3 Cool Kinetic STEM Projects for Afterschool

Kids love making things that move! Small hands with big STEM ideas are drawn to kinetic projects - project-based challenges that are designed and built to roll, rise, spin, glide, wiggle, jump or fly.  The problem solving that learners internalize when with kinetic projects that are designed and built to move activates engineering mindsets and supports essential social and emotional skills of self-management and responsible decision making.  

In this article, we're sharing three original classroom-tested STEM projects for kids that get them asking about color mixing and rotational forces, imagining how air pressure can make things rise and fall, planning systems with moving parts, and creating creatures that come to life!  Most importantly, these playful inventions are intended to be improved upon by your learners, so they take home a project that’s all about their genius!

Something to consider - most of the materials we include in these STEM activities for kids are common craft materials that can be acquired from craft or office supply stores - or cabinets around the classroom!  All of our recommended tools have been tested by PK - 5 learners over hundreds of classroom hours.  If they’re new to you, use our helpful Teacher Gym tool list to build your maker muscles & learn more!

Mix Colors In Your Eyeballs - With Spinning Tops!

Grades: PK - 5
STEM Ideas: Primary and secondary colors, balance and rotational forces, optical phenomena, color mixing.

It takes practice and a twist of the wrist to get a top to spin upright, activating an understanding of rotary motion and angular momentum. but did you know they can be used to optically mix primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) into secondary colors (orange, green, and purple)?  Activate your optic nerve and max out your brain’s ability to hold an image in place!

You’ll need:

  • One or two small plastic or wooden wheels with axle holes
  • Wooden skewers or dowels that fit the axle opening of your wheel
  • Primary colored tape or adhesive foam
  • Drinking straws
  • Cardboard or paper

Pro Tips

  • Cut your dowel/skewer axles using a serrated knife or pruning shears. Don’t use scissors.
  • Wheels shouldn’t spin freely on the axle - it will prevent the top from balancing! Hold your wheel still by wrapping tape below and above it.
  • Use only two primary colors when you’re starting out - it’s easier to optically mix two!
  • Create a “spin zone” that uses straws as a boundary - it will keep your top from traveling off the table or across the floor. 

Engineering guide:

Push and Pull with Pneumatics

Grades: PK - 5
STEM Ideas: Forces, air pressure, engineering motion systems.

Air is a thing!  When learners experience that air can be captured, pushed, and pulled from here to there, the invisible stuff all around us takes on great significance. Here’s a STEM project for kids that can start out as a face with a giant moving mouth, and lead learners to explore pneumatic and hydraulic motion systems.

You’ll need:

  • Two 10cc or larger pet feeding syringes
  • Small piece of tubing that fits snugly on the tip of the feeding syringe
  • Jumbo craft stick
  • Cardboard or heavy paper
  • Tape
  • Markers and scissors

Pro Tips:

  • Use feeding syringes that are 10CC or larger - luer tip types are best for this project
  • Push and twist the tubing onto the luer tip - make sure it’s snug.
  • When you’re creating a push-pull system, one cylinder should be full of air (piston out) and the other should be empty (piston in) before connecting them.
  • Attach parts that move to the piston, and parts that can stay still to the cylinder.
  • Attach your parts to a piston that’s pressed all the way in.  When you fill the cylinder with air, the part will move!

Engineering Guide:

Grab and Go with Scissor Lift Machines

Grades: PK - 5
STEM Ideas:  Simple machines, compound machines, levers, fulcra, motion systems

This STEM activity for kids is an introduction to compound machines (a combination of simple machines - levers and fulcra) and how force can result in motion and transformation.  In this case, we can make…

  • Something short becomes longer
  • Something small grows larger
  • Something far apart come closer together
  • Push or pull on something using lateral (sideways) forces.

You’ll need:

  • A low-force hole punch
  • Brass paper fasteners ¾” or longer
  • Jumbo craft sticks
  • Cardboard or heavy paper
  • Tape
  • Markers and scissors

Pro Tips:

  • Although there are a whole lot of hole punches in the world, we’ve found one type that always meets the challenge! Low force hole punches are designed to work with thicker materials - and are great to have in any toolkit. Check our Teacher Gym Tool List for more information!
  • Practice makes pretty perfect!  Try your punch on several craft sticks to master placing your holes before making your project.
  • Press your paper fasteners flat when you assemble the components.  The tighter the connection, the smoother the scissor motion.
  • If you plan on attaching parts to your machine be sure not to tape levers together - that will prevent it from moving!
  • You can make your system larger or smaller - using both ends, or the sides, for additional motion features!

Engineering Guide:

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STEM project ideas are sometimes difficult to implement by yourself - especially when you’re considering purchasing and prepping for larger groups or cohorts with mixed experience levels. If you’re developing STEM activities for kids in groups of ten or more, we’ve created expert quality, original material sets for projects just like what was shared above!

Our Monster Mouths, Art Machines and Blendies Sparks are designed to have everything your learners need to make and take home a working project.  Each includes free access to a coach guide slide deck that will make you a STEM project superstar!

Written by
Matt Barinholtz
Matt Barinholtz is dedicated to transforming educational experiences through playful hands-on learning.