Make Your Own Upcycled Robot

Discovery Place Nature

Today, we will explore upcycling and how we can transform everyday materials into something great. We will be gathering materials from around the house, such as recyclables and office supplies, to build a robot.

Robots are machines that can carry out a task automatically, whether guided by a remote control or controlled by embedded code within the robot device. While we may not be able to build a full functioning automated robot at home, we can manipulate everyday materials to create articulated movements that bring our robot to life.

Upcycling is a form of recycling where we find a way of repurposing materials that would normally head straight to a landfill or recycling plant to be broken down and made into new materials. Recycling, however, still requires lots of resources to collect recyclables from locations, to bring them to a plant for sorting, to be sent along to other plants to be broken down and so on. By finding new ways to use old materials we can have less trash in our landfills and reduce our carbon footprint.

Design time for this project will take around 5-10 minutes and the build time can take 30 minutes or more. This project is suited for all ages.

Materials List:

While this is the list of materials we used for our bot, your materials can range from just about anything! Imagination and design thinking are key to making your robot work from the materials you have available.

  • Cardboard box
  • Cardboard pieces
  • Cardboard tubes
  • Push pins (brass fasteners or paper clips can also be used)
  • Plastic sheets (for example, a plastic bakery container cut up)
  • Tape or hot glue gun and glue sticks
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Scissors
  • Skewer (wood dowel or straw can also work)
  • Hole punch (helpful but scissors can do the job if you are careful)


This project is one that is driven very much by your creativity – unless you want them to, no two robots will look the same.

First, gather all your materials. Gather as many things as you can find! Check the recycling bin and ask parents for random items they are okay with you using and anything else you can find. The more different kinds of materials you have the more ways you can imagine and plan out building your robot.

Now it’s time to imagine, plan, and design! What materials can best work for what you aim to build? Think about what you want your robot to be able to do, and how you might go about achieving that. For example, we wanted our robot’s head and arms to have movement, so we thought about how to add parts that could swivel or extend out. Draw your plan on a blank sheet of paper, in a notebook or on a 3D Drawing app.

Next, start building your robot. Since our robots may all end up looking different, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • If you have a box to size already available, the robot’s body or torso is a good place to start. If not, cut and assemble your box to the size you want your robot’s body to be. This can all be attached together with tape or hot glue. In fact, most things that you need for this project can be just be taped or glued together.
  • Using dowels or pencils can be a great way to get things to swivel or move. For example, we wanted side-to-side movement with our robot’s head, so we took a skewer and pushed it though the side of our cardboard – see picture below. Then I thought about how the head was going to come out the top of the robot’s body and cut holes at the sides where the skewer could come out and have free movement, and a wide slot cut out on top that was wider than the head so it could have space to move side to side.
  • Here is a way to get the arms to swivel AND extend:
  • Take four toilet paper tubes and cut two down the vertical then tape them so they are thinner and can fit inside your other tubes without causing friction along the walls
  • Then with your two other tubes, cut down the sides to about an inch from the bottom. This is going to be a slot for a slide rail device, so it needs to be thick enough to fit a skewer (or straw, popsicle stick)
  • Next, build the rail system. Into the two thinner tubes we’re going to put a skewer (or straw, popsicle stick) through about a half inch from the top.
  • Now take each of your thin tubes and place them, rail-end first, into the tubes with slots cut in them, then carefully tape the end opening without taping the tubes together. The idea is that the inner tube will slide along the track without falling through. This may take some trial and error.
  • Don’t forget to decorate! This whole process allows you to bring your creative thinking into play as you work through building your robot. Remember, designing something from scratch is an iterative process, meaning you might need to rethink and rework things more than once before they are finalized, and that’s okay. Try not to get discouraged. The more we try then more we learn, and the more fun we can have!

How to adjust for younger and older learners

For younger learners, focus on making a cool looking robot, even if it doesn’t have moving parts. Challenge young children to include at least one moveable part like an arm or the head. Even spinning buttons on the sides or chest would be fun!

For older learners, see if you can find some old toys or computers and open them up (with adult supervision and proper tools) to find anything that could either add a cool look to your robot, or, if the part works, have a light-up LED or motorized component to your robot. LED stands for Light Emitting Diode, and these have anode (+) and cathode (-) leads that must be connected to a power source to light up, usually around 2-3 volts, so a coin battery would do the trick. DC motors have a spinning axel end, so anything affixed to this end will spin when attached to power. This instructables project page touches a bit on toy take apart safety and general tips.

Finally, here are some building-with-cardboard techniques that you may find helpful:

© Exploratorium,

Thinker Space Design Guide: