Tinkering School

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PLUS & DELTA: Claw Machine

Lindsay Jones


For Heavy Lifting week I was excited about building a Claw Machine! Claw machines were a big part of my childhood and I realized, while walking down memory lane, that they contain some interesting problems that would be hard to think about, but easy to build. There would be simple, sliding movement, but in three dimensions.  I figured out the gist of how classic claw machines worked, so that our team could have a good understanding of what parts we’d need to build, and was ready to tinker out the details with the kids as we came to them.


DEDICATED TEAM OF BUILDERS: A group of 4 tinkerers stayed with the project the entire week. We had some others float in and out, but the core team was able to think about how to connect pieces and solve problems more efficiently because they had been there from the beginning and weren’t thinking about more than one project.

SIMPLE START: The first things we needed to make were the support towers.  Towers are a great way to reinforce basic tool skills right away. They require a lot of cuts and a lot fasteners right away. They also get kids using clamps and learning how to check if corners are square(ish). The best part about towers is that when completed and stood up they look super impressive and everyone is stoked about their skills and pumped for the next stage!

ORGANIC INCREASE IN COMPLEXITY: From towers we moved to static tracks and then onto a moving track. After the tracks were working we focused on making the complex claw work.  The order that the parts of the machine were needed matched up with our group building skills and let us gradually add different materials (rope), hardware (nuts and bolts, pulleys, casters) and techniques to our repertoire without being overwhelmed.

VISUAL FUNCTIONALITY: The Claw Machine had great built in objective feedback. We knew we were on the right track if 1. The towers stood up 2. The moving track could travel on the static tracks 3. The claw could be raised, lowered, and grab things.

TIMING: The time frame was perfect. We finished without feeling rushed and without any adults stepping in to do things faster than the kids could.  However, we didn’t get nearly enough time to actually play with it

ARTISTIC OPPORTUNITIES: We had envisioned some kids making giant toys and prizes for the claw machine. When we had the machine in working order, we quickly added a giant coin slot and made some giant coins for parents to put into it to “make it work” If we had time we could have decorated it to look fun and carnivally.

GROUP PLAY: Our version took two kids to control the claw, so that they needed to work together to pick things up.

EXPANDABLE: The claw movements ended up being a great physics project. We had to change where the ropes were attached several times to make it work just right. This could be drawn out even longer with pulley system testing. We never did any heavy lifting - which was the theme of the week. It would also have been interesting to have had more iterations of the claw.


NAVIGATING THE DESIGN PHASE: As I circulated and spoke with the kids about their drawings a common design was appearing: a construction crane. I realized that maybe these kids hadn’t ever met a claw machine before - something that hadn’t even crossed my mind!  I tried asking questions that would hopefully lead us towards the claw machine I was planning to make, but it didn’t work. So, I just came out and told them that I had envisioned something completely different and explained what my claw machine was like.  They were a little confused, but were still on board. I ended up feeling like I had bullied them into going with my idea and felt bad about that. 

COMPLEX CONCEPT: The team didn’t quite grasp the concept of what we were building until the second or third day when we got the tracks up. I heard a bunch of “Ooohhhhh!”s and “Now, I get it!”s. Previous to those comments I didn’t even know that they were blindly following me.

Big Takeaways

This project was great because of the diversity of materials, movement, and complexity of problems coupled with the simplicity of the actual building. It was also super satisfying to look at and play with when it was finished. In the future I would start out design phase with a check-in to see if the kids vocabulary about the project matched up with mine. Then, if I needed to, I could state my general plan and have them add to it.

Kids can build amazing machines!!


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