Engineering Kids | Rube Goldberg Machine

Easy Steps for building a Rube Goldberg Machine with Little Kids | TinkerLab.com

This project has long been on my to-do list with my kids. We are long-time fans of marble runs (see the resources page for recommendations), and extending our love for rolling balls and ramps into the world of Rube Goldberg was a no-brainer. And triple hurrah for projects that celebrate STEM and STEAM learning.

About Rube Goldberg

For the uninitiated, Rube Goldberg was an American Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, and his work is a classic example of the melding of art and science. Goldberg began his career as an engineer, and later became a cartoonist who drew elaborate illustrations of contraptions made up of pulleys, cups, birds, balloons, and watering cans that were designed to solve a simple task such as opening a window or setting an alarm clock. Interestingly, Goldberg only drew the pictures, and never built any of his inventions. However, these pictures have since served as inspiration for makers and builders who want the challenge of making wild inventions to solve everyday problems. Rube Goldberg definition

And apparently, Rube Goldberg is a now an adjective in the dictionary! You can read more about Goldberg here.

Suggested materials for building a Rube Goldberg Machine with Little Kids | TinkerLab.com

Build a Rube Goldberg Machine with Kids

So, are you interested in building a Rube Goldberg-style machine with little kids? This post will give you a few tips and ideas to make your own complicated machine.

 

Step 1: Get Inspired

First things first, you’ll want to watch some Rube Goldberg contraptions in action to get inspired. My kids and I LOVE this video from OK Go. It’s incredible complicated, but oh-so-amazing, so don’t think for one hot second that you’ll be able to replicate this with little kids.

Step 2: Solve a Problem

Next, come up with a simple problem that you’re trying to solve. For example:

  • Ring a Bell
  • Pop a Balloon
  • Open a Door
  • Shut a window
  • Put out a candle

Once you have a problem sorted out (and don’t worry – you can change this later if you want), gather supplies…

Step 3: Gather Supplies

You can print out the following list here.

Collect a bucket-full of supplies and then lay them out so they’re easily seen. These can largely be found in your home or classroom — start with what you have! You will most likely start with some of these basics, and then forage your home or classroom for more supplies as you go. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Things that Roll

  • Marbles
  • Balls: Tennis, Baseball, Bowling, etc.
  • Toy Cars
  • Dominoes
  • Skateboard
  • Roller Skate
  • Mousetrap

Things that Move

  • Mousetrap
  • Dominoes
  • Toaster
  • Fan

Ramps

  • Toy Train Tracks
  • Marble Runs
  • Books
  • Trays
  • PVC pipe
  • Plastic tubing
  • Gutters

Recyclables

  • Cardboard
  • Cereal Boxes
  • Cardboard Rolls
  • Plastic Water Bottles
  • Cans
  • Aluminum Foil

Household Materials

  • Chopsticks
  • Popsicle Sticks
  • Ruler
  • Wooden Blocks
  • Bowl
  • String
  • Tape
  • Sand
  • Pins
  • Hammer
  • Balloons
  • Water
  • Fan
  • Vinegar and Baking Soda

Step 4: Build Your Machine!

Once you have the supplies ready, start building. While the OK Go video (and others like it) includes some pretty complex machines and concepts, keep this simple for preschoolers. The basic concept that we’re exploring is that of a chain reaction, so anything that tips something else over (and so one) is what you’re going for. Don’t worry too much about building things like pulleys and levers for young children.

Take a look at our machine to get a sense of what’s possible.

Our Rube Goldberg Machine in Action

5 Tips for Success

  1. Success breeds enthusiasm, so keep the steps to a minimum. You can always add more as you go.
  2. Keep your expectations low
  3. Ask your child for ideas and input
  4. Work collaboratively
  5. Aim to have fun

A Note on Failure

As you test and try out different set-ups, you’ll undoubtedly fail a few times. I could have filled a 20 minute video with outtakes from all our misses (the balloon is a good example of that). But this is great news! Failure is an intrinsic piece of the invention process, and without these mistakes we won’t learn how things really work. So embrace failure and celebrate it as part of the learning process.

Next Steps: Full STEAM Ahead

  • Ask: What other simple problems could we solve?
  • Ask: What materials could we use?
  • Ask: Why didn’t that work? How could we fix it or try it again?
  • Encourage your child to problem solve by seeking out materials and moving objects.

Did you enjoy this project? Join the semi-secret Club TinkerLab on Facebook to swap and share more ideas like this.

Easy Steps for building a Rube Goldberg Machine with Little Kids | TinkerLab.com

More Projects like this one

DIY Paper Tube Marble Run

Fort Building Kit

DIY Water Wall, it’s like a marble run, but with water!

Build an easy light table

Make Gumdrop Sculptures

Activate Learning with STEAM

If you’ve been a loyal TinkerLab fan (thank you! you mean the world to me.) you’ll know that I’m happiest sharing projects that live at the intersection of disciplines. Too often we’re quick to separate science from writing or math from art, but when we seek out ways to make interdisciplinary connections, learning can be more meaningful and novel discoveries can be made.STEAM Activities | Teabag Hot Air Balloon

In that vein, over the next few weeks I’m joining a creative group of engineers, scientists, educators, and artists to launch a new series called STEAM Power, which celebrates interdisciplinary learning with projects that circle around STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) ideas. This week’s theme is REACT, and you can see the other reaction-related ideas here:

Stixplosions | Babble Dabble Do

Smoosh Painting | Meri Cherry

Color Changing Chemistry Clock | Left Brain Craft Brain

Zoom Ball | What Do We Do All Day?

Glowing Hands | All For The Boys

Rainbow Reactions | Lemon Lime Adventures

Colorful Chemical Reaction  | Frugal Fun for Boys

STEAM on Pinterest

You might also enjoy following my STEAM + STEM Activities board on Pinterest for more ideas like this.

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Comments

  1. says

    I adore this idea. I have actually wanted to make something like this ever since I was a little girl and watched that truffle-shuffle scene in The Goonies :) I will definitely have to get a kit together for my little STEAM obsessed friends. Thank you!

  2. says

    I just happened to check out your site this morning to see what was new for art class and immediately changed my plans for K/1 science! We found materials around our classroom and borrowed some bells from the music classroom. The kids didn’t want to clean up for lunch :) I promised more time for inventing this week. Thanks for the great explanation and lists, they made it easy to get started!

    • Rachelle says

      Are you serious, Brianna? That’s so amazing. I’m DELIGHTED that this post was helpful and that you were able to get this off the ground so quickly. Have a great day.

      • says

        Oh, it was great! We had two weeks of inventing. We’re just coming off of March Break, but we’ll probably revisit it again. The activity fit in very well with the new full day kindergarten curriculum we have in Ontario, which is centred around play-based learning. If I can find a video or picture of our machines that don’t have kids in them, I’ll send you one :) I’m fortunate enough to team-teach a Kindergarten-Grade 1 class part time, and my subjects are Science, Art, Health and Phys. Ed. (I do teach other subjects as well). So I’m excited to check out the other STEAM Power projects next!

  3. says

    I love Rube Goldberg Machines! I even have vintage toy based on his cartoons. This is a great project to try and so inventive!

    • Rachelle says

      Oh, I would love to see that toy, Ana. It will be interesting to see how the contraption-invention process changes as my kids get more experience with this.

  4. says

    Rachelle, I don’t know if I can love a post more. The pictures, the video, the ideas! The coolness of Rube Goldberg. I just love everything about this. Well done woman! Will share this week for sure.

    • Rachelle says

      Meri, you are the loveliest! This was a fun project to work through and the ideas that my daughter had were priceless. I wish I had the energy to compile a big video of outtakes.

  5. says

    Super post & project for kids! It reminds me of the game Mousetrap that we use to LOVE to set up but hated the clean up part :) I wonder if his work inspired that game? Also reminds me of a few scenes from the movie “Home Alone”. My daughter will really love doing this — she’s a born builder with a great sense of humor :)

    • Rachelle says

      Thank you so much for the comment Jacquie! I’ve never played Mousetrap, but have heard of it. It sounds like fun. I just looked into it, and apparently the game designer, Marvin Glass, WAS in fact inspired by Goldberg and never acknowledged him! Yikes. I forgot about that Home Alone scene. So, so good.

  6. says

    This is fantastic!
    Have you seen the Rube Goldberg Sesame Street scene (on YouTube)??
    Spent two hours building this morning!
    Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Rachelle says

      Hi Jacq, No, I haven’t seen it! You guys are all sharing so many great scenes and I have to look for this one. Awesome! I’m so glad to hear that this inspired you. I left the pieces set up in my studio, and a friend came over and couldn’t stop playing with them. Fun for everyone!

  7. Heidi says

    My almost 5 year old and I just built our first Rube Goldberg invention. She loved it. I almost never write comments like this but am so appreciative for the post and ideas. We had a great time. She is now brainstorming other ones we could create.

    • Rachelle says

      Hi Heidi,
      I’m honored that you’re leaving a comment for me. I’m so glad that this was a hit in your home, and look forward to hearing from you again!
      Rachelle

  8. says

    What a great blog on Rube Goldberg contraptions! Not long ago we met Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter at a science convention.What a charming lady! She has a website and runs a contest for older kids. She inspired us to write a blog on Rube Goldberg contraptions in which we included a list of great picture books for this theme. http://www.getcaughtengineering.com/brainy-zany-contraptions-stem/
    We love your book and website and frequently recommend it to teachers and parents who are looking for STEM projects for younger children. Thanks for all your wonderful ideas.
    Wendy
    Get Caught Engineering

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