Automata and Animatronics for Kids

This fall, we started our Inventors Workshop by getting things moving. Animatronics refers to lifelike robots. You would often see animatronics in movies or a theme park. Some of my favorite animatronic activities are the simplest. I love this wagging tail from Arvind Gupta. They are easy to make and I find the movement fascinating. A straight up and down tug makes great sweeping movements.  We've made lots of wagging tails that have turned into various animals.

A slithering snake and a cat with wagging tail

We've even turned them into moving pictures.


I've discovered a couple of tricks to help make this activity successful:

  • I don't use broom straws for the tails, I use cable ties. (Associate link.) The cool think about cable ties is the slight bend at the end. If you line two up the right way, they make a triangle perfect for a wagging tail.
  • Mounting the finished tail on a piece of foam core, or cardboard, helps create context and keep the tail wagging in two dimensions. 
  • Thin paper for weaving the tail helps! Your average print or copy paper works well, newsprint does too.
  • Thick paper, like cardstock, for the bodies of the animals helps!

We stopped with this project for the 6-8 yr olds. With the 9-12 yr olds, we kept going over the next couple of weeks building automata.

Automata are toys that move using mechanical energy. Cranks, gears, springs, pulleys. A really simple automata, like this project from the NY Hall of Science, uses smooth gears friction to spin an object around. 

We had a great time with this activity. I also brought the 3Doodler and the kids had a good time incorporating plastic doodles into their creations.

 Spinning 3Doodled BallerinaAn angry bunny

What I've learned from our automata project:

  • Some of the kids used boxes to make their automata, some of them used two litre pop bottles. The boxes were sturdy and easy to make holes and set things up. But it was really hard to troubleshoot. The bottles were harder to get setup, but because they were transparent, it was really easy to troubleshoot.
  • Leave time for troubleshooting. It's worth it to spend the time you need to get things moving.



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