveal itself to him in the next stage of the process.

Laying Items on a Counting Grid: 1 to 100

Once they had their cups, with ten each of ten snacks, we went back to our work table. They had sheets with 100 numbers on them. I told them that they should cover each number with one snack item – this is great reinforcement of one-to-one correspondence – a vital math concept most of them didn’t have 100 class-days ago.

Sorting and Pattern-Making

I suggested that they do a pattern – maybe all of the popcorn in one row, then marshmallows in the next, or whatever they wanted to do. Here’s the results for my first group of six kids:

One child intentionally placed them randomly, saying that he did
not want to do a pattern. He just took whatever was on the top of his cup first and placed it at the top of the chart. At the end, I pointed out to him what was interesting about his was that all the big items (popcorn, fruit snacks) are at the top of the chart, and all the little items settled to the bottom of the cup, so they ended up at the bottom of the chart.

One child placed them with a great deal of intention and thought. But if there was a pattern, I couldn’t discern it. I asked her what the pattern was – she just smiled a mischievous grin. One of the other children noticed that the bunnies were in an almost diagonal pattern, but then they decided it wasn’t a full pattern. I asked her why she arranged them that way, and she said it’s where they looked the best.

Three children built horizontal rows – putting ten items across the top row, then moving on to row two, and so on down.

One child started by placing one of each item across the bottom row of his chart, so that row had a representative of each food type, then building up the columns from there, till he had all the food sorted into columns. 

The Kix Challenge

One snack was plain Kix cereal, and one was Berry Berry Kix. This was tricky, because the plain Kix is plain beige. The Berry Kix are three colors, but one of them is a just slightly pinkish beige. It was easy for kids to mistake if for plain Kix. This required some extra attention to detail to sort out these two items.

Checking their Math and Problem-Solving

As each child finished their sorting, I would ask them to double-check: were all numbers covered? Did each number box have exactly one food item in it? We made minor adjustments as needed. We’d run out of Cheerios at the end, and the last child to go through the line was one Cheerio short, but luckily another child at the table discovered she’d accidentally taken 11 Cheerios, so she shared one.

One child had two open slots in her butterscotch chip row, so we re-counted them and saw that she had only taken 8 so she got two more from the bowl. One thought she had an extra piece of popcorn, but after discussion, we decided that a small piece had broken off of one of the larger pieces of popcorn. Multiple kids had a few extra raisins (some had stuck together). One decided to add an extra 101 box to his chart for that extra raisin.

I asked all the kids: If you have ten sets of ten snacks, how many snacks do you have? They all really grasped today that 10 sets of 10 equals 100.


Once the snacks were all sorted, it was time for the reward: eating all the snacks! (Those they didn’t eat now were bagged up for later.)


We had 20 minutes for each small group to do this. It wasn’t quite enough. In each group, a couple of the kids were able to complete their chart and eat some snack, a couple kids were mostly done with the chart, and one child was nowhere near done. We had one child (my child, of course) melt-down when this happened. He really wanted to finish his chart and had a really hard time recovering from needing to stop part way through his time.


This was such a great milestone project – they were really able to use a lot of the skills they had developed over the past 100 days and be successful at this new challenge, which reinforced lots of key math ideas, and was a fun memorable way to celebrate day 100. There’s a lot of ways you could adapt this idea for multiplication themed activities. For example, if you were working on multiplying by 7, you could start with seven sets of 7. Then they eat one type of food. Then do six sets of 7. And so on…

If you like this post about observing kids’ learning process with math, check out the blog Talking Math with Your Kids.

Books about Simple Machines

img_20151013_163855105This post focuses on book recommendations. To see lesson plans for hands-on activities and demonstrations for each individual machine, click here: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Wedges, Levers, Screws, Wheels & Axles. Here’s an Overview of Simple Machines.

Overviews. There are several books that give an overview of all the simple machines.

  • How Do You Lift a Lion? by Wells is my favorite book. It poses fun questions with silly illustrations, then does a nice job of describing the basic concepts of how the machines work. Covers levers (for lifting lions), wheels and axles (for pulling pandas on pallets) and pulleys (to deliver a big basket of bananas to a baboon birthday). You could read it all at once, or divide it up into three parts and read at different times as you cover each machine. Good circle time read. The vocabulary is a little high level, but the pictures are clear illustrations, so our 5 – 7 year olds were able to follow the science of it. Our 3 – 4 year olds didn’t get the science, but they liked the book anyway.
  • Move It! Work It! from the Science Songs series, sets a song about simple machines to the tune of Kookaburra. (Hear it: www.capstonekids.com/sciencesongs.html.) There are also additional facts about each machine on each page. The song is not a great work of art, but if you wanted to include a song in the unit, it does a decent job of capturing the ideas about simple machines.
  • Simple Machines by Allan Fowler is a good overview, with nice basic descriptions and examples, and it’s an appropriate length for circle time. Not as fun as Lion…
  • Simple Machines: Wheels, Levers and Pulleys by Adler is for ages 5 – 7. Nice illustrations, good examples of simple machines in everyday life, and good explanations. But too high level for our class.
  • Lever, Screw, and Inclined Plane by Thompson. Good descriptions, great pictures from National Geographic. But… it’s for ages 6 – 9, and too high level/too long for us to read in class. It could be helpful for an adult to skim through before class – I find it’s helpful if you have fresh in your head information that’s just a little more advanced / detailed than you might cover with your students – it helps you answer questions that may come up.
  • Smash!: Wile E. Coyote Experiments with Simple Machines is NOT a circle time read. It’s aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds, and would be over the head of most 3 to 7-year-olds in my class. On the other hand, the Wile E. Coyote character is appealing enough that my almost-5-year-old (who is a strong reader and has read LOTS of books on simple machines) really enjoys this book even if he doesn’t fully grasp it and enjoys then watching Roadrunner cartoons and talking about the science in them.
  • Simple Machines by Deborah Hodge. Photos and descriptions of lots of easy activities related to simple machines. Nice little descriptions of the science behind each one. Good source of ideas for teachers/parents, but not something I’d read in class, or put on the shelf, just because I find that if I put out books of activity ideas, the kids want to try them all right now.

Series Books about Simple Machines

There are several series which include 6 books each, one for each machine. I will summarize my impressions of the series, based on the books I read (I have read one or more from each series, but not all 6 of any series.) Here are the four criteria I ranked them on:

  • Pictures: Are they good photos (current, focused, visually appealing) of things that are interesting to kids?
  • Words: Would this be a good read-aloud book for a group of 3 – 6 year olds? Easy to understand and interesting to listen to?
  • Big Idea: Does it get, and adequately convey the key concepts about this simple machine and how it works? (For my summary of what I think those key concepts are, see my posts on each of the types of Simple Machines – linked at top of post.)
  • Examples: Are there several good examples of the machine that would be interesting to children? (But I don’t want examples of every single way this simple machine can be applied, because too many diverse examples could make it hard for a young child to remember the big picture.)

I honestly haven’t found any one series that I think is the absolute best, so I get some books from each of the series to share with my class. If I didn’t have access to a fabulous library system and had to buy just one series of books, I might choose the How Toys Work by Smith or the “Vs.” series by Schuh for my class of 3 – 6 year olds. This list is in approximate order of age appropriateness, so if you’re teaching elementary school, start at the bottom.

  • First Step Non-Fiction: Simple Machines to the Rescue by Schuh. (OK, it’s really confusing that this series is titled Simple Machines to the Rescue, just like the series by Dahl. I call this the “Vs.” series.) Titles include Making a Salad: Wedge vs. Inclined Plane and Hauling a Pumpkin: Wheels and Axles vs. Lever, Raising a Bag of Toys: Pulley vs. Inclined Plane and three others. For ages 4 – 7. They present a challenge kids can relate to that could be solved with a simple machine. Two people who are working together suggest two different machines. We learn about each, and they try using each. Sometimes one is better than the other, but often we see the benefits of using both. They do a good basic job of describing each machine and giving examples beyond what is covered in the story. What I like: engaging photos, engaging story line of finding a problem and working together using tools to solve it. Because we are a parent-child class, I especially like that some of the books are about parents and kids working together, and that often the kid has a great idea the parent hadn’t thought of. Although I love this concept of comparing and contrasting two machines, I think it would be helpful for kids to also read books that focus on just a single machine in detail. Note: this book series has a companion teaching guide, which is aligned with Next Generation Science and Common Core state standards, and offers a lesson plan and hands-on activities for each of the simple machines. You can download the teaching guide at https://www.lernerbooks.com/services/eSourceDownloads.aspx?isbn=9781467780261
  • How Toys Work by Smith. 4 – 6 years. Titles: Ramps and Wedges, Pulleys, Levers, Screws, Nuts and Bolts, Wheels and Axles. Nice series – shows photos of toys, talks about the “tool” that is the theme of the book – how it works, what it does, and gives more examples of toys that use it. Very age appropriate non-fiction with a playful / colorful look. In some books (Pulley and Screws) the big idea is explained well. But others (Ramps, Wheels) will not give a solid understanding of the concept of the simple machine. I would use these books to engage my younger students, but also share some of the other series with my older students to better explain the concepts.
  • Blastoff Readers: Simple Machines. Author: Manolis. Books: Ramps; Levers; Pulleys; Screws; Wedges; Wheels and Axles. These would be my top choice if I had only 5 – 7 year olds, but they’re a little long and too sophisticated for my little ones. Bright colors and engaging pictures. Good diagrams and descriptions of key concepts – very clear. Nice examples.
  • Useful Machines by Oxlade.  Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Screws*; Wheels.  Review: Good pictures, engaging and easy to understand for 5 – 7 year olds. I have only read the screw book, but I like it a lot. However, I would not use it as the intro to screws. Once kids had a solid grasp of the basics of screws, it does a nice job of giving examples of all the different applications
  • Simple Machines by Bodden. Age 5 – 7. Books: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels & Axles. Explains the machine, talks about how it makes work easier, shows a little history and modern examples of its use. It’s OK for this age group… a little dry and the graphic design is kind of stodgy looking. (Really lovely from an adult perspective… just not very kid appealing.) In general concepts are very clear and easy to understand and examples clearly illustrate the ideas. But, I thought the screw book was unclear and jumbled examples together that it wasn’t clear how they related. We used several of these books in our circle times in class, but tried to balance with How Toys Work, which are brighter and more fun.
  • Simple Machines by Tieck. Age 6 – 9. Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels & Axles. Perfectly fine information, good illustrations. Multiple examples of each machine. No activity ideas. Probably the best descriptions of the big idea, but presented in a dry, bland non-fiction style. I didn’t read them in circle, but did have them on the bookshelf for kids who wanted to learn more.
  • Simple Machines by Armentrout  Age 7 – 9. Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels. Each book talks about simple machines in general and then one machine specifically. Uses photographs of kids using simple machines, which helps it be more accessible / engaging to kids. Photos with labels help to clearly illustrate the tool and the principle. Fine series. In a few books there were so many examples, the big picture could get lost.
  • Amazing Science: Simple Machines by Dahl and Shea. Books: Scoop, Seesaw, and Raise: A Book About Levers; Roll, Slope, and Slide (Inclined Planes); Scoop, Pull, Lift, and Lower (Pulleys); Cut, Chop, and Stop (Wedge); Tires, Spokes, and Sprockets. Book description says they are for 5 – 10 year olds. For 5 – 6 year olds, the illustrations are great and the examples are clear, but I would not read the word as written – I would just paraphrase. I think they’re best for 7 – 8 year olds, as the 9-10 year olds might find the illustrations a little “young.”  The pulley book and inclined book don’t do the best job of explaining key ideas.
  • Early Reader Science: Simple Machines by Dahl.  Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Wheels and Axles.  Review: Pictures OK, but not especially appealing to young ones. Length-wise, it would be OK for circle, but vocabulary a little high level. The Wheels book gives examples of so many different kinds of wheels and axles (steering wheels, gears, sprockets, cranks, cams, etc.) that the basic concept is lost. Does not mention friction. [not available on Amazon, but you may find at library]
  • Simple Machines to the Rescue by Thales. 6 – 9. Inclined Planes to the Rescue, Levers ttR, Pulleys ttR, Screws ttR, Wedges ttR, Wheels and Axles ttR. Focuses on how we use simple machines to solve problems: “it’s snack time and two people want to share one apple. How can they split it into two equal piece? Wedge to the rescue!” Good descriptions, nice examples. Each book ends with a little sample project kids can do. I’m not a fan of the photos and illustrations, and don’t think kids will find them as engaging as pictures in other series. I just find that they do the weakest job of explaining simple machines concepts. For example, in the screw book, their first example is a lid on a soda bottle, then a spiral staircase, then Archimedes screw, then an olive oil press, and then it talks about things that are held together by screws. Nowhere in there does it really describe what a screw is and what type of work each of these tools has in common.
  • My World of Science by Randolph. Books: Inclined Planes in my World; Levers in…; Pulleys in…; Wedges in… ; Wheels and Axles in… [there doesn’t appear to be a Screws book] Pictures are fine; words are appropriate level and the book is a good length for circle time, big idea is explained well, and there are lots of examples, but they all tie together in a clear logical way to the same big idea. It ends with asking “can you think of [wedges] you see around you?” Then offers a picture glossary of key words. This is a reliable, useable, but not exciting series. Note: this series is bilingual English / Spanish. So Wedges in My World is also Cunas en mi mundo. Each page has the text in English first, then Spanish. Book descriptions say age 7 – 10

Contraptions – Engineering for Kids


Engineering: My co-teacher and I attended a workshop last year 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. Play is when kids make up problems to solve and call that fun. The focus of play is on the process – once you’ve solved one problem, you set up a new, more complicated one to solve.

The final week in our Engineering unit at Family Inventor’s Lab was Contraptions and Rube Goldbergs: Designing 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.

Activities for Tinkering with Chain Reactions and Contraptions

Challenge of the Day / The Launch Table: On one table, we set up a target to aim for, pompoms for ammunition, and then ramps, levers and fulcrums, corks, dowels, blocks and plastic spoons for launch equipment. (In past classes, we had explored Inclined Planes, Levers, and Catapults.) 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?” “You’ve got great accuracy when you aim from up close  – what if we launch from further away?”


Ball Launcher: We brought 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.


Ramps, Tunnels, and Balls: We have a Discovery Ramp kit from Kodo kids that allowed the kids to build some fun ramp projects.

Duplo Simple Machines kit: In the other weeks of our engineering unit, we would put out materials and instructions for a single project to do with Duplos. The goal those weeks was to give children practice following directions to achieve a pre-designed result. This week we put out the full Simple Machines kit for them to do free designing with.

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/.


Train: We have a Domino Train which sets up perfect chains of dominos to knock over.

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:


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.)

Crafts and Play

Button Spinners / Whirligigs: (Original idea from (Housing a Forest and Play, Eat, Grow)  Prep: These are traditionally done with large buttons. We wanted a bigger toy, so we used old CD’s – we glued a button in the center with Tacky Glue. You can also use any metal or plastic disc (baby food jar lids, margarine tub lids, or cardboard disks) and just drill two holes near the middle.

In class, kids decorate them with Sharpies, then ran a string through two holes. Kids could then put the fingers of one hand through one end of the string loop and the fingers of the other hand in the other end. They wind it up until the string is twisted tight, then stop twirling, hold the strings taut, and watch it spin. See a video tutorial at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QMmfDhrZxg and here’s more on how to spin it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4Jhc-tme9U.


Depending on the materials used, whirligigs can make a buzzing sound when they spin, especially if the outside edge of the circle is cut in a sawtooth pattern. See an article on the history of these at johnwinter.net.

Researchers have now realized this simple technology can be used as a cheap, electricity-free centrifuge. By playing around with the disc size, hole positions, type of string and other variables, they have developed one that can spin at up to 125,000 revolutions per minute – the fastest rotational speed achieved by a human powered device. And fast enough to separate cells in blood samples for low cost diagnostic testing by health care workers in the lowest resource places in the world. www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/button-spinner-health-care/512549/

Craft: Climbing Critters: Make and Takes had a great post on how to make simple “climbing critters” – cardstock animals you mount on a loop of string – when you pull on the ends of the string, they “climb.” I made up a poster with instructions.

Mouse Trap: We set out the game Mouse Trap – a fun pre-made Rube Goldberg.

Water table: We put water wheels in the water table.


Intro to Concept: 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. For example: 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 had built this sample Rube to demonstrate during circle. The design was based on this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ye7iAIPhmg

IMG_20160312_140905800   IMG_20160312_140859020

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. (Last year, my parent education session this day was on “Willingness to Fail is the Key to Success” on the Growth Based mindset, intentionally matched up with the kids’ theme of the day.)

After circle, we let the kids play with the Rube, and there was another peg board and supplies next to it to encourage kids to build their own

Books: We read the book Lights Out, which tells 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.)

Hey! My name is Joe. And I work in a button factory
One day my boss came up to me.
He said “Jo, are you busy?” I said,”No”
He said “push this button with your right hand”

Apps and Videos

A great preview for this class would be to go to http://josephsmachines.com/ and watch his video called Joseph on Sesame Street – about Kinetic Art. Then watch any of his other videos! Also, on YouTube, just do a search for “domino chain reactions” or “Rube Goldberg machines.”, 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. If your child ONLY does the app and only 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.

More Ideas

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!

Someday, I’d love to try building some automata to share in class. Learn about Automata at Exploratorium.

Designing a Sailboat for a Preschool STEM Class


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the process I went through designing a car that kids age 3 to 7 could build in my Family Inventors’ class. Now, for our upcoming session on Wind and Flight, it was time to design a sailboat that they could build.

My criteria:

  • possible for kids as young as 3 to build
  • must be able to float in the water table, and survive getting wet
  • must have a sail that can catch the wind, so kids can use a straw to blow it around (the theme of the week is wind, after all)
  • materials must be affordable, easily accessible, and require a reasonable amount of prep time. Bonus points for re-used / recycled materials
  • if you were planning to have kids float their boats on a stream or lake, you should tie a string on so the boat can’t float away out of reach AND use biodegradable materials in case you lose the boat to the water

I searched the internet (especially Pinterest) for ideas.

Options for boat body

With each of these options, I’ve linked to a webpage that has photos of this kind of boat and info on how to build it.

  • Corks. You could use a single cork – it would be likely to tip over when you blow at the sail, unless you use a weight for a keel – this author appears to have attached pennies to the bottom. Or using two or more corks would increase stability. They can be attached together with rubber bands, hot glue gun, or waterproof tape. I wondered how I would get enough corks for my class, and discovered you can order 100 Recycled Wine Corks for $16
  • Ice Cubes – fun idea for summer, but not something kids can make in class
  • Milk carton with one side cut out. My concerns were: gathering enough cartons, time for cleaning and prepping them, avoiding milk allergens
  • Plastic – I have corrugated plastic from old election signs and such. We used it for our retractable cars. It’s waterproof, flat, with channels for air. I tested it, and it floats well.
  • Pool noodle – Can either do by slicing the noodle into 1-2 inch thick “donuts” or by cutting 5 inch segments and then slicing those in half lengthwise. Potential issues: can you buy pool noodles in November? Also, prep time.
  • Popsicle sticks. Need to have a waterproof glue to fasten them together. If you’re comfortable with your child using a glue gun, that would work fine.
  • Popsicle sticks and corks combined.
  • Sponge. On the upside, zero prep if you use a whole sponge per boat. Downside: cost
  • Styrofoam meat trays. Potential concerns: where would I get them (we don’t cook meat at home), and cleaning to avoid food-borne bacteria. Styrofoam bowls, like you might get ice cream in, are another option.
  • Miscellaneous recycled materials. A great tinkering exercise would be to just gather lots of random materials from the recycling bin: lids, plastic bowls, plastic bottles you can cut the top off of, cups, Styrofoam egg cartons, etc. You’d need to have a way for them to mount the mast for the sails without necessarily cutting a hole in the bottom of the body. Maybe silly putty or a clay that they could stick to body and plant mast in.

I tested the corrugated plastic – it works fine. Takes a little prep work to cut all the bodies, and cut slits in them for masts, but it would be a do-able project.

img_20161116_164733114 img_20161116_164835122

I ended up settling on corks. I haven’t used a glue gun in my class yet, and I know that taping round corks together would be a challenge for my students, so we’ll fasten them together with rubber bands. This also offers the advantage of being able to take them apart and re-use materials for other projects.

Options for mast:

  • Straws, popsicle sticks, dowels, and skewers – we have plenty of each. Because popsicle sticks are flat, they’re easier to fit between corks, so we’ll use those.

Options for sail:

  • Cardstock (works till it gets wet for the first time), craft foam, duct tape (see how to make a duct tape sail), sheets of flexible but strong plastic – I had one sheet of plastic, but have no idea where it came from. I have a laminator, so I tried printing pages with fun designs on them (pirate flags, Viking long boat design, etc) and sealing those in laminator plastic, then cutting out the flags. Sadly, after spending a little time in the water, the little bits of paper exposed at the cut edges would wick in water and the sealed paper would get wet. If I used the laminator in the future, I think I’d just seal close an empty sleeve – a little more flexible than ideal, but it’s an easy source for something workable.

Tutorial for Final Boat Design

Prep: Cut sails. I made 12 sails from a 8.5 x 11 sheet of plastic or of laminated paper. Cut slits big enough to slide popsicle stick through.


Assembly in class

  1. Mount sail on mast by sliding popsicle stick through the slots on the sail.
  2. Rubber band together two corks (cork A and cork B)*
  3. Rubber band together cork B and C.
  4. Put mast between cork B and C, facing toward A.
  5. Rubber band all three corks together.

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* Note: you could just rubber band all three together, but they may bunch up into a triangle if you do that.

littleBits vs. Snap Circuits

snap-circuits-vs-littlebitsThis post is a comparison of two modular electronics kits aimed at young children (through adults). We used both in the session of our Inventors’ Lab class where we talked about Electricity. (Note: I’ve also added some thoughts on Cubelets from Modular Robotics at the bottom of this post.)

Snap Circuits

What are they? Modular electronic components that snap together. You first lay out the configuration you want by snapping components onto a base plate which helps keep things evenly spaced. Then you connect them by snapping on wire modules to close the circuit. Here is a photo of a basic configuration with a switch and a light.


What are the components in the system?

They are plastic “building blocks” with metal snaps that click together. Blocks include:

  • Power source block for the batteries
  • Switch blocks – slide switch and press switch
  • Resistors
  • Lamp blocks, motors, music blocks, speakers
  • Wire blocks of different lengths, ranging from one snap to six. These are just used to connect other components to transport electricity. There are also jumper wires which allow more flexibility.

Circuits need to always include: a battery block, at least one component that limits the current through a circuit (such as the speaker, lamp, motor, or resistor.) If a child uses wire blocks to connect the two terminals of the battery, either directly with one block, or with a circuitous path of wire blocks only, it will cause a short circuit. Short circuits can damage components or drain your batteries.


Elenco, the company which makes Snap Circuits has been making kids’ electronics sets for many years – they were founded in 1972. They do many things very well. But, in attempting to be very scientifically accurate in their descriptions, they are too high level for the intended user (kids age 7 and up for this product). For example, “the photoresistor is a light-sensitive resistor, its value changes from nearly infinite in total darkness to about 1000 ohms when a bright light shines on it.”

Many of their details will be great someday when your kid is a 13 year old electronics geek who wants all the details. But, they’re mostly useless to a 7 year old who just wants to assemble circuits.


The assembly instructions for the projects are done as diagrams primarily, with some text next to them. Sometimes the text explains some info about the assembly, sometimes it talks about the science of what you’re doing, but it’s never step-by-step instructions. You rely on the diagrams for that. But unlike LEGO instructions, which break things down into several steps, these show the fully assembled circuit. The components are labeled with a 1 or 2 to show whether they’re in the first layer you lay down or the second (or third…)


For my almost 5 year old son, and for the 3 – 7 year olds in my class, these instructions are simply not comprehensible.

I wrote my own set of simplified instructions for the first several projects, which

1) change the objective to something easier to grasp and more appealing to a child (e.g. “to show how electricity is used to run a direct current (DC) motor” becomes “turn the switch on and the motor runs to turn the fan.”)

2) Add simple step-by-step instructions

3) instead of the multi-layer diagram, break it down into pictures which shows the first layer, then the first with the second added on, and so on.


Here are cards with simplified instructions for 6 simple circuits. You’re welcome to print and use them.

When we used Snap Circuits in class, we set the kit out with the cards describing 6 different projects and encouraged them to try building them. Some also experimented with their own designs. We did have to go over and disassemble and tidy up projects on a regular basis so that other kids could find the items they needed.


Age: Manufacturer rates as age 7 and up. In our class, we saw that for our 3 – 4 year olds, they liked watching their parents assemble it, but they really weren’t following the science of how the circuit works. And their fine motor skills and finger strength just weren’t up to the task of assembling circuits. Our 5 – 7 year olds fared better, but it was definitely a fine motor challenge. These older kids could follow the directions that I wrote (see above) but can’t follow the single-illustration instructions that appear in the book.

Where to Start: We’ve got the Snap Circuits Jr. Discovery Kit which has 30 parts, and instructions for 100 projects. It’s plenty to get you started.

Cost: The Jr. Discovery kit is only $17.50, so it’s easy to jump into this system. Their most expensive non-classroom-pack kit is the Snap Circuits Extreme SC-750 which is $71.

Expandability: There are many kits of Snap Circuits, with many components. There’s a lot you can do with them. The Snap Circuit Jr. kit has over 100 projects, including Lights & Police Sirens; Bomb Sounds, Alarm Circuit, Musical Doorbell, Spin Draw. Plenty of things to learn and discover. But, in the end, they’re limited to the Snap Circuits attached to the baseboard, and can’t offer the range of opportunities that littleBits offer.

Summary: If you’re looking for an affordable electronics kit for a geeky kid, age 7 – 12 who loves just sitting and building electronic circuits, this is a great product!


What are they? littleBits is kind of the Lego of electrical circuits. It’s a modular system.

The photo on the left shows a basic configuration: power cell, input switch (a push button) and an output (a bright LED light.) The photo on the right is a simple “project” hooking together the power and a motor. I built a little fan using a blue bead and some green plastic to mount on the motor. I set the motor on a wood block to give the fan room to turn.

IMG_20160111_194953046 img_20161104_122239419

What are the components in the system?

The pieces are color coded by type:

  • Blue for power – the power switch you attach to the battery or to a USB cable.
  • Pink for inputs / controls – Take inputs such as sound, light, or pressure to affect the flow of current. Button, dimmer switch/ volume control, sound activated switch, light sensor switch, remote controllable switch, oscillator, etc.
  • Green for outputs / actions – These modules do something. Lights, buzzers, motors, fans, speakers, etc.
  • Orange for wires – Include a simple wire that just lets you separate your bits by a few inches, and a splitter, where two inputs can connect to one output. Then all sorts of components from inverters to USB I/O to MIDI.

A slogan in the instruction book is “you always need a blue and green. Pink and orange are optional in between.”

The color coded blocks snap together with magnets. They only go together the “right” way. If you try any other direction, the magnets repel each other. This ensures that the circuit will work, and you can’t short circuit.

The order you assemble components in matters: the pink inputs only affect components that come after them in the circuit.

Instructions: The base kit comes with an instruction book to explain the basics, and some simple configurations of bits.

basic-littlebits  basic-projects

For our class of 3 – 7 year olds, I thought having many ideas all on one page might be confusing to them, so I made up a set of 8 cards with photo instructions for 8 simple configurations of bits. (Feel free to print and use: littlebits PDF.) We set out the cards with a couple trays that let us sort bits by type so the kids could collect what they needed to assemble each project. For the 3 – 4 year olds, I would sit with them and explain the basic ideas to them and explore with them. The 5 – 7 year olds could do this self-guided.

lightsensor img_20161105_092317555

The instruction book also contains “ideas to get you started” on projects – other things you can invent by combining your littleBits with a wide variety of materials. The goal is to encourage tinkering. One of the sample projects they offer is the Art Bot (see photo). My son’s favorite was a joy buzzer called the Prank Handshake, which involves fastening the battery pack to your arm, running a wire down to a button input in your hand, and then another wire up to the buzzer. You hold them all in place with a rubber band, then slide your sleeve down to cover the power and buzzer.


We’ve played with this expandability a little. For example, we took the simple set-up of power module, wire, and motor. But then we built a windmill with popsicle sticks. When you turn on the power, the propeller rotates.


Age: The manufacturer says they’re for ages 8 and up, but my five year old can do everything with them that was in the instruction book, and come up with some of his own ideas. Even the 3 year olds in my class could handle the basic concepts. I don’t think there is a maximum age. When I look at all the possible components and project ideas, I think this system could continue to intrigue and challenge people of all ages.

Where to start: We have the littleBits Electronics Base Kit. You could also consider littleBits Rule Your Room Kit – I can see it really appealing to an 8 –  9 year old.

Cost: Here’s the downside to littleBits. A basic kit costs $100. They go up in price from there. You can also buy individual components at the littleBits store, for anywhere from $5 to $50 depending on what you buy. When I put them out in class, I’m really crossing my fingers that none get lost or stepped on. I can’t attest much to durability – they seem pretty sturdy, but since my boy wore his joy buzzer around a lot, the button component has been flaky, and I think one of the wires was damaged. The light sensor has a small screw to adjust the sensitivity – the kit comes with a little plastic screwdriver, but it got dinged up in one or two uses, so we use a metal one, but I worry about stripping the head of the screw.

You could also build your own DIY littleBits if you’re confident with a soldering and working with wiring. Tutorials at: http://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-littleBits-Introduction/

Infinite Expandability: The cool thing about littleBits is how you can use them with a huge range of other materials to create all sorts of fun projects. Because you’re not soldering anything together, it’s easy to take apart, re-assemble, test, take it apart and assemble it differently until you get the result you want. I’ve barely begun to play with this expandability, so will just share here some other people’s ideas:

At http://littlebits.cc/projects, littleBits users share their ideas. Today’s page there includes:

  • Harry Potter inspired projects: an animatronic Hedwig (when a motion sensor is triggered, a servo moves the head and lights flash in the eyes), a Voldemort disarmer, a Parselbot (a wheeled cart that moves an egg-carton snake), and a motorized Lego Hogwarts Express you control with a smart phone
  • Halloween challenge winners: a remote control ghost, a haunted house diorama with spinning furniture and flashing lights, and a scary Zombie that can be activated from inside the house to scare off trick or treaters with flashing lights and a scream
  • LOTS more!

Boston Tech Mom collects links to 30 top rated littleBits projects for kids, such as an electric toothbrush, box monster, and bubble flute.

A post on lifehacker on how to get started DIY’ing anything with littleBits covers:

  • getting started with the cloudBit, which connects your littleBits project to the internet and to other devices, such as a smart phone
  • getting started with the Arduino module
  • sample projects: get an SMS notification from a doorbell, build a weather dashboard that pulls real-time data from Weather Underground, and make your own MIDI synth

This page on Instructables collects projects like: LEGO house with garage door openers and windmills, a motorized mobile, and a spinning, blinking paper Tardis

Science Education Note: These are not great for teaching the idea of a circuit to kids. If you take a battery, hook a wire from it to a lightbulb, then another wire from the lightbulb to the other terminal on the battery, kids totally see and understand the idea of a circuit. In the littleBits, the wiring is hidden from sight, so when a kid hooks a light to the power module, they can’t see how the electrical current is traveling from the battery through the light and back to the battery.

They also do not offer the technical details in the instruction book. An Amazon reviewer, Joel Avrunin, noted “I really do wish they would use the technical term instead of the popular one … The dimmer module is a potentiometer/variable resistor. The toy is so easy to use, why not let kids learn the right terms while they play? The light sensor is a nice little device (though they could have called it a photodetector or photodiode).”  I agree and disagree… I like the instructions as they are, for making the system seem easy and accessible to kids by not using those technical terms. But it would be nice if there was a supplementary manual for older kids with the “now that you’ve played with them, you want to know more about how they work” approach and all that vocabulary.

Summary: I have to say: I LOVE the littleBits. They’re a great toy that my five year old really enjoys and learns from, plus we can keep them around and re-introduce off and on as he gets older, continuing to take his inventing skills to a new level. And they’re cooler than the nerdy Snap Circuits. But… they’re stupidly expensive! I am hoping that over time, with economies of scale, (and likely competitors) the price comes down. But for now they’re quite pricey.

Cubelets by Modular Robotics

I learned about these when shopping for robots. I think they’re mis-marketing these by calling them robots, as they’re not what most people would think of in that category. But, they do look pretty cool as competitors for Snap Circuits and LitttleBits in the snap-together electronic components field. I have not tried these, so can only tell you what I’ve learned from reading about them on Amazon. 

What are they? Two-inch cubes that click together with magnets. One is a battery pack, and like littleBits, the current and the “programming” travels through to the others when they’re clicked together.

There’s a good introduction to this system on their website: www.modrobotics.com/cubelets/cubelets-getting-started/

Components: Sense blocks which include a light sensor, distance sensor, a temperature sensor, and a knob. Action blocks include a flashlight, drive – a set of wheels, a bar graph of lights,  and a speaker. Think blocks include one that blocks signals going through, a Bluetooth for remote control, inverse, minimum, and maximum cubelets. There are also plates for connecting the blocks with Lego – one’s like the bottom of a Lego that you can mount on top of other Legos, and one is like a top, that other Legos can be built on top of.

Where to Start / Expandability: The Cubelets SIX robot blocks comes with a battery cube, Drive, Flashlight, Distance, Brightness, and Passive Cubelets. It’s $160. Other cubes can be bought in kits, or individually on their website, for around $27 a cube.

Age: They say 4 and up, and the reviews on Amazon confirm it works for kids as young as 3 and that 12 and 13 year olds also have fun with it. (Although they tire over time with the limitations of the system.)

My summary: Looks really cool. I would buy them and play with them. If they didn’t cost $160 for a base set. Just too pricey for me. But, if I’d seen these before buying littleBits, I would definitely compare the two systems before starting on one.

Cars – Engineering for Kids


After we studied all the Simple Machines, we spent a day looking at a complex machine: the car.

Engineering Projects

I wanted the students to be able to build a car that rolled. I explored lots of different ideas – learn about them all in this post: Designing a Car Project. They range from very simple cars built of toilet paper skewers and cardboard wheels to much more sophisticated projects. You could also do a tinkering station where kids were offered lots of options for bodies, wheels, and axles and allowed to create whatever they wanted. I wanted to build “motorized” cars, and these are the designs I came up with:

Retractable Car. During Discovery Time at the beginning of class, we worked on a basic car. They used corrugated plastic bodies, taped on straw wheel bearings, threaded wooden dowels through those and attached wooden wheels. During opening circle, we tested these. Then I explained to them that we would take them to the next level by adding a retractable badge clip to motorize it so it could run on its own as a pull-back and release car. I demo-ed a sample. We worked on and tested those during Tinkering Time. Then, during closing circle, I explained how the bigger a wheel’s diameter, the further it rolls on each revolution. I challenged them for “homework” to try adding big wheels to their car to see what happens. I demo’ed my car with CD’s added for wheels. See a tutorial on how to build these cars here: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2016/10/26/build-a-moving-car/.


I was pretty happy with how the project turned out, but I do have to say, there’s a lot of prep worked involved, plus the materials are a little pricey. $1.60 per car for wooden dowels and wheels, plus around $1 for a retractable badge.

Clothespin Racer: In the design process for the retractable car, at one point we thought of using a flywheel style pull-back car mechanism, and checked whether we could buy kits with these. We didn’t find kits, but we did learn that pull-back cars are cheap – about 35 cents each. So, we invented these clothespin racers, which are quick, simple to build, fun and zippy. Find a tutorial at: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2016/10/26/clothespin-racer/


Art / Engineering Parent-Child Project

Design a car: We asked all the parents to bring in big cardboard boxes from home. We made cars by adding black paper plates for wheels (fastened on with brads/paper fasteners so they can turn), straps so they could wear them over their shoulders and a variety of decorations. This is not something the kids can do completely independently but it’s a great project for collaboration between adults and kids, and there’s a certain thrill in building something really big to take home. (Click on picture for bigger view.)


To read a full post about this project, and see lots more pictures, go to https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2016/11/01/design-a-car-2/.

Art Projects

Process art – Monster Truck Painting: We put paper on a table, then poured three blobs of paint on the table, and added three “monster trucks” from McDonald’s Happy Meal toys that had big treads on the tires. These are the kind of car that you pull back on and they roll forward on their own. We put toilet paper roll bumpers all around the table so they wouldn’t be constantly flying off the table. (None ever actually left the table with this set-up) This was a big hit with our 2 to 4-year-old boys.


Product art: Last year, we got wooden cars from Discount School supply and painted them with metallic paints. At ~$2 a car, this is a pricier project than we usually do, but it was nice for them to be able to make something that they could roll around. I’m happier with this year’s projects, where they built cars


You could also offer: Cut out shapes from paper that children can use to assemble a car collage out of geometric shapes; coloring pages with pictures of cars, or large paper on the floor that kids can draw their own cities and roads on to drive cars around.

Free Play / Math / Physics Experiments

Sorting: We had a collection of toy vehicles kids could sort into “cars” and “not cars.”

Race a car: We set out blocks, black foam core boards or plastic panels, ramps from Kodo Engineering, toy cars, and a yard stick. Kids could build ramps, race cars down them, and measure how far their cars went. They could notice whether the distance travelled was affected by how steep the ramp was.

We’ll also put out these cars from a Delta Science Modules kit we inherited.


Free play: We filled the sensory table with kinetic sand and toy cars to drive around in it. We had a steering wheel and set of brake/gas pedals that had come with a video game driving simulator, and we set those up on a table for pretend driving play. (Also on the table we put laminated photos of “view out the windshield” with views of ocean, woods, snowy roads, the moon, and more to enhance their imaginary play.) We have a large rug with a road drawn on it, so we put out more cars for them to drive around.


We also put out one of these two Duplo car projects: the Duplo car launcher, and the Measuring Car. Some children would take apart the Duplo project and re-build it. Some just play with the assembled kit.

IMG_20160802_213004354_HDR IMG_20160802_173643474_HDR

Snack: Our snack volunteer brought in a great creative snack! Apple slice cars with grapes for wheels – check out the photo at the top of this post.

Circle Time:

Illustrating the concept: I made up posters, one titled “A Car is a Complex Machine – made up of lots of simple machines” and the other “Simple Machines that are Used with Cars, Trucks, and Buses.” I have photos of a number of examples, and next to each one, a diagram of the simple machine it represents. You can see a sample poster here… note that I do not hold copyright to any of the images used here and am not authorized to distribute this poster… but you could make your own!

Books: I didn’t find any books that were specifically about the relationship between cars and simple machines, but there are lots of great car books. In our opening circle, we read “If I Built a Car” by van Dusen. This is a very fun read-aloud fantasy about a child designing and building a fabulous car: “I’ll show you inside. I’ve put in a couch. It’s comfy and wide. Plus a fireplace, fish tank, and here’s something cool – The floor can slide open, and look – there’s a pool!” Wonderfully retro styling on the car, with chrome and fins.


Other nice book options: “Pete the Cat: The Wheels on the Bus“, because who can resist such a great combination? I would highly recommend Going Places, described in my Books about Inventors recommendations. A good option for toddlers is My Car by Byron Barton and for preschoolers, check out Cool Cars by Mitton and Parker and Cars Galore by Stein, Four to five year olds like Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

For awareness of other cultures, read Galimoto by Williams and Stock, which tells the story of a young boy in Malawi Africa, who wants to build a galimoto – a word that means car, but it’s also the name of push-toys made by children. The boy has a box with all of his worldly possessions – a ball of plastic bags tied with strings, a knife made from a tin can, and a puppet made from cornstalks. He has a few pieces of wire. Throughout the story, he scavenges, scrounges, and trades for other small bits and snippets of wire till he has enough to make a wire toy car to race with his friends.

Closing circle time – the Drive-In Movie. All the kids brought their cardboard cars over to circle time, and we watched a movie. I had edited down 12 minute versions of each of these, so we could watch the whole thing. The little kids watched Sid the Science Kid episode #125, “Climb Ignatz”, which is a review of simple machines. The big kids watched Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Simple Machines episode.

Resource: There’s a great list of links to more ideas on teaching simple machines to kids, and especially on teaching how cars and simple machines are related, at: https://www.titlemax.com/resources/a-guide-to-simple-machines-used-in-cars/

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 our activities are appropriate for classroom teachers, parents who homeschool, or after school programs.

Design a Car – Kids’ Art and Engineering Project


I teach a parent-child class for families with kids age 3 – 7 (preschool to early elementary) and this is one of my favorite projects for getting parents and children working together on a fun imagination challenge.

Each family is asked to bring in a large box – something big enough for their child to sit down in. Some brought file boxes, some apple boxes, some shipping boxes or boxes from small appliances.

I put posters up on the walls with some ideas to get them started (here’s a set of posters you could use for inspiration) but then encouraged them to be creative, use their imagination, and build the car any way that they want to.

All the ideas below are suggestions, not required steps! It’s all about how the child wants their car to look!!

Straps: The first thing to decide on: does the child want to just sit in their box car, or would they like to be able to wear it like a costume and walk around in it?


To make this “car costume”:

  • Cut off the bottom of the box.
  • Poke holes and tie on strings… one on the left side, one on the right side.
  • Then tie a short string around string 1 and 2, as shown in right-hand picture above. This stops the straps from just slipping off the shoulders. (This is a tip that was missing from most of the Pinterest posts on car building!)

Wheels: You can cut out big circles of paper for wheels or use regular paper plates. I like using black dessert-sized paper plates. You can just tape these on, but it’s more fun if they turn. To do this, place one plate where you want it to be on the box. Then use a tool like an ice pick to punch a hole through the center of the plate and through the wall of the box. Push an extra long brad / Paper Fastener through the hole, and fold its wings open.

Doors: To make doors that open and shut: You need a box cutter, so this job should only be done by an adult! Cut back edge of the door and bottom edge, as shown with the red lines. Then fold on the dotted line to open. Make sure you leave enough cardboard around door (in front, back and on the bottom) so it’s still stable, not all wobbly


Headlights and Tail-lights: Almost anything circular works! I’ve had kids tape on plastic lids, plastic snak-pak containers, cupcake wrappers, and more.


Round stickers could also work. My favorite is reflective tape circles… look what happens when you take a picture with a flash!IMG_20151019_175630896

Note: the reflective tape I found in the past was VERY expensive, and tricky to peel the backing off of. I’ve found a new brand of reflective tape that’s much cheaper that I plan to try next time.

Other ideas:

Our families have gotten creative, and added steering wheels, dashboard panels, pipe cleaner windshield wipers, side view mirrors and more. Encourage ingenuity!

steering dash wipers side-mirror

Shape: You could also add on design elements with construction paper:


Decoration: If you have time and can handle the mess, you could paint the cars. It’s not something we can do in the context of my two hour class, but it can lead to some great results. We decorate with markers, dot paints, stickers, and colorful tape.

Drive-In Movie: At the end of class, instead of our usual closing circle, we gathered everyone for a “drive-in movie”. The kids brought in their cars and sat in them and ate popcorn while we watched a Sid the Science Kid episode called Climb, Ignatz, Climb which is the final wrap-up episode of their simple machines unit.