Tips for Very Simple Machine-Making for 6-Year-Olds?

My near-6-year-old is wild about building what he calls "machines" out of Legos, blocks, boxes, and everything else. I thought it would be fun if he could build some actual machines as well as the imaginary ones. Lego's Mindstorms robots look fun, but they are said to be for age 9 and above, and I'm not sure whether my boy (let's call him "Ben" for convenience) will have the attention span to enjoy them, even with my help. And while I'd be happy to do the programming, with him watching and (I hope) learning, I thought he might enjoy something that he could quickly do entirely by himself, at least as an option.

Any suggestions? Any experience you folks have had yourself with your 6- or 7-year-olds? Many thanks!

Patent Lawyer:
You can try the Lego Technic sets, which are a step between stationary Legos and Mindstorms robots (movement with electric motors, but not robotic/autonomous). I played with these a lot as a kid, back in the days before Mindstorms allowed kids to design and program their own robots. Lucky kids these days...

If he's interested in electric stuff, the Snap Circuits set is very good. It's listed as for age 8+, which should be appropriate for a gifted 6-7 year old.
5.26.2009 1:01am
Kenton A Hoover (mail):
As markings like "3+" are due to the ASME rules about materials permissibility for children of a given age. So, I've found that the guidelines tend to run low -- our two-year-olds don't tend to aspirate small blocks, stick them up their nose or fasten ligatures around their necks -- but that makes sense given our litigious culture. Given my own experience, often the rules are about the child's ability to construct easily or handle small parts versus understand how the completed product works together. Perhaps parents need to just get used to gauging this stuff themselves, and taking the occasional risk, rather than just assuming that the age guidelines mean anything.
5.26.2009 1:08am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I've seen non-programmable machine sets that might be what you are after. I've seen ones that are almost entirely screw together, with a simple wiring harness to hook up the electronic parts rather than soldering. I imagine you don't want Ben using one of those yet.
5.26.2009 1:14am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Before Mindstorms there was a line of LEGO® bricks involving gears and such, but without the fancy motors and definitely without the programming angle. Surely they're still around.
5.26.2009 1:30am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Oops, Patent Lawyer has a better memory than I do. "Technic" is the line I was thinking of.
5.26.2009 1:31am
Meredith (mail):
The K'nex sets are really great. This link gives the sets that are appropriate for 7 and up, but they also have sets (without motors) for younger ages.

From my experience, these are accessible for kids ages 8 and up with only minimal assistance. I think they'd also be appropriate for younger kids with a little bit more parental assistance.
5.26.2009 1:37am
Tom Davies (mail) (www):
What about marble runs — like this: small marble run on ebay

They give a child the feeling of building something which does things, but there isn't any threshold before it starts 'working'.
5.26.2009 1:37am
David Hardy (mail) (www):
Get him a chemistry set. One with things that appeal to young boys. Nitric acid is the best. Nitrate almost anything and it will blow up.
5.26.2009 1:39am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
<running cadence>
Bombs are fun!
Bombs are great!
Bombs help you lose that excess weight!
</running cadence>
5.26.2009 1:46am
one of many:
Kids vary so ages should be taken as guidelines only BUT it is very frustrating for children to try to handle something which is just too big for their hands to hold properly. My nephew was really big into building things at that age and used to be able to understand kits aimed for kids 12+, but he'd go bonkers when his hands were to small to handle them the way they were designed to be handled. This may not be much of a problem if 'Ben' isn't OCD about getting things right like my nephew was.
5.26.2009 1:48am
I know I would have LOVED Lego Mindstorms when I was 6.
5.26.2009 1:55am
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
There used to be a ton of construction toys other than Legos -- I remember some that involved beams that connected via cubs, allowing you to build frames instead of solid objects, and another that allowed you to build simple motorized robots.

But my favorites were dominoes: very simple, but you could build complex Greek temples with them -- and then knock them down by pulling one block from the bottom.
5.26.2009 2:03am
Jason F:
Depending on how precocious he is, he might enjoy Erector Sets now or he might enjoy them in a couple of years. Caveat: per wikipedia, there has been a change in ownership since I played with them mumble years ago, so I won't vouch for the current version.

I also enjoyed Capsela when I was about "Ben's" age. If I'm remembering the toys correctly, they were very easy to assemble and experiment with.
5.26.2009 2:37am
martinMS (mail):

They have experimental kits. The ones for electronics are legendary. I don't think he is too young for that. I played with these as a kid. You can build stuff like alarm systems, or blinking lights, etc. From Germany, but these days nothing easier than order it online. Not sure if they have a US distributor.
There is also chemistry ones. Like create crystals and cool stuff. Some of the biology ones you can raise tiny sea animals and so on. (they die after a week or so, so it is not like you are getting a pet.) Terrific.
5.26.2009 3:09am
A Law Dawg:
+1 vote for Lego Technic and the K'Nex.
5.26.2009 3:20am
John McEnerney (mail):

Lego WeDo(tm) at Lego Education Store

It's like a mini-Mindstorms for exactly that age group.
5.26.2009 3:21am
David M. Nieporent (www):
I fifth or sixth the vote for Lego Technic. Great once I outgrew basic Lego.
5.26.2009 3:48am
gdf (mail):
Both of my grandfathers served, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. They lived with that war their entire lives but, like so many others, rarely talked about it. The National
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5.26.2009 5:59am
lonetown (mail):
Unless you feel there is a safety risk, let him at it. Sometimes kids do stuff adults couldn't imagine.
5.26.2009 7:30am
newshutz (mail):
Technic and K'nex let the child build machines, where he understands all about how it works. He can also provide the motive power for all the gears, belts and levers. K'nex is well thought out. It is sort of an erector set without the need for tedious nuts and bolts. This would be the natural next step.

At the heart of Mindstorms is a black box, which one can program, but not really understand (unless one is up to researching computers). It is also an expensive bookend, if your son does not take to it.

OTOH, programming Legos Mindstorms is simple. If he has reached the age of reason he should be fine.
5.26.2009 8:10am
JohnO (mail):
Knex. My seven year-old daughter and I made the roller coaster and the ferris wheel and had a great time. Your child won't be able to do it himself, but he should be able to help connect things as you direct.
5.26.2009 8:40am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Browse through some of the projects at It's a user-submitted site with a ton of "how-to" videos and step-by-step instructions. Some are really cool, some are kind of lame. But there's a lot more there than just assembling kits. For example, one project uses PVC pipe to make a launcher that uses water and air pressure to launch 2-liter bottles 20 or 30 feet in the air. At age 3, you'd have to help with much of that, but it would be the start of a long-term tradition of the two of you building stuff together.
5.26.2009 8:58am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Oops, my memory blanked when I was typing and thought your "Ben" was 3, instead of nearly 6 (which, knowing a bit of your family, probably means he has the mind of at least a 13 or 14 year old by now). He probably can't quite yet pull off many of the Instructables on his own, but he will be able to soon enough.
5.26.2009 9:00am :
The higher-quality marble runs are actually quite complex and a lot of fun.

Consider also the GeoTrax railroad system. Lots of fun problems to solve in terms of track layout, etc. It looks like it would appeal to a younger crowd, but everybody in my family plays with it, regardless of age!!
5.26.2009 9:01am
Thomasly (mail):
I second the recommendation of motorized Erector sets, with the same caveat (it's been nearly 30 years).
5.26.2009 9:13am
D. Price:
I second the recommendation of Snap Circuits.

Based on my experience, I agree with your conclusion that Mindstorms wouldn't be the right choice for a 6-7 year old.

I've had fun demonstrating some simple graphics programming to my 9- and 11-year-olds with a graphics-oriented BASIC interpreter and IDE called DarkBASIC. Even something as elementary as creating colors with numeric RGB values and drawing lines is eye-opening at that age. I would think a 6-7 year old would also enjoy helping Dad mess around with graphics programming. Granted, he most likely couldn't write his own programs (same as with Mindstorms), so this wouldn't be the autonomous type of activity you're looking for.
5.26.2009 9:38am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Here's another recommendation for K'Nex.
5.26.2009 9:38am
walter thomas hingerty (mail):
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Now our country is crippled by inadequate managment, technicians etc. Her wild ideas about race are unAmerican. I thought that MLKing said..."content of character" etc etc. "They"dont want an even playing field. They cant win on one. All I can say is TOUGH.Why werent any white men considered?
5.26.2009 9:40am
Take a day and go down to Legoland. They have an "activity" to work with Mindstorms stuff. My geek-progeny 7 year old had a blast there. IMHO, it's better than Logo as a hook to programming as a discipline, plus wheeled vehicles and cool machines.

Knex was never a favorite at our house. Some of the marble run sets are great, others (especially the wooden ones) were a flop. On a slightly different tack, Rokenbok is a lot of fun, but Dad will do most of the construction while Jr. gets an entre into using thumbs to control the world.
5.26.2009 9:44am
I second the recommendation of motorized Erector sets, with the same caveat (it's been nearly 30 years).
To judge by the Amazon and Wikipedia entries, the Erector Sets of 30 years ago are long gone. Current Erector Sets are what the English kids knew as Meccano.

The noticeable difference is that Meccano consists of flat metal and plastic plates of various dimensions; whereas Erector Sets had flanged plates and girders.

As a seven-year-old, I always found the flanged plates very frustrating. Although they undoubtedly contributed to the final constructions' rigidity, they prevented joints from being established at arbitrary angles and made smoothly functioning pivots impossible.

Tempted though I am to buy a set of the new stuff, not only am I too old for that stuff now, (heavy sigh) but even my kids are too old...
5.26.2009 9:47am
Charles E (mail):
My 8 year old has enjoyed the Fischertechnik construction kit. The number of steps to make the various items can be lengthy, but with my help he stays interested and enjoys the finished machines.

Add me as another fan of snap circuits.
5.26.2009 10:13am
I like Dave Hardy's idea: Get him a chemistry set; nitrate will blow up almost anything. ... But, you asked for mechanical. How about a big, cheap, wind-up pocket watch? And some tools to take it apart and put it back together?

When I was growing up, decades ago, smartest kid in the neighborhood was about six years younger than us. By the time he was three, he'd taught himself to read at about a 4th grade level. By the time he was five, he could completely disassemble a pocket watch and put it back together so that it worked fine.

He became a lawyer. Then he became really wise and became a preacher.

Hand "Ben" a cheap pocket watch and tell him that he's welcome to take it apart. He'll see how things work.
5.26.2009 10:27am
Andy Bolen (mail):
5.26.2009 10:29am
I've overshot the mark a few times with those programmable things.

However I did have good luck with a Lego product called Toolo.
It has wheels which can be attached with the supplied 'screwdriver'. It is torque-limited (like the gas cap on your car, no way to over-tighten).

You can build various wheeled vehicles

In the United States of America you might need to buy it through their DACTA branch, which supplies a bigger kit for a school setting. I did that and got lots (!) of wheels, parts, and several screwdrivers. You can donate a portion of it to a preschool if it doesn't fit your storage.

Save the electronics until they have better coordination for the small parts. Electronics is intrinsically frustrating. I know, I do it on a daily basis.

i strongly recommend this under-represented option.
I only found the 'toolo' product while on a biz trip to Yerp. It is very well designed for the 6-year old manual dexterity and attention span. You won't regret it.
5.26.2009 11:04am
the marble runs are also very engaging.
The sound of the marbles running around the conical lead-in is compelling, and it is possible to have 'competitions' of whose marble will go faster. (certain marbles seem to win more often)...
Ours was just a bunch of snap-together plastic pieces.
The children also learn about stability of tall gangly structures...
The marbles are smaller than the 'choke=tester' so you need to consider this if sub-3-year-old siblings or visitors will have access. Maybe keep it at grampa's house...

Have fun, and I hope you get a winner.
5.26.2009 11:10am
jmcg (mail):
I would suggest the Capsela series for building actual machines.
5.26.2009 11:25am
innocent bystander (mail):
Edmund Scientifics probably has some good stuff for tinkering. And if you have a window with lots of sun, the holographic prism disk for about $16 is amazing.
5.26.2009 11:27am
David Strom (mail):
Not Legos, but looks like fun:

5.26.2009 11:37am
Grover Gardner (mail):
Check out

Lots of age-appropriate science and mechanical stuff.
5.26.2009 11:41am
A.B. (mail):
Legos and K'nex are both good, although my son always seemed to like Legos better since he found them more flexible. Although software is not the same as doing things with your hands, he would probably like crayon physics
5.26.2009 11:53am
Hank Gillette:
Do they still make Erector Sets?
5.26.2009 12:26pm
Here's an additional vote for Capsela. I believe they market themselves as seven and up, so your son should be about ready for them.
5.26.2009 12:33pm
I'll second the Capsela ( recommendations.

I gave my nephews Capsela sets for Christmas when they that age, and they grew up to be very well educated and successful young men.
5.26.2009 12:45pm
Like many here I enjoyed Erector Sets (mine was old and missing pieces, but still a heck of a lot of fun), but the other one I enjoyed a lot was Tinkertoys. I don't know if you could motorize them (mine didn't at any rate), but it might be more age appropriate for a six year old.
5.26.2009 1:02pm
OK, Here's an example from the lego educational arm;

I don't see my old friend Toolo yet...

"Early Simple Machines II Set
Article no: 9654

This set includes 99 elements, including gear wheels, pulley wheels, axles, gears and a gear housing - in fact everything needed to build a working gearbox. Helps children explore the workings of technology and learn about scientific principles. Ideally, one set per 4 students. "

These are apparently in the 'DUPLO' size category.

Here's a link to an activity with a more sophisticated set;
'freewheeling'; REMOVESPACES
/2057/FreeWheeling(4)_ED22B236-7C9A- REMOVESPACES

The link thing is balky for me this morning...

The teaching kits are more likely to satisfy your goals.
Definitely worth the money, IMHO

Dad of a recent HS Valedictorian
5.26.2009 1:08pm
Law Prof Mom (mail):
Another vote for Snap Circuits. My son likes them, could use the instructions to build the circuits by himself when he had just turned six, and also now has a pretty good understanding of various parts of electrical circuits (e.g., he knows that if he replaces a resistor with a wire connector in a basic lightbulb circuit, the bulb will burn brighter). Among other things, we've built a radio using the kit. (The only drawback is that the pieces do sometimes break or get lost, and I haven't been able to find replacement pieces, but if you have a soldering iron you can repair them with cheap parts from Radio Shack.)
5.26.2009 1:29pm
Gracie (mail):
Legos - not motorized - were the toy with the longest longevity for our (now 20) boy. Aside from attention span, kids have remarkably different growth rates (dexterity, emotional, intellectual and interest.) So - investing in complex and expensive toy ranges is frustrating for the parent. (Cost, storage, so on.) My suggestion: start small with anything and see how long and how hard he invests himself in it. Accept that he's likely to outgrow something that is not scalable in itself.

Our boy still takes out a lego set to build with his dad the first day or two he's home from college. They lay on the floor and make it together and somehow catch up on the last 8 weeks or so.
5.26.2009 2:59pm
Michael O'Hare (mail) (www):
5.26.2009 3:02pm
Michael O'Hare (mail) (www):
5.26.2009 3:03pm
Hannibal Lector:
It reminds me of when my 9 and 7 year old nephews used Legos to build a selective-fire rubber band machine gun. The thing looked lethal, had a magazine of thirty or so rubber bands, and had a full-auto cyclic rate of fire of about 60 bands per minute. As far as I know, they invented the sear for their device entirely on their own. Their mother hated guns, made sure they never got any toy ones and was utterly appalled. There's a moral here somewhere.
5.26.2009 3:41pm
Gracie (mail):
Hannibal - our boy and his friends used Legos to make all manner of devices previously unimagined by parents - up until about age 11. The devices they made changed as their reading changed or movies seen or characters became favorites. They were combined with $1.59 packs of green army guys for all manner of adventures. The common theme was mayhem and the most noise possible. As long as there was giggling and laughing and general happiness among otherwise sweet boys, this mom was relatively unconcerned. They remain sweet boys as young men and have healthy attitudes and robust friendships.
5.26.2009 4:13pm
Curious Passerby (mail):
Their mother hated guns, made sure they never got any toy ones and was utterly appalled.

My wife's cousin forbid guns in the house. Once at a family dinner the son ate his schnitzel into the shape of a gun and ran around playing with it as his gun!
5.26.2009 4:30pm
Howard Whitney (mail):
It's time for a real tool kit. Carefully explain that tools are not toys and they require respect. Start with a bike and other around the house fix it stuff. Supervise and help him. It's also time for fishing. It's a great little machine to master at that age.

As for the toys, great suggestions all. You must not help him play with the mechanical toys... just tell him to read the instructions. Most importantly, no TV, no Videos and no molly-coddling.
5.26.2009 4:42pm
OH yes,

As soon as you know he's grasping the material and experiencing some competancy with whatever you choose,

I highly recommend the "Doofus Dad" schtick;
make a big show of saying you want to try something, and make a conspicuous error that he can correct, and explain to you what you did wrong.
This is a crucial confidence building (albeit counterintuitive) parenting tactic.

Showing your human frailty can make him more OK with his own learning process, and gives you the venue to model humility-without-shame .

Let him be the expert!

If it is too hard (I bought two sets of ~Mindstorms; both were premature and not fun for him) put it on the shelf and get something easier (and don't blame him for your choices). At 6+, the development of fine-motor and manual dexterity is not yet 'in the bag' for many kids.
The Duplo series has larger parts if the Lego is too difficult to get the 'click'. especially for those pesky 1x1 blocks.
Dads Rule!
5.27.2009 12:15pm

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