Automata for the People: How my class followed their wonderful ideas

November 20, 2012 by Rob Van Nood

The having of wonderful ideas is what I consider the essence of intellectual development.” 

Eleanor Duckworth                                                    

In February of 2012 my class of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders were coming to the end of a long and in-depth study of ants.  It was a project that had started in the first weeks of school after the purchase of a class pet was approved during a class meeting.  After many months of focused work I wanted to give everyone a chance to relax a bit, work on some individual projects and begin thinking about what we might do next as a class.  Having worked with these kids for many years I knew that if I gave them some space to dive into their own interests for a while, their questions, curiosities and passions would drive us toward something new, interesting and even transformative.


I had been rereading Eleanor Duckworth’s book On Having of Wonderful Ideas, and was inspired to approach this period of time in a way that really looked at what ideas and questions were coming from the kids.  I wanted to establish an environment that would allow their “wonderful ideas” to come forward.  I decided to use three weeks of time to see what would happen if I would present them the chance to explore their interests, work and learn together, and reflect upon what they were discovering.  I would start calling this period of time “The Experiment“.


The Experiment, as I had hoped, brought to the surface several “directions” that students were taking collectively.  While I was really interested in what each child would pursue, I was more interested in seeing how those individual pursuits would join together in a more collective questioning or exploration.  Four main ideas or interests had emerged, knitting, tinkering with small machines, comic book creation and story telling, and problems in the world.  From this work emerged the idea of a collective direction, starting a toy company.

The idea of starting a company in my classroom wasn’t new.  Three years before my class had started a seed company and it had transformed not only the students but also the entire school community.  This group had remembered the excitement the seed company had created around the community and wanted to try something similar.


We all agreed that before we could start a company we would have to do some investigating of the thing we wanted to create. Thus, we began to study toys.  This study had two research components.  One was to learn about toys in general.  We asked questions about how they are made, where they are made, who makes them, what do they cost to make.  This aspect of the research turned into a study of the “politics of toys” and included a mini investigation into countries around the world where toys are made.   At the same time we began to wonder about what it would take to make toys ourselves.  We spent a lot of time tinkering with toys, taking them apart, rebuilding them, and creating our own.  This work led to me introducing an automata.  This type of kinetic toy fascinated the class and we decided to start building them ourselves. Initially we worked with cardboard as a material for its ease of use and cost.  From cardboard we moved to wood.

Working to create automata inspired kids to start creating stories that centered around their creations.  Additionally, with all this time and care to create these moving toys the kids began to have reservations about selling their work. The class had several conversations about moving away from the idea of a company to the idea of creating a museum.

In the final month of school, the creation of a museum that would display their work (both toys and stories) became the focus of the class.  The Automata Museum would be the final showcase of almost 5 months of work where the school community would be the audience.  They truly were an automata for the people.


Throughout this work I wanted to have a chance to document the process. I wanted to have a very visual way of sharing the process that the students had to go through to make something as complex as an automata.  We all learned how much goes into the creation of toys and I wanted others to see how this group of students dedicated large chunks of time to become toy designers.  The creation of the documentary  Automata for the People, and the accompanying PDF of the students stories, became my final gift to this thoughtful, caring and talented group of kids.


About the Author:

Rob Van Nood was a founding teacher at Trillium Public Charter School and currently teaches 3rd and 4th grade at Opal Public Charter School in Portland, Oregon.  Rob also started and and runs Tinker Camp.







3 responses to “Automata for the People: How my class followed their wonderful ideas”

  1. Todd Burleson Avatar
    Todd Burleson

    Wow! So cool. I am in the midst of creating our makerspace at our elementary school. I will for sure show my students this work as we begin exploring automata. Nice project and a true labor of love. I get it! Well done!

  2. margaret lincoln Avatar
    margaret lincoln

    Have really enjoyed your blog. I was unable to open the documentary Automata for the People and would love to find a way to view it, presenting it as inspiration for our core teachers and linking it to ‘the having of wonderful ideas’.
    Kind thanks,
    Margaret Lincoln

    1. Keyana Stevens Avatar
      Keyana Stevens

      Hi Margaret! Since that’s a video of Rob’s, and not something we produced at Maker Ed, it would be best to contact him directly. He is on Twitter: I would try to get in touch there first!

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