Engineering Kids | Rube Goldberg Machine

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

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 |

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


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


  • 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 |

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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How to Build with Box Rivets

Today we’re joined by TinkerLab reader and friend, Aricha Gilpatrick Drury who’s offered to show us how to build with box rivets. Aricha is a mom to four children and has a knack for tinkering. When she shared this uber-tinkering activity on our Facebook wall, we asked Aricha if she’d be so kind to share with us today. Lucky us, she said, “yes!”

If you’ve never built with box rivets before (we haven’t), you’re in for a treat. They’re simple plastic connectors that enable you build almost anything you can think of from cardboard: castles, theater sets, play structures, and more.

How to build with rivets and cardboard boxes |

About a year ago, my father sent the kids a package of Mr. McGroovy’s Cardboard Rivets (Amazon), which took up residence, half-forgotten on a shelf. My kids all love building with cardboard boxes, but I’d assumed the rivets would require a great deal of adult help and I was hesitant to introduce them. I was pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong when I finally got them out on a recent snow day.

Supplies: Build a Box with Rivets

My 9-year-old and I gathered our supplies:

Mr. McGroovy's Rivets |

How the Rivets Work

After a quick safety review for the punch (to avoid punching directly into one’s hand), we checked out the rivets to see how they worked. Two rivets are positioned on either side of the cardboard with the prongs at a 90-degree angle from one another. When the rivets are pressed together, the ridged prongs click securely and hold the two layers of cardboard together.


I demonstrated once, showing my son how to punch through two layers of cardboard then press the rivet together through the punched hole. Once he had the idea, which only took one demonstration, I turned him loose to design and build.

Build with Rivets and Cardboard

He started out by gathering all the boxes together and then arranged them into the general shape of the playhouse that he wanted to make. After getting a rough idea of where each box would go, he figured out which sides needed to be cut open and how to overlap the joints to secure the boxes together. For the most part, he was able to punch the holes and line up the rivets himself, though he needed an extra hand (or a longer arm) for some spots.

Creative Problem Solving

In a few places, the cardboard didn’t overlap and we used packing tape to join the pieces. When that proved to be far less reliable than riveting, he discovered that an extra piece of cardboard could be placed over both edges and riveted together, creating a much more stable joint.


He also discovered that he needed to do some pre-planning in a few places by securing the harder-to-reach rivets first and leaving the ones close to the edge for last.

His final touch was a door, which I cut for him using the box cutter. He designed a handle with a strip of leftover cardboard and riveted it on.


Once the house was complete, we carried it out for the rest of the children to explore. After an initial peek inside, they furnished it with pillows and blankets. Over the next couple days it became a play house, a castle, and a place to be alone. After a week in child care (including being moved by small children), the house is still standing solid.



Mr. McGroovy’s website has designs for using the rivets to create projects from your own cardboard boxes, as well as ideas from customers and tips for acquiring large appliance boxes.

Mr. McGroovy’s rivets on Amazon

Note: This post contains affiliate links for your convenience

Aricha Gilpatrick Drury on How to build with rivets and cardboard boxes | TinkerLab.comAricha Gilpatrick Drury is an early childhood consultant and mother of four. She comes from a long line of fixers and tinkerers and hopes to pass on a tinkering mindset to her children. She likes to test out her open-ended art and tinkering invitations in her husband’s in-home childcare program.