Family: Simple Machines

This summer, which seems far away now, I hosted a simple machines storytime for ages 3-7. It was a learning opportunity for both me and those who attended so I thought I’d share it.

While most children will eventually get an introduction to simple machines in our local schools, I decided to introduce the concept at the library to the summer storytime crowd. During a recent Sound & Music Storytime when we explored electricity I realized that many of the storytime aged kids could begin to understand the basics of seemingly advanced concepts. With an introduction, they could use the foundation to then explore the concepts more in-depth later on, either at home or in school.

These kinds of programs give kids lots of hands-on experiences they may not have at home and they offer great opportunities for strengthening vocabulary, one of the early literacy skills children will need when they are ready to learn to read. This storytime  engaged kids who may not be as interested in the usual art activities, but want the opportunity to observe and test theories and ideas.

I did quite a bit of research for this storytime so I would be able to answer as many questions as possible during the program. To have a background in simple machines, I consulted several books in my library’s collection and then found my way to two books designed for educators including Science is Simple by Peggy Ashbrook (Gryphon House, 2003) and Explore Simple Machines! by Anita Yasuda (Nomad Press, 2011). Three websites were also particularly helpful: the Simple STEM wiki, Science for Kids- Simple Machines and Kindergarten Nana’s blog.

I knew this storytime would seem a bit abstract at first for kids and some adults so I took time to clearly explain and talk about what we would be doing. I created slides in the Keynote presentation app on my iPad to show kids what I was referring to as I described the different simple machines and their purposes. The slides included examples of pulleys, levers, wedges, wheels, and inclines. I also brought in physical examples of some of the smaller machines, for example a door wedge, a metal pulley, a hammer, chopsticks, etc., to go along with the images in the slides. i made sure to let everyone know they would have time to experiment with the machines later on.

We also talked about what a machine is and why engineers and designers create them (to make tasks and jobs easier or possible).  That basic concept was the premise for the rest of the program and kids really got it.

It was storytime after all, so we read together. I chose two books that are popular storytime reads at our library and feature simple machines.

Tap Tap, Bang Bang by Emma Garcia (Boxer Books, 2010)
This book highlights the use for a variety of tools and offers the opportunity for young readers to guess what the tools are being used to build. Many of the tool names were new vocabulary words for some storytime kids.

Tap Tap Bang Bang by Emma Garcia Image Credit:

Tap Tap Bang Bang by Emma Garcia Image Credit:

Rattletrap Car by Phyllis Root (Candlewick Press, 2001)
This story features an engaging tale of a family trying to get to the lake in an old car that keeps breaking down. The family each come up with creative substitutions for the parts of the car that fail, including a beach ball for a wheel. The book includes a repeated verse that has lots of fun sounds and words to play with as I read it aloud.

Rattletrap Car Image Credit:

Rattletrap Car by Phyllis Root Image Credit:


The next part of storytime featured a series of stations that I had staged before storytime. This part was a little tricky in our library because storytime happens in the children’s library not in a separate storytime room and kids are sitting or walking through as they enter the activity/craft area. Fortunately, the families are patient and waited a couple of minutes as I pulled out some hidden stations and then explained each of them. Because adults don’t always hear every instruction, I added signs and brief written instructions at each station so I and the teen volunteer could move around the room and would not need to stay at one station.


I attached a small pulley to one of the “trees” in the room. I first asked kids to try to lift a bucket full of glue bottles with one or both hands above their heads. I then asked kids to try and lift the bucket over their head again using the rope threaded through a pulley (rope was attached to the bucket at the other end).

Pulley Station

Pulley was hung from tree.


This set up took some creativity, but offered lots of play. Again I asked the kids to try and lift the tub of books up the top of the toy bin. It was too heavy so then kids pulled the tub of books up the incline. They also pushed it back down and then climbed up and down the ramp.Kids could have done this for hours and several adults were heading home to build an incline of their own after storytime.

To make the incline, I brought in an old piece of plywood I had at home and leaned it up against on of the library’s toy bin. I brought a plastic tub from my office and filled it with various picture books.

Incline Station

Kids pulled box up the incline.


I got creative at this station and used our rhythm sticks as wheels to show kids what was possible. I took another tub of books and asked the kids to try and push the box across a space with just their bodies. The tub was heavy and awkward so then they tried to move it on top of the rhythm sticks. When the time came, I showed them how to move sticks fromt he back and put then under the front to keep the tub moving.

Wheels Station 1

Wheels Station 2

Kids used the rhythm sticks as wheels to roll the heavy box from one place to the other.


I found some scraps of wood at home to make a rustic seesaw, a kind of lever. I built the basic seesaw and left miscellaneous blocks in a pile nearby so kids could make each side balance. The best part of the program was when the little girl pictured wanted to use a cardboard box as a fulcrum and made it work! Very cool!


Kids balanced weight on each side of the lever.

Lever Station 2


Because we have a limited space and there were so many stations this week, I had coloring sheets of screws and other simple machines on the tables for kids to work on if they were waiting for another station or just wanted a different experience. Screws are actually simply inclined planes wrapped around a core, so I chose to skip that machine when planning the hands-on stations.

STEAM-y Storytime: Construction!

Photo Jul 22, 10 46 38 AMThis storytime continued our week of construction.  During our Maker Monday event earlier in the week we used lots of natural materials to design and assemble elaborate gnome and fairy houses. We’ll end the building extravaganza with another Maker Monday in a few days. That one will offer LEGO challenges and free play in anticipation of next week’s 3rd Annual LEGO Contest.

This storytime was SO MUCH FUN! I can honestly say “you just had to be there.”  I’ll do my best to share the highlights. It’s worth repeating!

Today I was Carpenter Claudia! Dressed up in my safety vest and hard hat while carrying my toolbox, I introduced myself to the new Photo Jul 24, 12 00 52 PMfamilies.  The kids were instantly curious about the morning’s activities. While they piled they’re shoes by the coat rack and chose a yellow, blue, or green sit mat to bring along to the storytime area, I chatted with them about what kind of construction they have seen around town.

This is an interesting summer not just because of the incredibly sunny weather we’ve been having, but also because of the large amount of construction going on. There was lots to talk about including the vehicles being used, the people working on the jobsites, what they were doing, and why they were doing the jobs!  This storytime was a great opportunity for the kids to use and learn new vocabulary.  (We even talked about camping and campfires due to a couple of stream of consciousness comments…)

When everyone was settled, I brought out my toolbox and explained that I needed helping organizing the tools inside.  After all, I Photo Jul 24, 12 03 00 PMcan’t work with a messy tool box and I can’t share tools with my friends if we can’t find the right ones for the job.  I let everyone who wanted a tool choose a hammer, tape measure, wrench, pliers, or a screwdriver out of the box. Returning to the front of the group, I placed the laminated names of the tools on the floor. Meanwhile, the kids had the chance to test out their paper tools, complete with sound effects.

Then I held up a tool, said its name as I pointed to the letters on the laminated name, and invited kids with that tool to bring their tool to the front and match it.  We counted how many of each tool we had so I would know how many I could share at the jobsite.

Photo Jul 24, 12 02 16 PMWhile this activity could also work using a felt board, I decided the floor gave us more space to lay out and match all of the different tools from the box. During the second part of storytime, I left my toolbox out so kids could explore and sort the tools with each other or their caregivers.

To create the toolbox, I used an old lightweight tackle box from home that my kids use to store stamps. I then found the pictures in clipart, printed multiple copies, laminated them, and cut them out. I did the same with the tools names, but printed only single copies. (Credit: Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives resource page for construction storytime.)

This was the perfect time for a finger play! The kids love to count with their fingers and figure out rhymes, so this short rhyme worked perfectly.

Fingerplay: “Five Little Nails”

Five little nails, standing straight and steady
Here I come with my hammer ready!
Bam, bam, bam! That nail goes down.
Now there’s just four nails to pound.
(count down)

Credit: Mel’s Desk via Storytime Katie

Most of this group of 20-25 kids has been coming to storytime consistently throughout the summer, so I cajun pigsdecided to choose a longer than usual book. They are engaged and are comfortable with the format of storytime, so I thought it could work. Choosing to read this one was a bit of a gamble, but it was one of the only storytime appropriate construction books we had available. I discovered that our library doesn’t have many of the construction picture books which I found in other librarian’s storytime suggestions and living somewhat remotely makes obtaining them quickly out of the question. Several are now on the list for the next order…

I chose to read The Three Little Cajun Pigs by Mark Artell and Jim Harris (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2006). It’s a fun twist on the building theme. It’s definitely a book that should be practiced, not just read, before reading!

During storytime, I didn’t read every word, but instead kept my eye on kids to see how their attention span was doing. I incorporated dialogic reading, which was key, and asked timely questions, explained vocabulary, and commented on the expressive illustrations. Conclusion? It worked well for this group, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. (Note: My favorite Cajun retelling of a traditional tale is Artell’s Petit Rouge: a Cajun Red Riding Hood which features even more colloquialisms and requires a Cajun accent throughout.)

Whenever I read a book with more text, I always let kids know they should get comfortable because the story is longer than the others. I took a moment here to tell them what activities we were going to do afterwards to help them appreciate what was ahead.

Before reading, I also explained that this story was the retelling of an old tale that they might know. We also talked about Louisiana, where this version of The Three Little Pigs comes from.  To help them anticipate the events in the story and be able to compare this version with the one they know, I had them tell the story of the three little pigs while I acted it out with my pig and wolf finger puppets. (I had my story basket on hand in case we wanted to use the other story props, but we were too busy.)

Activity Stations:

cardboard tomorrowAll this talk about construction got these kids hungry for building! I had just the thing.

For the last couple of months I have been stockpiling cardboard boxes in various shapes and sizes and storing them in the back of the library. I taped them all closed so they would stack flat. Then today I pulled them all out and let the kids construct (and deconstruct) with them!  Yes, you can still have fun with a cardboard box. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the video about Caine’s Arcade, check it out to see what a 9 year old can do with cardboard.)

While we didn’t create an arcade, we did build towers, houses, shopping malls, and auto shops, some of which were over ten feet tall. Kids used their budding math, engineering, design, and social skills to figure out what made the buildings stand tall or fall over, what shapes fit together, and what looked cool. They also learned how to work together even when someone wanted to build and someone else was ready to smash.

Kids who weren’t building worked on safety vests for their next pretend construction job. Our local grocery store IMG_0871donated a stack of paper shopping bags that each child and caregiver cut into the shape of a vest.  They then decorated the vest with strips of orange and yellow construction paper to look like reflective tape.

To make the vest, hold the bag flat with the open end down. Cut straight up the middle from the open end to the opposite edge. This forms the front of the vest. Open put the bag and cut a hole for the little carpenter’s head starting at the edge where you ended the first cut.  Next, cut two holes in the sides of the bag for arm holes. I also tapered the bottom edges of the vest.  You can find many versions of a paper bag vest on Pinterest, where I found this one.

For younger siblings who I enthusiastically welcome to storytime, I also had construction themed coloring sheets available. These sheets offer a great opportunity to practice their writing skills!