Hands On: Break it Down

HandsOn Oct 2016

“I hate taking things apart,” said no kid ever. Kids are natural tinkerers, and you can encourage an interest in understanding how things work with the simple act of “reverse engineering.” The process involves more than just taking things apart, but the activity is a blast and may reveal secrets hidden inside some of your favorite everyday objects.

All you need to get started are a few tools and some old, broken toys or gadgets. Pro tip: This project is best for kids who are well past the stage of putting small objects in their mouths.



  • Flathead screwdriver (at least two sizes)
  • Phillips (5-points) screwdriver (at least two sizes)
  • Pliers
  • Safety glasses
  • Tray
  • Toy or other non-electric item to take apart (wind-up toys are awesome)
  • Clear tape
  • Paper or cardstock


Examine the toy. Start by looking at how the object works. Play with it. Observe it in action. Does it wind or roll? Will it have any gears or springs? Before taking anything apart, try to decide how the thing works and what parts you might find inside. Drawing a picture with labels helps tinkers visualize and share their ideas. Once you have ideas on paper, it’s time to start engineering in reverse. Use clear tape to stick each part (screws, springs, googly eyeballs) to a piece of paper as it is removed. Label the parts as you work.

First, find all the parts that pull off easily without tools.

Look for screws. Remove the screws using the flathead or Phillips screwdriver. Tape screws
to the paper and label them.


Look at parts that have pins or a connector of some kind. Pry these apart using fingers, a pair of pliers, or the flathead screwdriver as a lever.

Make sure your eyes are protected from flying parts! Wear safety goggles or glasses.

Pry open any closed containers that might hide engineering secrets. Use pliers, and set the parts on paper to examine. What do all these tiny things do? Wind-up toys, for example, have a cool coiled spring and gear set hidden in the plastic wind-up box. Sometimes you’ll find a really long flat piece of metal wound tightly, or plastic gear sets that control the legs or wings or drumming hands. Talk about how these tiny gears and cogs fit together to move legs, wings or wheels.

(Visit explainthatstuff.com/how-clockwork-works.html for a quick refresher course in the science of motion.)

At the end of your project, encourage tinkers to talk about their discoveries. “Were you right about how the thing worked? Can you think of other objects that might also have these same working parts? Do you think you can use the parts in some other cool project?”

Collect reverse engineered parts along with other scavenged materials in a “tinker tray,” and construct one-of-a-kind creations. Visit Art of STEM to build your tinker tray in our workshop area, or go on a household scavenger hunt to create trays at home. You’ll be amazed at how long tinkers can focus on this kind of open-ended project. 

Jeannie Ruiz is the owner of Art of STEM in the St. Johns neighborhood. They offer books, toys, and 3D-printing options for tinkers, makers and innovators of all ages. You’ll also find tinker and maker workshops, as well as coding introductions, camps and workshop memberships. Visit online at artofstem.com or call at 503-206-6214.

PDX Parent Staff
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