Cardboard Automata

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Cardboard Automata are a playful way to explore simple machine elements while creating a mechanical sculpture. This activity was inspired by the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, a group of automata builders based in England. Artists like Paul Spooner, Keith Newstead, and Carlos Zapata build beautiful narrative pieces using elegant mechanisms based on cams, gears, springs, and linkages. Working with simple materials, this activity is easy to get started, and may become as complex as your mechanical sculpture ideas.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
5 to 10 minutes

Learning Time:
1 to 2 hours

Estimated Materials Cost:
$5 - $10 per student

Age Range:
Ages 8 - adult

Resource Type:


Materials List (per student)

  • cardboard box, 6" x 6" (15 x 15cm)
  • scissors
  • masking tape
  • nail or screw
  • skewer stick
  • thick (6 mm) Foamies
  • thin (2 mm) Foamies
  • marker or pen
  • nut or washer (optional)
  • materials for decoration (pipe cleaners, feathers, etc. - use your imagination!)


  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
    • Technology
  • Physical Sciences
    • Motion and Forces
      • Machines
  • The Nature of Technology
    • The Design Process

Informal Categories

  • Arts and Crafts
  • Toys


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Links STEM to other topics of interest such as arts and humanities
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access with registration



Funding Source:

  • National Science Foundation, ESI-0452567