Rube Goldberg Activities for Young Children

Chain reaction is the center of a Rube Goldberg experiment.

Reuben Goldberg was a cartoonist who imagined machines that perform a single simple task or job in a complex or indirect way. He became famous for including this type of machine, now known as a Rube Goldberg, in his cartoons. A Rube Goldberg device usually includes ten steps and has a device that generates a chain reaction. Implementing Rube Goldberg activities in the classroom encourages your children to develop scientific and analytical skills in analyzing and creating these simple machines to conduct a chain reaction.

1 Design a Rube Goldberg Device

Prepare a list of simple daily tasks for your students. Examples include turning on a computer, pouring water and rolling a ball across the floor. Divide students into groups and present each group with a task. Give each group time to brainstorm an appropriate Rube Goldberg device or machine that could be made to achieve the task. You can set the number of steps that are necessary for each machine. Have each group present their results to the classroom after an allotted time.

2 Analyze Rube Goldberg Cartoons

Rube Goldberg cartoons are stand-alone images that interest children because of the complexity of the task depicted. Divide your students into groups and present each group with one of Rube Goldberg’s cartoons. Remove each cartoon’s caption before distributing them. Each group must try to identify all of the steps involved in achieving the task in the cartoon. You can set up a contest-like atmosphere in your classroom where the group with the closest number of correct steps wins a prize. This is a great activity for middle school and high school students.

3 Preparing to Make a Rube Goldberg Device

Children love interactive activities and they’ll have a blast trying to make a Rube Goldberg machine. Hand out sample cartoons of Rube Goldberg machines for students to observe, and in groups encourage them to brainstorm Rube Goldberg devices. Provide them with drawing materials with which to depict their ideas. Have them start by creating a plan or blueprint for their machine. They should identify the task they’re trying to achieve and list all of the steps involved in achieving the task for their chain reaction machine.

4 Making a Rube Goldberg Device

Students can use different types of papers and containers to create their contraption. Make sure there’s plenty of glue and tape available with which students can put all the parts together. Some items you could include for them to work with are: dominoes, marble runs, toy cars, inclined planes, pulleys, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, aluminum foil, funnels, toilet paper, a mouse trap, alarm clocks, water bottles, paper towel tubes, legos, or catapults. Remind students that their machine doesn’t necessarily have to function; they just need to be able to explain how their Rube Goldberg machine should work in real life. At the end of the project period, have each group present their work to the class.

Having students perform this Rube Goldberg project of making their own machine inspires brainstorming, critical thinking, and the ability to think through an engineering design process.

Living in Jacksonville, Fla., Jay Boone started writing in 2000. He has written extensively for technical journals and in-house publications, including work for Jim Dawson Engineering and McCartney Publications. Since 2005, Boone has been writing descriptions of installation, removal and maintenance of different genres of hardware.