Cardboard Automata – Simple Machines and Storytelling

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Third grade spent about three weeks last month creating their own cardboard automata! It was a powerful combination of literacy and making. As the students were already studying procedural texts and simple machines, I thought it would be the perfect time to teach them how to make their own cardboard automata.

Prep Work

I printed the automata tutorial from The Tinkering Studio to help students build their simple machines. The teachers requested having the students attempt to create the automata by reading and following the instructions since they just finished studying procedural texts.

As I hadn’t made automata on a massive scale yet, I asked some of my maker friends about the best way to get mutliple frames made for quick automata building. J.E. Johnson ended up cutting them for me on long cardboard he uses when he leads his own automata workshops.

The marvelous Aaron Graves cut many many circle and oval shapes so 3rd grade students could focus on building a machine and not just cutting out shapes. (Even though cutting out shapes is a great activity for another time!)

It took quite a bit longer for students to make their automata than I initially planned. I told teachers we would focus on creating the automata in our first session and then the next week, let students focus on the story telling element. I mistakenly thought it would only take two 45 minutes sessions to build an automata with an amazing creative character on top. It ended up taking two sessions for most students to build the machine. While some students were still tinkering and trying to fix mistakes on their machine during the third week of making!

Even though the machines took quite some time to build, it was a great exercise in simple machines AND storytelling.

As the time progressed, the stories got more and more intricate and interesting. Each class had a different dynamic. Some focused on quirky characters, while others had almost a diorama effect. Check out student work below:

Flat Panel Drawing

On the third week of the activity, I told students to create a flat panel drawing as this was the last week we would be working on our automata. I told Mrs. Schlung that I wished we were making automata twice. One build just to understand how to build it and how the machine works. Then have students make it a second time to add more focus on the storytelling element or character on top. Mrs. Schlung suggested that next year it might be better create an automata earlier in the school year with the two-sided flat drawing, and then later in the year we could build a second one with more character development or story background. (Especially as a way of building skills throughout the year.)

StopMotion Automata

Another idea for extending this project is to create stopmotion videos of the working automata. It’s actually a great way to introduce the concept of stopmotion with elemakers. It’s simpler than a LEGO minifig stop motion (which I did with second grade earlier in the year), but still a fun way to learn how to make your own stop motion animations.

If you decide to make your own cardboard automata, make sure you have plenty of patience, and step back often to let your little learners problem solve on their own. This is a great activity for students to make something and gain independence in figuring out how to get their machine to work.  By the end of three weeks, almost all of the students had a working machine, and lots of kids had great ideas on characters and stories their machines would tell!

Those that didn’t finish, start every library visit with, “Mrs. Graves, can we work on our spinny things?”


One thought on “Cardboard Automata – Simple Machines and Storytelling

  1. Pingback: How to Engage Your Family by Making Together -

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