The Way Things Work – Boy Meets Machine

I wanted to offer what has been an exciting and very fun science course for us this year! When I asked my 4th grade son what he would like to study for science his response was, “ENGINEERING AND BUILDING THINGS!!” I immediately thought of a great book already living on my shelf – The Way Things Work by David Macauley.

In flipping through this book I quickly determined that it would be a perfect fit for his request, and the perfect spine for a study of engineering and machines. We’ve been affectionately referring to our science this year as Boy Meets Machine – it’s been a lot of fun!

I set out to find some books that might support some of the chapters and concepts in The Way Things Work that were available at our local library. Here are a few I found:

:: Mistakes that Worked by Charlotte Jones
:: Rube Goldberg Inventions by Maynard Wolfe
:: Gizmos and Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions by Heath Robinson
:: Physics For Every Kid by Janice Van Cleave
:: Engineering for Every Kid by Janice Van Cleave
:: Machines: Mind Boggling Experiments You Can Turn Into Science Fair Projects by Janice Van Cleave
:: Simple Machines: Starting With Science by Deborah Hodge
:: The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills by Gretchen Woelfle
:: Can You Feel the Force? by Richard Hammond (This was a favorite book! Not to be missed!)
:: The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonnick
:: The Physics Coloring Book by Coloring Concepts, Inc.
:: Michael Faraday: Father of Electronics by Charles Ludwig
:: Usborne Book of Science: An Introduction to Biology, Physics and Chemistry – Physics section only
:: Simple Machines for Beginners (DVD)
:: The Way Things Work DVD’s – check your library for these.  Their production has been discontinued.
:: The Way Things Work game – lots of fun!!

Also helpful:
:: An Erector Set
:: Our Electronic Snap Circuits

The MOST helpful tools in assisting our learning for this study have been the K’Nex simple machines kits:
:: Levers and Pulleys
:: Gears
:: Wheels, Axles and Inclined Planes

The K’Nex are what you see pictured on this post. Sparkly is working with levers and pulleys and building a simple block and tackle.

We have made use of a few of the books I listed above, but for the most part we have just really enjoyed sitting down with our big book, The Way Things Work, reading together, and then Sparkly thrives on the challenge of building something he’s just read about using his K’Nex. Many of the investigations listed and detailed in the K’Nex manuals fit so well with a particular concept illustrated and detailed in The Way Things Work.

An Engineering Notebook is a fun thing to keep current as you progress through this study. It’s a place to record vocabulary and sketches of projects that have been built as well as those in the design phase.

Of course, we’re not limited to K’Nex for illustrating physics concepts…oh no…I made use of the salad spinner in our discussion of centrifugal forces! 🙂


This has been so enjoyable sharing all of this! I’ve actually had this post in draft form for several months now, and I’m glad that I finally got it up here!

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  1. This is my son's FAVORITE book. He's only 6. He pours over the diagrams. I can't wait until he is older and can read more of it on his own!

  2. Jenn
    Thank you!! I was literally minutes away from buying an Apologia Elementary text but now we will go back to our original plan of using the Way Things Work with my Malachi:)

  3. Thank you sooo much for this post. I've considered buying this book for some time. I'm looking forward to getting it and turning it into a science curriculum! Is there enough in it to last a whole “school year”? Thanks.

  4. Hi Kelly!

    I definitely think this book could easily last a year. We're halfway through our year and not yet halfway through the book. I reflected over our mid-year break that we might be moving too quickly and that the pace wasn't necessarily fostering time-taking or enjoying the reading as much as I would like (or think possible) so I made a few changes (like my son reads aloud to me, which he enjoys, rather than reading on his own) and we're reading less a day. I can already tell a very nice difference.

    Caveat: if my son was comfortable and/or wanted to speed up the pace I would have changed to reflect that need/desire, but observing him told me that slower was better here.

    I guess that was my long way of saying that yes, this certainly could be a full year course, and do consider a slow thoughtful progression.

    🙂 Good luck to you!

  5. Dear Jen,
    Your son looks to be having so much fun. We have this book but Autumn never got into it. She couldn't get past the Mammoth in it. I am wondering if maybe I just didn't have the right approach for her.
    Yours looks very good and creative—–as always.
    God Bless

  6. I LOVED that book when I was a kid — although I never got quite that much use out of it! However, I think it may have seriously influenced how much of a spacial thinker I am (but perhaps I just loved it because I already was one).

    Jen, I just discovered your blog and I am already grateful for the few posts I've seen, especially the one about your Rule. We are planning to homeschool (our first son is 3 months now!) but as we were both public school babies I have no idea how to go about it. And as a convert to the Faith, I am so grateful to see how you integrate the Faith into the daily life of your family. Thanks for sharing it all and God bless!

  7. My 14yo ds wanted to make sure I told you that he loves this book too and gave me some suggestions on my blog…It isn't perfect as we were having so many technical and tummy difficulties it is a little choppy, but you get the general idea. Ds really loves this kind of hands-on science! The really cool thing is, HE is teaching the younger ones! Talk about a heaven-sent answer to “oh Lord, what about science and the lack of time” prayer!
    +{{{HUGS}}} to you!

  8. thank you for this wonderful book list! i have three boys and this is a subject they would love to learn more about! I am a long time reader and an even longer planner girl and Jesus lover, you hit on all the sweet spots on here

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