Simple Machines

An updated version of this post can be found at: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2016/10/26/simple-machines-engineering-for-kids/

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We began our year with a unit on Simple Machines. Our goal is to introduce the basic concepts, give them lots of hands-on exploration of the principles, and encourage them to look for simple machines in their world.

Big Idea about Simple Machines

A simple machine is a machine with few moving parts, or no moving parts.

The big idea behind simple machines is they make it easier to do work. (They may reduce the amount of work it takes, or they may change the direction of the force you apply – which can make it easier to do the work.) But the more inspiring way to describe this to a young child is to say something like “do you wish you could lift heavy things like mommy/daddy does? Simple machines can help you do that. Doing things the smart way makes you stronger.”

What is force? What is work?

In scientific terms, work is using a force to move an object. If you use force and nothing moves (like if you pushed on a brick wall), that’s not work. Pushing, pulling, and lifting are all “work.”

Note: although we didn’t do it in our class, it could be a good idea to first introduce the idea of “force” and how to measure how much work it takes to do something. Some books about force that I have seen recommendations for include Forces Make Things Move, And Everyone Shouted, “Pull!”, and Move It!: Motion, Forces and You. (Note: Amazon says Forces Make Things Move is for ages 4 – 8, but I think there are far too many words for us to use it in a groups circle in a classroom setting with this age group.) Here are some ideas for how to teach about force, from Mrs. MyersTeach Junkie and iijuan12.

Books about Simple Machines

There are several books that give an overview of all the simple machines.

  • How Do You Lift a Lion? by Wells is my favorite book. It poses fun questions with silly illustrations, then does a nice job of describing the basic concepts of how the machines work. Covers levers (for lifting lions), wheels and axles (for pulling pandas on pallets) and pulleys (to delivery a big basket of bananas to a baboon birthday party). You could divide it up into three parts and read at different times as you cover each machine. Good circle time read. The vocabulary is a little high level, but the pictures are clear illustrations, so our 5 – 7 year olds were able to follow the science of it. Our 3 – 4 year olds didn’t get the science, but they liked the book anyway.
  • Move It! Work It! from the Science Songs series, sets a song about simple machines to the tune of Kookaburra. (Hear it: www.capstonekids.com/sciencesongs.html.) There are also additional facts about each machine on each page. The song is not a great work of art, but if you wanted to include a song in the unit, it does a decent job of capturing the ideas about simple machines.
  • Simple Machines by Allan Fowler is a good overview, with nice basic descriptions and examples, and it’s an appropriate length for circle time. Not nearly as fun as Lion…
  • Simple Machines: Wheels, Levers and Pulleys by Adler is for ages 5 – 7. Nice illustrations, good examples of simple machines in everyday life, and good explanations. But too high level for our class.
  • Lever, Screw, and Inclined Plane by Thompson. Good descriptions, great pictures from National Geographic. But… it’s for ages 6 – 9, and too high level/too long for us to read in class. It could be helpful for an adult to skim through before class – I find it’s helpful if you have fresh in your head information that’s just a little more advanced / detailed than you might cover with your students – it helps you answer questions that may come up.
  • Smash!: Wile E. Coyote Experiments with Simple Machines is NOT a circle time read. It’s aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds, and would be over the head of most 3 to 7-year-olds in my class. On the other hand, the Wile E. Coyote character is appealing enough that my almost-5-year-old (who has read LOTS of books on simple machines over the past few weeks) really enjoys this book even if he doesn’t fully grasp it and enjoys then watching Roadrunner cartoons and talking about the science in them.
  • Simple Machines by Deborah Hodge. Photos and descriptions of lots of easy activities related to simple machines. Nice little descriptions of the science behind each one. Good source of ideas for teachers/parents, but not something I’d read in class, or put on the shelf, just because I find that if I put out books of activity ideas, the kids want to try them all right now.

Series Books about Simple Machines

There are several series which include 6 books each, one for each machine. I honestly haven’t found any one series that I think is the absolute best, so I get some books from each of the series to share with my class. If I didn’t have access to a fabulous library system and had to buy books, I might choose the “Vs.” series by Schuh for my class of 3 – 6 year olds, which is the last one in this list.

  • Amazing Science: Simple Machines by Dahl and Shea. Book description says they are for 5 – 10 year olds. For 5 – 6 year olds, the illustrations are great and the examples are clear, but I would not read the word as written – I would just paraphrase. I think they’re best for 7 – 8 year olds, as the 9-10 year olds might find the illustrations a little “young.” Titles are more creative than other series… the levers book is Scoop, Seesaw, and Raise: A Book About Levers (Amazing Science: Simple Machines)
  • How Toys Work by Smith. 4 – 6 years. Titles: Ramps and Wedges, Pulleys, Levers, Screws, Nuts and Bolts, Wheels and Axles. Nice series – shows photos of toys, talks about the “tool” that is the theme of the book – how it works, what it does, and gives more examples of toys that use it. Very age appropriate non-fiction with a playful / colorful look. Will not give a solid understanding of the concept of the simple machine – best combined with other books if that’s your goal.
  • Simple Machines by Bodden. Age 5 – 7. Explains the machine, talks about how it makes work easier, shows a little history and modern examples of its use. It’s Ok for this age group… a little dry and the graphic design is kind of stodgy looking. (Really lovely from an adult perspective… just not very kid appealing.) Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels & Axles.
  • Simple Machines by Tieck. Age 7 – 10. Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels & Axles. My brief notes to myself on this series say “Wedges was OK, though not appealing writing style. Aimed at 5 – 7 year olds. Multiple examples of wedges (knife, door stop, axe, nail, chisel) but no activities.”
  • Simple Machines by Armentrout  Age 7 – 9. Each book talks about simple machines in general and then one machine specifically. Uses photographs of kids using simple machines, which helps it be more accessible / engaging to kids. Photos with labels help to clearly illustrate the tool and the principle. Fine series. Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Levers, Wedges, Screws, Wheels.
  • Simple Machines to the Rescue by Thales. 6 – 9. Inclined Planes to the Rescue, Wedges to the Rescue, etc. Focuses on how we use simple machines to solve problems: “it’s snack time and two people want to share one apple. How can they split it into two equal piece? Wedge to the rescue!” Good descriptions, nice examples. Each book ends with a little sample project kids can do. I’m not a fan of the photos and illustrations, and don’t think kids will find them as engaging as pictures in other series.
  • First Step Non-Fiction: Simple Machines to the Rescue by Schuh. OK, it’s really confusing that this series is also titled Simple Machines to the Rescue. I call this the “Vs.” series. Titles include Making a Salad: Wedge vs. Inclined Plane and Hauling a Pumpkin: Wheels and Axles vs. Lever, Raising a Bag of Toys: Pulley vs. Inclined Plane and three others. For ages 4 – 7. They present a challenge that could be solved with a simple machine. The two people who are working together suggest two different machines. We learn about each, and we try using each. Sometimes one is better than the other, but often we see the benefits of using both. They do a good basic job of describing each machine and giving examples beyond what is covered in the story. What I like: engaging photos, engaging story line of finding a problem and working together using tools to solve it. Because we are a parent-child class, I especially like that some of the books are about parents and kids working together, and that often the kid has a great idea the parent hadn’t thought of. Note: this book series has a companion teaching guide, which is aligned with Next Generation Science standards and Common Core state standards, and offers a lesson plan and hands-on activities for each of the simple machines. You can download the teaching guide at https://www.lernerbooks.com/services/eSourceDownloads.aspx?isbn=9781467780261

Songs about Simple Machines

In our class, we’re using Simple Machines by David Newman: find the song and lyrics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1Fhs8pXGxM.

Other options are:

  • Move It Work It from Capstone kids (see companion book description above) which is to the tune of Kookaburra. Find the song here.
  • the Simple Machines song from Hubpages unit on simple machines. It’s done to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Find it here.

Videos about Simple Machines

Note: some parents prefer not to expose their kids to screen time – if that’s you, then skip the recommendations on videos and apps. There’s nothing your child can learn from them that they can’t learn from books, discussions, and hands-on experiences.

I like videos that can display simple machines in action, and describe the concepts while you’re viewing an example. There are several good ones on individual machines – just search YouTube. Here are my favorite overviews.

  • Bill Nye the Science Guy – Simple Machineshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMxxG1newtE   Best for ages 5 – 10, although my guy has liked Bill since he was 3. About 20 minutes long.
  • Sid the Science Kid. They did a fabulous series on simple machines. Sid is aimed at preschoolers and is set at a preschool, so very appealing and easy to understand for a 3 – 6 year old. There’s The Broken Wheel (Wheels & Axles); My Slide (Inclined Plane), Sid’s Amazing Invention (Lever), the Tree House (Pulleys) and Climb, Ignatz (summary of the series.) They’re available streaming on Netflix, or can be rented on Amazon (they’re listed under season 2 of Sid.) Each episode is 23 minutes, although some of that is filler (theme songs, etc.) that we tend to skip past.
  • Physical Science for Children: All About Simple Machines. 20 minute overview.
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=TS77oMc7l2Q
  • This is a nice 3-minute summary for adults about the concept, but it goes by too fast for young kids:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM2bJxSjL6k

Games and Apps:

There’s a couple of online computer games you could play with your child that teach about simple machines.
  • “Twitch” is a fun online game, but you’d need to play with them and narrate their way through it to help them understand it better.  www.msichicago.org/online-science/simplemachines/activities/simplemachines-1/
  • http://edheads.org/activities/simplemachines/index.shtml is also a fun online game. Best used as a review, after your child has learned all about Simple Machines.
  • There is an app called Simple Machines on ITunes, but I have not played it.
  • I like the app “Pettson’s Inventions“, available on Android, Kindle, and ITunes. The same folks also do Inventioneers, which is free and a little easier to play. In both, you assemble Rube Goldberg type devices to do simple tasks – you drop an apple on the character’s head, he turns on his blower, which turns a fan, which moves a gear, which knocks the basketball off the platform onto the seesaw and into the basket. You usually don’t get the answer right on the first try – you set up part of the process, press play to test it, adjust it, test it again, set up the next part of the process, test that, adjust it, and so on. Talk it all through with your child. Tell them what you’re trying and why. Ask them why something didn’t work and what you can do differently. It’s definitely a learning process which requires lots of tinkering.. A 6 or 7 year old might be able to play it alone if you play the first few levels with them to give them the basic concept. With a 4 or 5 year old you’d need to play it all the way through with them once, then they could probably do it on their own.
Over the next few weeks, I will add posts about each of the simple machines.

Note: All the activities described in my posts are from Family Inventor’s Lab, a parent-child cooperative class in Bellevue, WA. We are a play-based, STEM focused class for preschool through early elementary (kids age 3 – 7). We do a wide variety of fun, hands-on activities to learn about Science, Tools, Engineering, Nature, and Art. We also sing songs and read stories. Most of our activities are cheap, easy, and use everyday materials that most families would have in their homes (or their recycle bins!), so that our activities are appropriate for classroom teachers, parents who homeschool, or after school programs.

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20 thoughts on “Simple Machines

  1. What a great post! These are useful resources. We think you might like Simple Machines by Tinybop. It’s a sandbox-style app in which children can learn how explore and experiment with simple machines. Great for ages 4+!

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