Introduction: Mashing Up Toy Hacking and Microcontrollers

About: Educator, maker, librarian, and Director of Community and Instigator of fun at Makey Makey! I love making and creating all kinds of stuff, but am particularly obsessed with circuits and physical computing!

This guide is based on an advanced maker education workshop I led in San Angelo for the Tom Green County Public Library last summer. This amazing library in West Texas not only has a fully stocked makerspace, but it has maker resources available for checkout to local educators. (Previous blog post here)

My favorite part of this full day workshop was guiding educators through the parts, purposes, and complexities of animatronic toys. Our guiding theme for the day was Invention Literacy (or learning how things works, so we can make new things.) I shared this video of Jay Silver from Makey Makey describing the concept.

This guide will be more about how you can look at the innards and find ways to use microcontrollers, so if you want more guidance on taking apart toys as a way of learning how things work, check out this super handy guide from Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio. You might also like this take-apart guide here on Instructables I co-wrote with Aaron Graves.

Also- and I can not stress this enough- DO NOT BUY NEW TOYS for this. Instead, hit up local thrift stores, or see if department stores can donate broken toys.

Also this is maker education style facilitation. Let the learner focus on what they want to learn. I let teachers choose their toys and learn about the microcontroller they wanted to learn about!

Give your students time for exploration. I ran this part of the workshop in around 4 hours.

To try this activity with students, you would need to break it up into 4 different classes.

  • Day One: Intro to Invention Literacy and Toy Dissection
  • Day Two: Microcontroller intro and Exploration
  • Day Three: Toy Mash Up Challenge
  • Day Four: Final Work Day and Sharing


  • Old or busted toys (Buy from thrift shop or see if department stores or your community have busted toys they are willing to part with!)
  • Microcontrollers: We used Hummingbird Robotics, Micro:bit, and Makey Makey
  • Scissors
  • Butcher Paper
  • Markers

Step 1: Toy Take Apart/ Dissection/ Note Taking

We'll take apart toys to discover each toy's parts, purposes, and complexities! First, have students pick a marker color and ask them to imagine what is inside their toy. Ask them to draw with the first color.

Once they've thought about what might be inside, let them begin to take apart the toy to see how it works. Ask them to use a different marker to draw what they find inside of their toy.

What is the purpose of each part? Ask students to record the dissection process in a maker journal.

During deconstruction, think about harvesting toys parts for new maker projects. Check out this post from Ryan Jenkins when he was at Tinkering Studio. In my workshop, we collected all the skins, stuffing, and guts in boxes for the teen librarians to use for a future Frankentoy workshop. Hacking toys is not only a great way to learn how things work, it’s an awesome experience in reusing and recycling materials.

If you do this take apart with a big group, take some time to share on the big screen what the inside of toy's look like and have your makers share how they think the toy works now that they've peeked inside!

Make sure to post some Take Apart Rules!

  • Don't Force anything. We are taking apart, not breaking!
  • Always use the right tools for the job.
  • Be safe! Wear gloves and safety glasses if needed.
  • Go slow.
  • Don't break anything
  • Challenge yourself: Can you put it back together and it still work?

Step 2: ​Microcontroller Exploration

I let teachers choose to rotate table groups and explore the way these controllers work after I gave a brief introduction for each board. I also asked them to draw a picture of each microcontroller in a Maker Journal and suggested they write 3 bullet points of ideas for ways to use their new found learning.

Materials Needed

It is important at this point that you let students play to learn. Don't give them strict guidelines, but rather openly worded challenges. (If you need help writing prompts, there is a great chapter on this in Invent to Learn!)

Step 3: Mashup Time!

As your students explore microcontrollers, they'll naturally start to toy with the idea of combining this digital code with their physical world. (It's like a sneaky way to teach them about physical computing!)

Let students play and think about how to combine these things. If you want to offer guidance, give them a challenge:

Frankentoy: How can we use these controllers to make our toy do something new?

And share a few guidelines, you might have them brainstorm ideas together in small groups or in a Maker Journal. You can suggest they draw design ideas or write materials they need to prototype their new toy. The sky is the limit!

Give your students at least 2 class periods of 45 minutes for creating toys. If a student finishes early, either ask them if there is another way they can mod their toy, or see if they will make a Flipgrid video to share how they made their toy.

Once all students have some Frankenprototypes, make sure to do a gallery walk or let students share their creations in some way!

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