Engineering: Towers

We are starting on an Engineering Unit. This week’s theme was Towers. In class, we wanted to explore different materials for tower building, to tinker and figure out how to make a tower more stable, and to have lots of fun knocking down the towers that we built. We also explored reasons why people build towers.

A simple tower is one of the first things that children can build – at 12 – 15 months, they may stack two blocks. By three years, almost all can stack towers of ten blocks, but some children may stack many more than that, if they’ve done a lot of block play at home. And specialty blocks that interlock allow for taller towers. The other day, I worked with a 26 month old as he stacked up a tower of Duplos that was taller than he was. Probably 40 or more blocks. So, stacking blocks is easily doable for the youngest child in our class, but is also a challenge that grows with a child. Our 7 year olds were also challenged by experiencing different materials and learning how to stack them to engineer the highest and sturdiest tower.

Building Experiments

We offered a wide array of tower building materials, and also a number of methods for knocking them down. You’ll notice that knocking them down was an actively planned part of the curriculum. Why? Well, we know kids will do it anyway. May as well make it a fun and completely acceptable part of the day. We’d cheer for great towers and we’d also cheer for great moments of tower destruction. But also, a goal was to emphasize the tinkering mentality or engineering process: build something, test it, refine it, test it again, start over when needed. Some children re-built with the goal of making the structure as solid and stable as they possibly could – trying to make a structure that couldn’t be knocked down. Some went the opposite way, and build structures that would fall apart even more dramatically. Either goal was perfectly acceptable!

Keva blocks and wrecking ball. I ordered and built in advance this KEVA Wrecking Ball. (Quick review: it’s inexpensive, nice quality, and creates a fun and sturdy product. It says it’s for ages 7 and up, but the building process was pretty lengthy with lots of required stops in the middle to let glue dry, and a fair amount of precision required. I don’t think it’s something most kids 7 – 10 would be able to manage, unless they’re unusually patient and precise model builders. If you have a child under age 7, just plan to build it for them and let them play with it. If you have a 7 – 10 year old, build it together.)

You can stack simple towers with the extra planks that come with a set, then enjoy knocking them down.

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We made up a sign about wrecking ball rules (before knocking anything down you need to get the builder’s permission, before knocking them down, ask an adult to be sure it’s safe, and so on) in case we had issues and needed to enforce rules. But we ended up not needing it as kids were managing things well. If you’re working with a group, use your judgment about what rules need to be established before playing to keep it fun and safe.

Jenga blocks and pendulum: We used Jenga blocks as a building tool in this class. (You could, of course, also play a proper game of Jenga as part of this lesson – in the proper game, you stack a very sturdy tower, then as you remove block by block, you reduce its stability until it falls – there’s some great lessons in that experience.)

We built towers with the Jenga, then knocked them down with a home-made pendulum – a tennis ball inside the cut-off leg from a pair of tights, that the kids could grab by one end and swing into their towers. I thought this would engage our big motor learners, but it didn’t as much as I’d hoped. It could be it needed more presentation / support from us as teachers. It could be because its target and its effect was very similar to the wrecking ball and they liked the wrecking ball better. Next time, I think I’ll follow the method from Irresistible Ideas of tying the pendulum to the rafters, and using it to knock down tall towers of cereal boxes.

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Toilet paper tubes and cardboard platforms. This is one of those great recycle bin activities. It allows kids to build multi-story buildings with t.p. columns supporting each cardboard floor. They intuitively learn that one or two columns won’t support a floor, but three will if placed just right, and four is easy. You could enhance this project into imaginary play realm by putting out small plastic animals or dolls and they could populate the floors of the tower. Or you could add to the engineering aspect of it by having them put weights on a floor (like pennies) and see how much weight various structures could support. [Tip: when setting up building materials, put the container of supplies on a chair next to the table to free up more table space for the actual building.]

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Plastic cups. Probably our most popular activity of the day was building tall towers with red plastic cups, and then using a pull-back car to crash into them and knock them down. Advantages to this activity: it’s cheap, the cups are almost infinitely re-useable (we only broke 2 out of 60 in four hours of play), children of all ages (and adults) can enjoy, and when the cups come crashing down on your head, they don’t hurt!

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Our usual rules in the class are no standing on chairs, but we made an exception to allow for building the tallest possible towers:

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One of our older kids had built and crashed lots of towers. So we challenged her. We said “Can you build a tower using ALL these cups that the car can’t knock down?” She did it, but in a lateral thinking way I didn’t expect!

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Here’s the video of a crash in action:

You can also stack cups in a variety of ways. Most people start with a two dimensional pyramid, but you can also make a three dimensional pyramid by learning to stack a little differently. (Teachers and parents, this is one of those places where you can use a subtle hint to extend your child’s learning… just show them the basic 2-D pyramid and let them build on that all they want. Then, once they’ve mastered the 2-D pyramid, just show them this basic concept of 3-D, and walk away and see what you come back to!)

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Wooden blocks and the shake table. We brought back our quake simulator from Earthquake week, so kids could build towers and make them crumble.

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Magna-tiles. We have a building toy out almost every week, so they’ve seen the Magna-Tiles before, but this was another nice opportunity to play with them. Some kids built houses or traditional 3-D towers. I also liked this two dimensional tower that one of our just-turned-three year olds built.

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Snack – grape and cheese sculptures. We used toothpicks to build towers, and then dismantled them and ate them! In the morning class, I saw lots of building happening. In the afternoon class, there were also cupcakes available, and thus not much attention paid to building with healthy food!

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Big blocks. It’s just fun to build with really big blocks – these are heavy and moving them around feels like an accomplishment. These towers were the one type we told them they were NOT allowed to knock down. We told them that they even had to be very careful when building up, because these blocks really hurt if a corner of one falls on your toes!

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Note, if you have access to big blocks (wood, foam, or cardboard) I love the idea from Not Just Cute of taping out a pattern of blocks on the wall and having kids match that pattern.

Tool of the Week: Our tool of the week was a building crane. We were able to buy a “like new” Hape Crane on Amazon for just $25, which made it a fun addition to the class. We put it out on a table with the book Cranes by Frisch, which is a nice preschool level introduction to the topic, much better for the purpose than Cranes by Becker, which goes into more detail than you need on all the different types of cranes. Kids could wind the crank up and down, bringing up a load… this activity would have been better if we’d placed the crane next to a tower of some sort, so kids could have better grasped the idea that you use a crane to raise material from the ground to the top of a building you’re working on.

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There’s a good Bob the Builder video on cranes here, and also ideas for a toothpick building challenge (which has nothing to do with cranes, but is fun anyway!) http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/bob15.pre.math.toothpick/bob-the-builder-toothpick-challenge/

Art Projects

Watts Towers. In the Los Angeles area, from the 1920’s to the 1950’s a man named Simon Rodia gathered trash and found objects (rebar, concrete, broken bottles, tiles, pottery shards, and so on) and built an iconic piece of folk art, now a national historic landmark, known as the Watts Towers. (Learn more and see a video at www.wattstowers.us/simon_rodia.htm and in this Wikipedia article.) During circle time, we read the story (see below) and then we built our own towers using scrap Styrofoam as a base, pipe cleaners and floral stem wire for the metal structure, plastic pony beads and adhesive foam shapes as the decorations.

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Note: one book says the artist often listened to opera music while working, particularly the singer Enrico Caruso. You could play opera music while kids worked on this project to enhance the experience.

Cityscapes. I wanted to do something with the idea of skylines: bright squares of light on tall skyscrapers. I thought that gluing on lots of little tiny squares of paper would be tiresome and messy, so I bought little post-it flags at the dollar store, and cut them in half so there was mostly sticky post-it, not the unsticky part that flaps up. Kids could cut out black buildings, glue stick them to a blue background, and then use the mini post-its to make the windows. It was good small motor practice for our little ones.

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Another idea I’ve since had, but haven’t tested. You might be able to create an open grid with masking tape on black cardstock, paint it with white or yellow, then remove the tape… where there wasn’t tape would be the “windows” on the building. I don’t think this would work in my class, because my 5 and under kids just don’t have enough tape skills to pull out and lay down a long straight line of tape.

Printing with Duplos. This was a process-based art activity, which we expected would be most popular with our youngest kids, but lots of the older ones also enjoyed it. I like using the table as a canvas with this sort of activity (as we did with the monster truck painting), because it allows a lot more freedom to spread out than small pieces of paper, plus it’s clear we’re doing a collaborative process, not creating individual products to take home.

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Math Activities

We put out some Unifix cubes that they could simply build towers out of, and added some “printables” we found online that gave examples of patterns they could build with the cubes. (To learn more about Unifix and building math skills, check out Measured Mom and this collection of counting activities.)

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We also put out a pattern machine, which allows kids to press buttons to raise or lower the button (making a sea of mini “towers”). This is just a fun manipulable as it lets kids really play with patterns – they might put them all up or all down, or every other row up, or make diagonal rows. It’s fun, but patterns are also a fundamental of math learning.

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Circle Time

Observations and Discoveries. We started with a discussion of what they had played with during discovery time, and what they had learned.

We asked them if building towers was challenging, and they said no, it was easy. And we asked if building a REALLY tall tower that doesn’t fall down was challenging, and they agreed that it was. We asked them why it was challenging. No answer. So, we said “I want to build a tower this high. Can I start at the top? Can I put my top block here and then put the other blocks under it? No? Why not?” They figured out the answer was gravity. We then demonstrated with blocks how building a tower is a battle with gravity, and we talked about how we need to have strong materials, and balance them carefully so they support each other. We illustrated that in general, a wider base makes a more stable tower.

Song. I found lyrics for a block building song online at Preschool Express. They say the lyrics were adapted from a poem by Peggy Sloan. There was no music. The first time I saw them, I made up a little tune I liked, but then I forgot what it was. The second time I looked at them, I realized I could make them fit the tune of the Final Jeopardy music. So, I played the tune for my class (which many kids and all parents recognized). Then I taught the words (which I had printed and posted) and we sang it through a few times.

Pick a block to put on top.
Careful now, don’t let it dro-o-o-o-op!
Higher, higher – up you go.
Take your time, just do it slow.
Balance one block, two blocks, three
See how tall your stack can be-e-e.
Pick a block to put on top.
Careful now – don’t let it drop!

Why do people build towers? I had found online, and printed, photos of: fire watch towers, lighthouses, castles with towers, water towers, grain silos, Manhattan, the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle. I asked the kids why people build towers, and I pointed out the pictures to give them some hints. We came up with these reasons: they let you see a long distance (good for fire watch and other lookouts), they can be seen from a long distance away (lighthouses help ships avoid rocky shores), they are easily defensible from attack, they use gravity to create water pressure, they’re a compact way to store a bulky thing like grains, they allow a lot of people to live in a small geographic area, and they’re pretty / distinctive and are good for landmarks.

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Book: We read Dream Something Big by Aston, which tells the story of the Watts Towers with beautiful collages by Roth.

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An alternative would be The Wonderful Towers of Watts by Zelver, illustrated by Lessac. I liked bringing this story in to class, because it brings in history (he started building almost a century ago), social sciences / culture (telling the story of an immigrant), art (the towers themselves AND the book’s illustrations of the towers), the idea of building beauty from other people’s junk, and dreaming big and creating something unique.

Journal: In circle, we introduced the idea of creating written documentation of our work. We told the kids “Build all the towers you want today. When you’ve built your very best tower, whether it’s your tallest, your prettiest, or your sturdiest, call over one of the teachers, and we’ll take a picture of it. We’ll also ask you to draw a picture of it, and write a description. And if you can’t write, just ask any grown-up to help you!”

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Only a few of the kids took us up on the idea of the journal, but we plan to bring it back more in future classes, because it helps the kids work on important skills: drawing from a model, writing, and describing their work. Also, keeping a record of a creation helps to imbue it with a little more sense of importance.

Closing Circle. We ended with reading Block City which is a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, written in 1883 about the joys of building with blocks and imagining faraway lands. The version our library had was illustrated by Wolff. Amazon stocks one illustrated by Kirk, and the description says it also includes follow-up activity ideas and a song.

More books

  • Zoe’s Tower by Rogers is a lovely book about a girl leaving home, going for a walk through the woods and the meadow to her special hideaway, then returning home. It is lovely, but really only tangentially about a tower, so we didn’t read it in class.
  • How Tall Is Tall?: Comparing Structures is a fine non-fiction book for ages 6 – 8 about measurement, which includes examples like a house is 6 children tall, an electrical tower is 6 houses tall, Eiffel tower is one Golden Gate bridge plus one wind turbine tall.
  • Changes, Changes by Hutchins is a wordless book which shows two dolls building a block house that ‘catches fire’, then re-building their blocks to be a fire engine to put out the fire, then re-building them to be a boat to sail away on all the water from the hose, etc. Nice for ages 3 – 5 as an illustration of imagination.
  • Meeow and the Big Box by Braun. Good for three year olds. Simple words and simple illustrations about a cat painting a box, cutting a hole in it, adding some props and turning it into a fire engine.
  • When I Build with Blocks. This book has been recommended to me, but I haven’t yet read it.
  • Who Swings the Wrecking Ball by Meinking was disappointing. It was really about its sub-title “working on a construction site” and only had the briefest mention of wrecking balls, when I was really wanting something focused on wrecking balls.

More Ideas

We pretty much always have more ideas than we can fit in, or some we just can’t make work logistically. Here’s a few:

Marshmallow Challenge: Just search for that phrase, and you’ll find LOTS of info on it. This is a team activity where the team is given 20 sticks of raw spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. (See a TED talk about it here and what it reveals about the nature of collaboration and why 6 year olds are better at it than adults.) Their job is to build the tallest possible structure to support the marshmallow on the top, using only those materials. We didn’t use this, simply because our 3 – 4 year olds just don’t have the tape and string skills, or the manual dexterity not to break the noodles. Here are some sample towers from the web.

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Stone Towers. If you’re out on the beach and find flat stones, this is a great nature art activity! It can also be brought inside into the classroom, check out the Curious Kindergarten to learn more. We didn’t have a chance to gather flat stones for this activity. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll add this, as I love bringing in natural materials.

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If you’re building stone towers, you could add in the book Bring Me a Rock! by Miyares. It is a story of an arrogant insect king who demands that other bugs bring him rocks. They build a tall tower that he reclines upon. But it’s unstable and starts to tip, and the littlest bug (who the king previously derided saves the day by adding a pebble shim to the bottom of the tower to stabilize it.

Cup Towers and Blow Darts: Kid’s Activity blog offers this great idea of loading a q-tip inside a straw for a blow dart gun. Then set up a pyramid of plastic cups. Then the kids blow through the straw to launch the q-tip and knock over the cups. Sounds like great fun. I just didn’t want to deal with germ sharing issues that come up when straws are involved.

Build a House of Cards:  photo credit: House of cards via photopin (license)

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Parents’ Role in Class / Learning

We had a new parent in class, and she asked for advice in how to participate / guide her child in class or in general. I gave her a very brief overview of the idea that in order to learn kids need a balance of formal “teaching”, guided learning, free play, and rest. I said that in class, if a child is doing free play and is engaged in an activity and learning and discovering, we can either 1) sit back and watch them 2) “play” on our own – doing an activity next to them, or 3) play along with them, but letting them guide the play.

When they hit the edge of their abilities and are ready to grow, we might 1) teach them a new thing to try (like the new way to stack a cup pyramid) and then sit back and let them explore, 2) make a suggestion for how to extend their activity (“I see you made a pattern with the Unifix cubes of red, green, red, green… could you make a pattern with black and white?”) or 3) ask them a question about what they are doing. I have a list of questions to ask to extend learning, and an article on play-based learning which includes discussion of the parent or teacher’s role in that.

Parents Play Along

I love that in my class, parents play too. Often they play with their kids, but sometimes when their kids are fully engaged in an activity, the parents know to let the kids play on their own and discover on their own. Parents take that as an opportunity to play too. Here are three creations from dads from this week’s class. (FYI, the structure on the right is the Space Needle in big blocks.)

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I think it’s fabulous when the parents play. First, because it makes class more fun. Second, it sets some examples for the kids of what things are possible with the materials. (Note, we need to be careful with this… it’s important that the parent is just playing, and NOT hinting to the any child that THEIR creation should look like the parent’s creation… we don’t want to hint that there is one right way of doing something and we don’t want to hint that their work is not as good as ours.)

But, most importantly, it sets an example for the child that even as an adult, you can have fun learning. When I was a kid, my mom was always learning new crafts and working on lots of projects she enjoyed. But my dad “played” more – he had a certain glee in experimenting and testing and discovering. I think that passion for learning in our parents helped keep the passion for learning aflame in me and my siblings. It’s especially good when we’re doing something new and figuring something out for the first time, because then our kids see us go through the same process of trial and error they do all the time.

Video to Preview or Review Lesson: There’s an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood called “O Builds A Tower.” (Available on Amazon Prime where it says it’s season 2 episode 8 or on Netflix where it’s listed under season 1.) Owl tries to build a tower, it falls down. Daniel encourages him to try again. He builds and it falls again, then they use a book for ideas for how to build it better. Great for kids age 3 – 6. (Also for young ones, there’s a Pingu Builds a Tower.)

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