Making An Automaton Is Easy

Automaton kits make it easy for families to create robots and learn mechanics!

By Dani Camarena

What is an automaton?

It’s a mechanical object that self-operates once set into motion. Think of the automaton in the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This machine could write on paper, which Hugo wanted to repair and get back into motion.

Or how about those Transformers? Those are some gnarly robots.

The oldest robot in the world is a 240-year-old automaton named “The Writer.” This gem was created in the 1770s and made with about 6,000 parts. Wow! What a wonderful design from over 200 years ago. (Check out the story and more pictures in the link below.)


LThis history of automatons is fascinating. Brian McNorris provides a detailed historical timeline in this link:

A ton of engineering and mechanics went into making sophisticated automatons and later into modern robots. It’s a terrific area of study, and there are easy and fun ways for families to learn engineering and mechanics together.

Family STEM Activities

It would be exciting to tell your kids, “Hey, we’re gonna build an automaton!” Then you pull out an easy kit found online. (Try that website named after a jungle. ;-))

These kits are a great way to introduce the family to engineering and mechanics. They teach the concept of following instructions, logical thought processes, patience, attention, fine motor skills, creativity, imagination, motion, mechanics, mathmatics and promote the building of precious family moments. The result is a fun time and a clever automaton to display and share with friends.

Here are some concepts your family will encounter as you work through a kit:


Motion relates to physics and includes mathematics. Concepts to look up and study are distance, velocity, displacement, acceleration, and speed. Relate this to your children with the idea of cars moving at different rates, which determines the velocity and distance traveled over time. This area of science is known as kinematics.


Mechanics also relates to physics and mathematics. It deals with the association between motion, force, and matter between physical objects. The three branches of mechanics are (1) statics – dealing with the forces on bodies that are at rest, (2) kinematics – described above under motion, and (3) kinetics – the effects of force on the mass of objects. To illustrate, explain a hammer used to drive a nail. The hammer applies a force (kinetic energy) onto the nail (object) and causes work to be done (attach two boards). When the hammer is not in use (it is resting – statics), it does not contain kinetic energy but has potential energy.


Engineering includes many specialized fields such as mechanical, biochemical, materials, molecular, civil, and more. This area of science is familiar to children due to the popularity of Legos®, Tinkertoy®, and Mega Blocks®. From babies on up, blocks teach about design, structures, and building.

Motor Skills

Motor skills allow us to perform everyday tasks and movements. Fine motor skills use manual dexterity and coordination with our hands and eyes. Working on an automaton kit promotes fine motor skill improvement, increasing dexterity in other areas of life, such as scissor cutting, sewing, needlework, or repairing a bicycle chain.


Patience is our capacity to wait or tolerate something tedious. Building a kit promotes patience while working through the process and getting out the kinks. Patience ties into confidence. Success results in the increased belief that if one can patiently get through the build, one can use patience to get through something else and be able to reap success there too.


Patience and creativity lead to efficient problem-solving skills. Problem-solving is vital for our kids to learn to promote confidence and independence. Our affirming words do not build our child’s confidence (although our words are significant to show trust and love). It’s coming out the other end of a challenge that develops confidence. Working out an automaton kit is an ideal tool to build problem-solving skills and confidence.


Creativity is not limited to an artist. It’s the capability to bring something new into reality, which can be a resolution (problem-solving) or a new technique of doing something. Relate the concept to your child by identifying a creative way to solve the problem of leaving late for school every day. Perhaps your child comes up with the clever idea of sleeping in clean school clothes to save time getting dressed in the morning. My mom wasn’t big on that idea when I was a kid, but it worked!

I adore automata. In my novel, Time Writer, the main character, Issy, is thrown into a world of automatons and mechanical marvels. Not only does Issy need to figure out puzzle boxes, but she is accompanied on her journey by automaton butterflies and a friendly robot. Issy loves creating mechanical gadgets and uses a few to get out of sticky situations. She couldn’t wait to get her hands on a robot to study. Lucky for Issy, I have a few kits she can check out.

I bought several automaton kits and have a collection to share during classroom visits. The kids are fascinated by being able to build a “robot” right at home.

Even the littlest STEM enthusiasts can find great projects using household items. How about a catapult? A balloon rocket? Or what about learning to code? This link provides accessible ideas:

Here are some common items to have on hand at home (watch for choking hazards for younger children):

  • Popsicle sticks
  • Rubber bands
  • White glue
  • Paper clips
  • Magnets
  • 9-volt batteries
  • Pencils
  • Ruler
  • Toothpicks
  • Water balloons
  • Pasta noodles
  • Duct tape
  • Masking tape
  • Cotton swabs
  • Straws

Outside STEM

Getting active outside can be coupled with STEM learning. has several ideas:

As a kid, my brother and I had a blast with flying model rockets . . . the meticulous setup of packing the rocket and steadying it for launch, safely lighting the fuse, the quick reaction time to move away, and the excitement of waiting for ignition. It was a thrill to watch the rocket soar and the parachute eject. We dealt with disappointment over misfiring and losing rockets, but running across the field to find the debris was always an adventure.

Even a good ‘ole fashioned water balloon toss can be used to teach about motion, velocity, kinetic energy (when that balloon bursts), and speed.

Check out previous blogs related to STEM:

This is a fun story to show children how unique and refreshing science can be, with a little glitch here and there.

STEM All Around Us

Things we encounter every day can be turned into a STEM experience to get your kids interested in science without them knowing it.

Try spinning a normal day into a feast of explaining common activities and things as a piece of STEM:
  • An ant hill – engineering, building, structure
  • Bicycle gear and chain – mechanics
  • Dog chasing a ball – motion and speed
  • Miniature golf – mathematics, angles, motion, speed
  • Shopping for groceries – mathematics
  • Swing – motion and speed
  • Vacuum cleaner – technology
  • Waterfall – kinetic energy

Search local for STEM learning opportunities at:

  • Colleges and universities
  • Community Centers
  • Discovery Centers
  • High Schools
  • Libraries
  • Museums
  • Zoos

I hope you and your family have STEMazing days ahead!

Dani Camarena is the author of the middle-grade novel Time Writer, illustrated by Robin Dewitt and Patricia Dewitt-Grush.

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