Cardboard Automata – Simple Machines and Storytelling

Join the (6)

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!

3rd grade figuring out how to build a simple machine #cardboard #automata #storyofmason

A post shared by (@makerteacherlibrarian) on

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:

Characters are coming along for 3rd grade #cardboard #automata ! #storyofmason #makered

A post shared by (@makerteacherlibrarian) on

An Easter themed #cardboard #automata from Ms. Merritt’s class! #makered #storyofmason

A post shared by (@makerteacherlibrarian) on

More 3rd grade #cardboard #automata at #storyofmason !#literacy and #mAkered

A post shared by (@makerteacherlibrarian) on

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.

A 3rd grader tinkering w stop motion and her #cardboard #automata . #makered #storytelling

A post shared by (@makerteacherlibrarian) on

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?”


Handmade Stamps and Eric Carle’s Mixed Up Chameleon – Making and Literacy

Join the (5)

Feeling Mixed-Up

As an elementary librarian, I’m always looking for ways that books can inspire making.  I love the artwork of Eric Carle and I thought it would be really fun to have students invent their own animal based on the book, The Mixed-Up Chameleon.  My initial idea was to make an animal in the same way that Eric Carle makes his art, by painting paper and then cutting out animal shapes, and collaging them together. However, without a table top cutter, I knew this would be a lot of prep on my part.

Making and Picture Books

Then I met Nora Peters during SXSWedu. We had coffee and talked about all of our favorite picture books and how each unique book could hold a spark for creativity.  When Nora was at the Millvalle Community Library, she created projects for picture books and included instructions inside the front cover of library books. (Read more about this here!)

As we were talking about our favorite activities and books, I told her about my dilemma with wanting to invent animals with cut out shapes, and Nora said, “Why don’t you just make stamps?”

So over spring break, I debated buying a table top cutter so I could mass produce stamps, but finally settled down and created these stamps by hand.

My 8 YO gave me the idea to draw the animal and then subsequent animal parts on one piece of paper.

Then I just drew my design with a fine tip sharpie on a foam sheet, cut with scissors, and engraved designs with a ballpoint pen.

Aaron taught me how to use a table saw to cut my wood blocks, then I was stuck trying to figure out the best way to adhere the foam sheet to each block. Hot glue would be lumpy…..but what if I just used double sided sticky tape?  Would it hold up?

After a week of being used with kindergarten, first, and second, I’m happy to tell you that my stamps survived!

If you decide to make your own stamps, make sure you line up the front and back so you can trace the design on top and then your elemakers will be able to line up their unique animal parts to invent their new animal species.

I love my homemade stamps so much! And now I want to own a Silhouette Cameo cutter or Cricut Maker so I can mass produce more stamps, or try my original idea and have students paint paper and draw shapes. Then I can cut their animal shapes with one of these rad plotter machines.

During my lesson this week, Lucie Delabruere came to visit and has a great snapshot of the entire lesson! She caught me in my “natural habitat” so to speak! Read her snapshot of being in my library and her other “March is for Making” posts here.  Ironically, I told Lucie I wasn’t focusing on making this week, but rather on literacy and research…. it’s funny how it all really does tie together into a seamless learning experience.

My favorite part of this activity was that after inventing an animal, students researched animal habitats and had to decide where their mixed-up animal would live. I’d love to go further with this lesson and have them write explanations of why they chose that habitat for their new animal species.

Check Out All the Student Work!