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Fairytale Engineering-Thumbelina

Thumbelina is a classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen that like many fairytales has elements of peril and bad behavior that ultimately resolve to the “Happily Ever After” ending delightful to children of all ages, with lessons for good behavior along the way. If you don’t know the story, here’s a short video

At one point in the story, Thumbelina befriends and takes care of a wounded swallow by bringing it food through the winter. But how did tiny Thumbelina carry the seeds back to the bird?

Thumbelina wants to help her friend the swallow by bringing it food while it is too injured to fly but she is too tiny to carry many herself. How can she get the seeds to the swallow?

The Fairytale Engineering Challenge

Using only the materials provided, design and build a cart with at least one wheel that Thumbelina can pull or push along to carry seeds (a cup of marbles) without the seeds falling out.

Design Constraints

  • The cart must have at least one functional wheel.
  • The cart must be able to carry the cup with the marbles.
  • The marbles must stay in the cup and not fall out.
  • The cart must carry the cup and marbles for at least 12”


  1. First determine how to create a functional wheel(s) out of the materials provided.
  2. Confer with a partner or group on possible strategies for both the wheel(s) and the cart itself..
  3. Design and test, making modifications as they go.
  4. Test, refine their design and retest as desired.

Criteria for Success

  • Cart has a least one wheel
  • Cart can be pushed or pulled for 12”
  • Cart can carry the cup with the marbles without the cup tipping over and/or the marbles falling out.

Time Frame: 60 min

  • Intro – 5 min
  • Work Time – 45 min
  • Clean up and debrief – 5 min


For each pair/team:

  • 1 pieces of cardstock
  • 2 pipe cleaners
  • 2 craft sticks
  • 2 straws
  • scissors


For whole group

  • tape
  • small plastic/paper cup
  • marbles 


  • When ready, place a cup of marbles in the cart and show that you can push or pull the cart 12”.
  • If successful, either add more marbles to the cup or attempt a longer trip for the cart.


Wrap Up and Debrief:

Identify successful and unsuccessful strategies. See what improvements in the design can be made in the design.

If inclined, it can be interesting to have a discussion with others about Thumbelina. Where do they think she was the happiest? Where was she treated the best? Who was the nicest character in the story? Who was the least likable? What other uses could Thumbelina find for the cart that they made for her? 

If desired, work with any others with whom you did the challenge to answer the Job Analysis Questions below.

Job Analysis

  • Our Idea
  • How We Worked Together
  • What We Would Do Differently