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Introducing Rube Goldberg to Kids

21 April 2021

Finetune Critical Thinking in Children with Rube Goldberg Machines

Kids are natural critical thinkers. They have the biggest sense of wonder that most adults have lost. Unfortunately, many make the mistake of dismissing or discouraging this natural intellect instead of encouraging and nurturing it. Children will thrive better as they grow up if they are able to harness and maintain critical thinking even when they’re exposed to other activities. So what can you do to help nurture this gift before it gets replaced by other interests? Of course there are always books and other educational materials, but what better way to encourage the development of critical thinking than to help a child understand the concept of cause and effect through a Rube Goldberg machine.

What is a Rube Goldberg Machine?

This is a manmade contraption that uses several components that creates a chain reaction to achieve a predetermined goal or function. It can be any contraption that uses a simple set of materials to do a simple task such as launching a ball in the air, or a very complex and long one that spans for quite a distance using a wide variety of object to achieve just one goal – simple or otherwise. 

How to Introduce A Child to the Concept

Lay out a few items on top of a table. Let’s say, a pencil, toy car, small ball, book, and a small box. Now, ask your child to gather any 2 objects of his choosing from the table. Then let him examine both items and ask them how each one can move. Once he’s able to demonstrate how these objects move, ask them to make one of them move the other. If they can do so, then that’s a good start, they have a natural concept of cause and effect. But if they can’t, that’s ok. Show them how it works so they’ll get a better idea. 

The Cause and Effect

Using the same list of items above, show your child the following to further illustrate cause and effect using 2 objects:

  • Incline the book and let the toy car slide down

  • Use the pencil to push the ball 

  • Roll the car inside the box

  • Roll the ball to land inside the box at the edge of the table

Now, use 3 items to illustrate chain reaction. You can do any of the following:

  • Incline the book and let the toy car slide down until it lands inside the box

  • Use the pencil to push the ball inside the box

  • Use the pencil to push the toy car that will push the ball

While showing your child how this works, ask them to try it too. Remember that while this is a learning experience, this is also a bonding moment.

Make a Plan

Now that your child has a good idea of cause and effect, as well as chain reaction, it’s time to come up with a plan to put together a great machine. Using the same set of items, and the examples you’ve tried with your child, ask him what he thinks you can do with all 5 objects. 

Have fun tossing ideas together even when it sounds silly. The key here is to have fun throughout the entire process. If you can, you can even use a whiteboard to draw your plans together. Like a cartoon diagram to see how your plan will go. Not only will this encourage critical thinking for your child, but he’ll also have a chance to let his imagination run.

Tip: It’s easier to work backwards when you’re creating a machine. Identify what you ultimately want to happen. Let’s say, all you want to happen is for the ball to fall inside the box that will be sitting at the end of the table.

Start Building and Testing

Once you’ve had your plan locked in, start testing if it’ll work. Remember to remind your child that it’s ok if it fails. That’s the whole point of an experiment. Test each possibility you’ve discussed and see how far you get. 

Example plan: 

  1. Prop open the book face down so one side is a little inclined. 

  2. Balance the toy car against the spine of the book, it should be facing down the slope of the book’s cover.

  3. Align the ball in front of the car, but the ball should be placed 2 inches away from the edge of the book. This should be positioned in such a way that when the car rolls down, it will eventually hit the ball and get it rolling.

  4. Place the box with the opening side facing the ball. Or put it on the floor to anticipate the ball falling off from the edge of the table.

  5. Use the pencil to push the car off the book. It should roll down the book, off the edge and hit the ball. The ball should start rolling until it falls off the end of the table and hopefully land right inside the box. 

If you are able to achieve this, make your own adjustments in distance between objects to make it travel farther or shorter. Let your child do it until you get it right and even after you’ve done your adjustments to see the limits of your experiment. 

It’s impossible for your child to not find this experiment fascinating, nay, it’s impossible for you not to find this experiment fascinating. Just don’t forget that you’re doing this for your child, so he should be enjoying it more and you can just ask to take turns with him to make the machine run. This will give you at least an hour of activity with just these simple sets of items. And if you feel your child has been hooked to the idea, you can offer to try another one using a different set of objects or by adding more items to your list to create a chain reaction. Maybe not within the same day, but as an activity for another day. And as a bit of a challenge, you should both get a number of different things that you’ll put together next time. Or discuss what kind of goal you’d like to achieve next time, like maybe turn the lights off or close the door. 

This is the true magic of the Rube Goldberg machine; the possibilities are practically endless and the only limit is your imagination.