Kart-building is about more than making a fun ride. Kids build 21st-century skills and STEM skills in the process.
- Parker Barry
Though we have no scientific evidence to prove it, the first go-kart was probably developed by a creative, thrill-seeking kid not long after the invention of the wheel.
“As a 10-year-old, I obsessed over building my own four-wheeled machine,” Michael Tither, a director at Camp Galileo said. Tither’s single almost-successful creation made it halfway down one hill before falling apart, leaving him and his friend a bit bruised but not as devastated as the go-kart.
“Perhaps it was my love for the 1994 classic The Little Rascals with their go-kart shenanigans, or Cool Runnings’ Sanka in the Jamaican push cart derby,” Tither said about his inspiration for building that ill-fated kart. Now he inspires others, helping kids build their own go-karts at Camp Galileo’s invention camps.
John Roberts remembers scrounging for parts to make his go-karts as a kid in the UK. “I used all types of wheels when I was a lad,” he said. “Small lawnmower wheels, shopping trolley wheels, casters from an old sofa — anything I could get my grubby little hands on!” He now runs an online store that sells parts — like wheels — for go-kart building.
In a time when kids could easily ride around the block on an electric scooter or sit at home and choose which kart they want to ride virtually in a game of Mario Kart, people like Tither and Roberts have made building custom go-karts accessible to a new generation of kids.
Kids learn STEM concepts while building
Go-kart building is about more than just the product: ending up with a fun ride. Kids develop as makers, practicing critical thinking, problem solving and creativity, and they pick up some impressive STEM concepts in the process, too.
They learn about engineering design principles, physical science, forces, motion, simple machines, gravity, mass, friction, speed, kinetic and potential energy, and more, hands on as they build, test, fail, redesign and rebuild their go-karts. This isn’t textbook instruction, either. Kids are having fun and working collaboratively through the process. It’s messy, a little risky, and incredibly valuable.
“The thing with building a go-kart is you can’t do it alone. Literally,” Tither said, “you need a partner to hold things, secure bits, carry stuff and push the thing when it’s made.” The whole process gives kids significant real-world skills, in a totally developmentally appropriate way.
The thing with building a go-kart is you can’t do it alone. Literally.
Room for creativity
Galileo campers used step-by-step kits at camp — think of assembling IKEA furniture — but were able to add their own creative touches. “I’ve seen Batmobiles, Cat Karts, a Golden Gate Bridge theme, tractor styles, racers, Star Wars, Mad Max and a whole host between those,” Tither said. Oh, and those kits don’t come with brakes, so kids have to figure that out on their own.
Roberts sells kits on his site, but also has free design plans and sells components, either option making for great projects with kids. “Wooden karts are the best for kids and can be knocked out in the shed over a weekend,” he said. Some designs include rope steering systems. Kids, he said, prefer steering wheels, though, because they feel more like driving a car.
Kids can find resources online and offline
Go-kart building camps similar to Galileo’s Invention Camps are offered in different areas in the United States, and you can find plans for cooperative building projects (some are more challenging and may require more adult supervision where others can be more kid-directed) at Make Magazine, Instructables, DIY and Popular Mechanics. Go-karts can range from soapbox derby style wooden creations that can be built in a few hours to engine-driven machines that will cost hundreds of dollars. Either way, kids are learning by doing science.
Stephen from KidsDIY on YouTube demonstrates how to build a go kart using bicycle wheels:
Kids can also find some exciting twists in go-kart building to challenge them through these programs and sites.
- Florida Gulf Coast University hosts a solar-powered go-kart challenge every year, where teams of kids from elementary through high school showcase their solar-powered go-kart creations. Racing the Sun is a similar offering in Arizona.
- The All-American Soap Box Derby Association offers camps, hosts competitions for all ages of go-kart makers, and provides go-kart designs with STEM tie-ins online for free.
- Though not for kids but adults, Red Bull hosts an annual Soap Box Race showcasing impressive designs that could inspire kid-makers.
Go-kart building is a great learning and bonding activity for kids and parents, and just as Tither experienced when his go-kart that didn’t make it all the way down hill, the journey is just as important (and memorable) as the destination. Kids can learn a lot with a few wheels and some lumber.