Hacking Toys at FabLearn 2019

For a second workshop at the FabLearn conference last weekend, we took the theme of sustainability in a different direction with a toy dissection and remix activity.

Joel Gordon from the Amazeum and Christa Flores from the Asheville Museum of Science co-facilitated the workshops with me. All three of us love this activity because dissecting a singing and dancing toy uncovers motors, lights, speakers and circuit boards which effectively creates a cheap version of an electronics kit with almost unlimited tinkering potential.


For the morning activity, we divided the group into pairs and asked them to write or draw all of the parts of the toy that they can see, hear and feel! This aspect of the workshop is adapted from a Project Zero thinking routine and is a way to get participants to slow down before dissecting their toy.

After about fifteen minutes of investigating the toys, each group traded in their black marker for a dissection kit (and a different colored pen so that they could track new discoveries). And we instructed the groups to try to keep the toy working as long as possible as they cut into the contraptions.

As usual, hilarity and deliberate chaos erupted around the room as each group started exposing the innards of their toy using xacto blades, scissors and wire snips.

Some of the toys that we dissected this time were pretty old (especially an Orangutan that I found at the Oakland Museum white elephant sale a few weeks earlier). There was something quite different about the plastic that made up the body and we found some nearly prehistoric duct tape covering the wire frame arms inside.

The orangutan group also used some usual dissection methods to peel the skin off with participants resorting to brute force technique to remove the last bits of the outer covering.


And as the teams uncovered the complex mechanisms, twisting wires, stuffing and circuit boards, they continued working on their drawings, making wonderful visual notes of the process.


For the second half of the workshop, we tried something new with the introduction of tools to remix the toys. Joel introduced computational elements like Micro:Bit and Arduino to reprogram the machines and Christa showed ways to mount the parts on wooden circuit blocks. Everyone got the choice of how to spend the last thirty or forty minutes of the workshop and although this was the first time we opened up a toy dissection this way, we were really impressed by the variety of ideas around the room.


One team’s exploration focused on disconnecting and remixing the speaker of the toy. They reprogrammed the toy to make a different sound by attaching the wire leads to the pins of the Micro:Bit and using the sound blocks on MakeCode.


The orangutan team worked to mount the block on a wooden board, but turned the mechanism to a different orientation, changing the perspective on the machine. We imagined a quite different creature when looking at the toy from a different angle.

Another group did something similar, but took the artistic element of the idea even further by creating a Marie Antoinette-esque character that danced with the button press.


I liked how this open time at the end of the workshop gave other groups the chance to go deeper with specific parts of the dissection. One group spent the time trying to reconstitute the gearbox that made the motion of the stuffed animal. Others compared the delightfully analog squeaker boxes that were found inside different animal toys.

At the end of the workshop we went around the room and talked about what we were experimented with and shared our technical drawings of before and after the dissection.

I loved this reflection from one of the workshop participants who eloquently described her experience with the activity. She summed up many of the reasons we love toy dissection - its a great exploration of electricity, it allows people to practice the scientific process and helps build a emotional connection to the concepts.


While the computational remix extensions to the activity are still a bit experimental, we think there’s a lot of potential for taking ideas around computation (and even “smart toys) for future workshops. We’ve created a zine to help others run this activity at their school or museum and we hope that we can learn more from this amazing community of educators.