Children Designing Automata

Whirligig has always loved automata – fascinating machines that make people smile. So, when we were contacted by a local primary school near our shop in Chichester, who said that their Year 4 class were busy involved in a project to design their own, we couldn’t resist the invitation to get involved. Here are the results!

The class had been reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a marvellous book by Brian Selznick where a boy gets involved in a mystery revolving around a clever writing machine. Their challenge was to discover how machines work, to think of their own versions and then to design them and make them work.

This school have a wonderful class moto – ‘It’s Up To You’ – all about investigation, choice and discovery.

The Headteacher had spotted our display of Timberkits in the shop window and got in touch. Now, long before Whirligig, Peter was himself a Year 4 teacher. However, 17 years ago!!! Going back to a classroom was slightly daunting but we found a wonderful idea online which gave us the starting point.

This page of automata have been made with clothes pegs so we picked up a few packs and got out the making box and made some samples for the children to play with.

So, we collected together a huge variety of our wooden models and set them up in the classroom and let the children play with them.  We asked them to discover what was making them move and what made the specific movement of each model. 20 minutes of smiles and fun and a huge amount of noise later…

… and back to being a teacher – something you just don’t forget! We explained about cams and movement and asked them which machines they liked best. We showed the children the idea of a clothes peg, showed them some that we had made earlier and set them off with a design challenge.


The children, with very few issues, got on with the job of thinking up an idea, solving a problem and making a moving toy of their own design. Simple and effective, we only had the afternoon, but they were delighted with the ideas and worked so hard. My favourite part of the afternoon was when they all reviewed the work that each of them had done and said why they liked designs that other children had made.

Next day, and the school are busy making up a kit from our shop and some of the children went home and made further samples on their own.

A lovely afternoon spent exploring – and good to get back on the horse and have a go at teaching in a classroom again – but I think I prefer the toy shops!

Well done to all our automata makers!

Our Top Tips

If you would like your children to explore automata and design their own ideas:

  • Start with a idea to explore – children love to see how things work and this will give them an idea as to how to get started
  • Choose something with movement already built in – the clothes peg was a great idea as it had an integral spring so it already worked. You could also try something with a zip, or a curtain pull or a selotape dispenser – just look around the house for something that moves
  • Ask them to make it and then challenge them further…can it move in a different way at the same time? What happens if you add another handle?
  • If you want to explore more machines, and find out how they work yourself before the children get too advanced (!), this book is a great starting point.

We’d love to hear your success stories with making automata or other machines – do share!

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