Pulleys – Simple Machines Activities for Kids


In our kids’ STEM class, during our first session on Simple Machines, we covered Inclined Planes and Pulleys.

Key concept (the Science of Simple Machines): A pulley is a wheel that you loop a rope over. The key point of pulleys is that they redirect force. For example, instead of PUSHING a load UP, you can attach it to a rope and pulley above you and PULL DOWN. All pulley systems re-direct force. Some pulley systems make work easier, allowing a worker to use less force to move the object.

A demonstration:

  1. Tie a rope on something heavy (e.g. a basket of books, a sack of flour, or a 2-liter bottle of soda).
  2. Have a child lift the object off the ground by pulling up on the rope. They may only be able to lift it six inches or so off the ground – partially because it’s heavy, partially because their little arms can only reach so high.
  3. Then have them pick up the object itself and try to lift it high up above their head. It’s higher now, but wow it feels heavy to push it up.
  4. Then, string the rope up over the back of a chair or over a doorknob and have them pull down on it. It feels easier* to pull the rope down to lift the object than it did to push the object up with their hands. But they can only lift is as high as the pulley.
  5. Then throw a rope over the side of a slide platform (or around a railing on an open staircase: http://handsonaswegrow.com/simple-machines-for-kids-the-pulley/) and put a kid up there to reel it in. Look how high you can lift something when you use this tool!

Notice that none of those examples use an actual “pulley” from a store – they used a chair or doorknob, a slide platform or a stair railing. You’re getting pulley action just by wrapping a rope around an object and pulling.

You can also rig a “pulley” with other objects you may have:

If you want to buy a basic pulley set for your kids, I think it’s a great investment in a fun toy they can use in a variety of ways for a number of years. The ones we used in class are Block & Tackle Pulley Kit (also available from Magic Cabin Toys). They were good for our purposes, although I strongly recommend using utility cord from the hardware store rather than the thin string from the kit, because it will be gentler on children’s hands and less likely to jump off the pulley. The kit came with a book on activities to teach kids about pulleys, so that was nice. We also considered (but I haven’t tested) Pulleys Discovery Kit and American Educational 7-1607 Pulley Kit. Or, you could get a Clothesline Kit.

We’ve recently inherited some pulleys from a Delta Science Modules kit.


Pulley Explorations

Set up a variety of pulley systems… we had them all set up in one class session, but you could also do one each day over a series of classes. Or set one up on the playground or in the backyard, and leave it there for months of fun!

clothesline pulley

The clothesline. Requires two pulleys. Attach pulleys to anchor points. Take a rope, and tie one end to one handle on a basket, then loop it around both pulleys, and tie the other end to the other handle of the basket so you have a continuous loop with a basket mounted on it. (Or, if you prefer, you could just have one loop of clothesline and put a clothespin on it… you could then clip on messages to send back and forth.) Then you pull on either the top or the bottom cord to bring the basket from one end to the other. This is easy for even two year olds to do, but still plenty of fun for our elementary aged kids.

  • Some ideas for anchor points: at home, we tied one end to a high stair railing, and one end to a chair. In class, we tied one end to the slide platform and one end to a step ladder. Next year, I plan to set this up somewhere different in the classroom – both years, we’ve had it on the slide platform with several other pulley systems. This one doesn’t need the height of the slide platform, so moving it elsewhere will help to spread out the pulley activities to different spaces. It could just string from one chair to another anywhere in the classroom.
  • To really engage kids in this activity, make it a message delivery system! Our students LOVED sending messages to Teacher Cym.

fixed pulley preschool engineering

A fixed pulley. Requires one pulley, and a high place to anchor it. You anchor the pulley, tie a rope onto a bucket, run the rope up over the pulley and back down to the ground. A child standing on the ground pulls on the loose end of the rope (shown with the red arrow above, and it lifts the basket high.

  • This activity is more fun if the high anchor is next to somewhere a child can stand, like on a slide platform, or on a stair railing, or tree house or the top of a ladder. That way, one child on the ground, pulling the rope to raise the load up to their buddy on the high platform. Stuffed animals are great fun to use with this. The child at the bottom puts an animal in the basket and sends it up. The other child can send it back down in the basket. (And if they accidentally drop it, no problem.)

moveable pulley kids' science

Moveable pulley. Requires one pulley. (We didn’t use this in class.) Tie a rope up high, run it through a pulley with a load hanging on it, then bring the end of the rope up high. Pull the rope up to bring the load up. For the fixed pulley, you need two kids – one at the bottom to pull the rope, and one at the top to catch the load. With the movable pulley, one kid up top can do both jobs. (Of course, there’s no one below to load the basket up.)

compound pulley preschool STEM

Compound pulley. Requires two “pulleys” – it’s basically a combination of a moveable and a fixed pulley. Note: we didn’t have enough pulleys, so we cheated. Instead of attaching a pulley on the bucket, we just looped the rope through the handle of the bucket so it could run through it like it would run through a pulley. So, we tied the rope high, ran it through the bucket handle, then through a pulley up high, then left an end of the rope dangling down. The child could pull down on the rope. We just had this set up along a wall, and it didn’t engage children as much, because we didn’t have anything special to lift up in it, and they weren’t lifting things up to a buddy.


A basket on a track. We threaded a cord through the handles of the basket so the basket could slide back and forth on the cord. We tied one end of the cord up high (on a slide platform or a stair railing) and the other down low (on a step ladder or a chair.) This cord is represented by the yellow line above, and it forms the track the basket travels on. Then we mounted a pulley near the top end of that cord. We tied one end of a rope onto the basket, ran it up and over the pulley, and down to the ground. When a child pulled down on the rope, it pulled the basket up to the top of the cord. If the basket is heavy enough, then when the child lets go of the rope, the basket will slide back down to the bottom of the cord. Note: this is one system that still needs work. It was hard to get the basket to glide well on the cord, and hard to weight it just right so it could be pulled up and would then slide back down. Next year we MIGHT trade the basket for some kind of gondola on a track.

block-and-tackle kids' science and engineering

Block and Tackle. There are lots of variant on block and tackle. The simplest is shown above. Block and tackles reduce the amount of work required to lift a load, because they distribute the work over multiple pulleys.

Here are pictures from class. I apologize for their quality. It’s hard to get a good picture of pulleys and ropes!

Here’s the top of the clothesline (above) and the top of the basket on a track (below) where they attached to the slide platform. (Click on it to see a larger image.)


Here’s our compound “pulley” system, using the basket handle as the second “pulley.”


Here’s our block and tackle system, set up on a ramp.

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Understanding force: In step #4 of our initial demonstration, we said if feels easier* to pull down on it. This is just a body mechanics sensation not a measurement of actual total “work” needed. That step was basically setting up a fixed pulley system, and with a fixed pulley, you need to use the same amount of force, the pulley just redirects your force.

The moveable pulley reduces the amount of force needed to lift the basket. The compound pulley reduces it even more as does the block and tackle. This Explain that Stuff article does a nice job of explaining the basics of force and pulleys at an adult level.  The Wikipedia article on pulleys has good descriptions of block and tackles.

Other Activities

Math activity: Put weights into each of the baskets. Dominoes? Glass pebbles? Books? Depends on how strong your baskets, your rope, and your child are. Count how many of that objects you can lift with each type of pulley. Which helps you do the most work?

Water table: We built a wishing well from Duplos, thread, and a plastic cup. Note: this requires some specialty Duplo pieces which we got from our Duplo Simple Machines pack. A pulley lifts the bucket up out of the water. These are views of the full well, the front of the pulley, and the back. (Click for larger image.)

Duplo wishing well simple machine pulley img_20160923_142128707 img_20160923_142145005

Challenge Activity – Build a Flagpole System. We put out straws, binder clips, spools, bobbins, string, and clay, and encouraged children to try making a flag pole. We also offered a couple samples we had assembled. This project was over the head of most of our preschool aged kids, but our older kids and parents had fun with the challenge.

Art project: Flagpoles use pulley systems to raise the flag. We had the children decorate paper flags with markers. Next to this station, we put posters showing the flags of all 50 states, and most countries, to serve as inspiration for the activity.

Circle Time

In the morning class, we basically did the demonstration of pulleys exactly as described at the top of this post, using one child as our volunteer to demonstrate the work.

In the afternoon class, we did it a little differently. We set up a ramp (inclined plane) using a long plank propped up on a step ladder. At the bottom of the plank, we set a basket full of two stuffed elephants. We tied a rope on the basket, ran it through a pulley attached to the step ladder, and back down. (A fixed pulley.) We had the kids haul on the rope to pull the elephants up the slide. It was HARD work! They had to learn how to brace their bodies to pull hard (a good large motor skill to learn!) Some kids would just pull on the rope and keep backing up further and further. Some understood how to pull hand over hand, so they could stand in one place and alternate hands to pull with. (Pulling hand over hand is also a great large motor skill to learn.) They were putting so much force into their pulling that an adult had to brace the ladder so it wouldn’t tip over.

Then, while I read the day’s book (Raising a Bag of Toys: Pulley vs. Inclined Plane), my co-teacher re-rigged the pulley system so it was a block and tackle attached to the basket of elephants. After the story, we had them all try pulling the elephants up again. It was SO MUCH EASIER for the kids to do. (And no need for an adult to brace the ladder.) This was a fabulous hands-on experience that really helped them appreciate the power of the block and tackle.

Next year, I think in opening circle, we’ll do the initial demonstration of the pulley idea, and in closing circle do the block and tackle demo.

Follow-Ups to Extend Learning

Set up your own pulley systems at home. As I mentioned above, you don’t HAVE to buy pulleys to do this. You can use a rolling pin, spools or bobbins, or carabiners, or even just a rope looped over a stair rail, a bunk bed rail, or the back of a chair. Let your child play with them. (Some kids can get caught up for hours in the simple process of loading a bucket and hauling it up to a high platform.)

Here’s a fun craft to make with recyclables: build a winch system: http://littlebinsforlittlehands.com/

Song: I didn’t really find a song that was good for this age group to sing… but for the entertainment and amusement of adults or older kids, check out “The Sick Note / Why Paddy’s Not at Work Today”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=iA5RGI3zn20

Books: Here’s a full post on all the kids’ books about simple machines: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2017/03/01/books-about-simple-machines/

Videos about pulleys: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T7tGosXM58 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiarGb_LK10

For a great collection of pulley activities for kids, including recommended books, click here: http://iijuan12.hubpages.com/hub/gears-and-pulleys-simple-machines-lesson-plan. Here are a couple fun posts about how parents added pulley play to their backyards for hours or years of fun for their kids: http://handmadekidsart.com/backyard-pulley-engineering-kids/; http://happyhooligans.ca/a-bucket-and-a-rope/; and http://littlebinsforlittlehands.com/homemade-outdoor-pulley-play-idea-simple-machines/

Here is an image showing the four main types of pulleys, and here’s a PDF mini-poster you can print of all 6 types of pulley systems I describe.




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.

Inclined Planes – Simple Machines Activities for Kids


In our first session on Simple Machines, we covered inclined planes and pulleys.

The Big Idea: The key point to inclined planes is that moving a heavy load with one takes less force, but the load travels over a longer distance. You could give kids a heavy load and ask them to lift it straight up to a table, shelf, or platform on a slide. Then give them a short, steep ramp to push it up. Then give them a much longer, and not so steep ramp. Which is easiest/the least work?

The way we illustrated this was with a step ladder, a stuffed elephant, and a board. “Can this elephant jump up to the top platform on the ladder? No! Could you lift an elephant up to a high platform? No. What if we put this steep ramp here? Now can it do it? Yes, but it’s a really steep hill. What if we put this long, not-so-steep board here? Now it’s much easier. The elephant has to walk much further, but it’s an easy walk.”

Class Activities

How Much Work? Tie buckets to toy cars. Set up a shallow ramp by propping a board on some books or blocks. Drape the bucket over the end of the ramp. Drop pennies or marbles into the bucket. How many pennies does it take for the weight to pull the car to the top of the ramp? Now set up a steeper ramp. How many pennies (i.e. how much work) to pull the car to the top? This idea and photo on the left are from the book Simple Machines by Deborah Hodge. The other photo is our from class.

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Note: Learning Resources has a Force & Motion Activity Set that lets kids experiment with pendulums and inclined planes. I have not seen it, but the pictures look like the kit provides materials you could use for this activity. I personally prefer making experiments from materials everyone has in their home rather than buying special equipment, because that makes it seem more do-able to replicate at home, but you may prefer pre-fab.

Art and Experience: We had kids decorate their own inclined planes (wooden paint stirrers or long wood shims). You could use acrylic paints, or markers and bingo daubers. We used Chalk Markers which worked beautifully on the wood (they’re designed to wash off of non-porous surfaces like glass, and warn you not to use on porous surfaces because they won’t wash off – it was exactly what we wanted!)

Then they could take their ramps over to the testing table, prop them up on stacks of books or blocks, and roll cylinder blocks down them. It was a great way to test the idea that the steeper the ramp, the faster they roll. (Notice in the picture below the barriers we set up to keep them on the table! We hadn’t done that in advance, and our dowels kept escaping, but luckily a dad jumped in to solve the problem of them rolling across the floor.)



Egg Roll: Another way ramps can be used is to make a trip downwards more gentle. A great way to illustrate this would be to drop an egg into a pan from 6 – 12″ high. It would break. Ask: how could I lower this in more gently? Then use a non-steep ramp to slide it gently down into the pan. We didn’t do this in class, because we didn’t want a bunch of broken eggs! But it’s a fun opportunity to do in your own kitchen the next time you’re making scrambled eggs. Or, you can do what we do when we test the egg drop challenge: make a “tester egg.” Take a plastic easter egg and put a bouncy ball inside of it. If you treat it reasonably gently, it won’t break open – just like a real egg. But if it has a hard impact, it will break – like a real egg but without the gooey mess.

Sensory Tub: We had a conveyor belt toy, and kids could crank the wheel (another simple machine) to create a pulley action to move rice up an inclined plane.

You could also just offer ramps to pour rice down: try using some pieces of bamboo cut into a gutter shape or paper towel tubes cut in half lengthwise.




Tinkering Project: We had our DIY marble run set up to explore.


Free Play: Our toy garage has inclined planes (ramps) to drive cars up and down, and an elevator on a pulley (two simple machines in one toy).


Big Motor: We have a small slide (inclined plane) we set up indoors. We also had two wedge shaped mats and one triangle mat. Kids set up obstacle courses, and discovered that it’s much easier to climb up the non-steep wedge than up the steep triangle.IMG_20150926_141921592

Outdoor Time: Children played on the slide, and rode bikes up and down the hills. We pointed out that it was harder to ride up a hill than ride on the flat, but also how much faster they go when they’re going down the hill.

Another great experiment (especially if you read Raising a Bag of Toys in circle time) would be to challenge kids to lift a load up to the top of the slide platform. You could test both pulleys and inclined plane options.

Snack: You could offer graham cracker ramps, and grapes to roll down them.

Books: We read The Fort on Fourth Street: A Story About the Six Simple Machines, and Raising a Bag of Toys: Pulley vs. Inclined Plane. Find info on other Simple Machines books here.

Song: We reprised our Simple Machines theme song.

Follow-Up Activities:

In the week after class, parents can ask their child to notice inclined planes in their world. The easiest example to show is a moving van or delivery truck: instead of standing next to the truck’s platform and lifting a box high up onto a platform, the worker walks up a ramp – it’s a longer distance, but less work. They can help their children notice ramps and hills: “This is a steep hill. It’s hard to climb up.” “Be careful riding your bike down that hill. It will make you go faster.”

My four-year-old wanted to move a big box up the stairs this week – it was big enough to slide up because it spanned a couple treads – and he talked a lot about how having the inclined plane helped him move big heavy things.

Music / Video: Sid the Science Kid has an episode about inclined planes called My Slide. It includes the song “Push it Up the Inclined Plane” which you can find here.

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.

Towers, take 2

We started our Family Inventor’s Lab class in March of 2015. We then met for the full school year 2015-16, and have now begun a new year. We will have the chance to re-visit and improve upon many of the themes we have done before.

I will be updating each of my blog posts from last year, so I have a “definitive” and comprehensive post on that theme. These are all linked from my home page.

I will also some times write supplemental posts on: How is this year different from last year, and why?

This week, we re-visited our Towers theme in the Engineering unit. (Read all the details here for this year. FYI, here’s last year’s post.)

We kept one of our most popular activities, the red solo cup stacking. But, we moved it off the table and onto a rug. This was all about noise… hearing those red plastic cups crashing down on a hard table and a hard floor all of class was really acoustically overstimulating for everyone. Moving that to a rug was so much better!

We also found itty bitty plastic cups (shot glass size) at the dollar store – 24 cups for a dollar, so we brought those in as a fun variation.

Last year, we used blocks from a Jenga game as just blocks to build with on the floor and knock down with a wrecking ball. This year, we offered them as the game of Jenga and a few kids had an absolutely fabulous time playing Jenga with their parents.

We had giant wooden blocks last year, which are fun to build with. But, they’re VERY heavy. They’re not a good match for tower week, because when the kids are focused on building the tallest possible tower, they run the risk of having a big pile of very heavy blocks land on them. Ow!

But, we still wanted a big motor, tall tower activity. So, I saved up all my family’s cereal boxes for a couple months, and then took them apart, flipped them inside out so they were plain brown boxes, and we used those as blocks. (Tip: use a hot glue gun to re-assemble! Faster and more effective than tape.) We knocked them down with a new pendulum / wrecking ball we built.

Our last change was for our Watts Tower project. Last year, I had a bunch of styrofoam sheets that had come as packaging. I used those as bases. This year, I didn’t have any, so we built on paper plates, using playdough blobs to hold the arches up. The advantage was that kids who didn’t want to build a pipe cleaner sculpture could still have fun with the playdough. Disadvantage was that not all the kids could get the playdough to support their pipe cleaner arches in a standing position.

Towers: Engineering for Kids

STEM activities for preschoolers

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.

[Note: to see a bigger version of any photo in this post, just click on it!]

Why this is a great theme for a kid’s STEM class

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 every child 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 Inventors’ class, but is also a challenge that grows with a child. Our 6 and 7 year olds were challenged by experiencing different materials and learning how to stack them to engineer the highest and sturdiest tower. They really explored the ways to make the towers more stable. (As we talked about in circle time.) We also see lots of parents and grandparents get engaged in the tower building challenge. Kids love it when the parents play along!

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!

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 columns 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, don’t fill the table surface up with piles of materials… put the container of supplies on a chair next to the table to free up more table space for the actual building.]

IMG_20160220_122245839 Preschool Engineering - Build Towers with TP rolls and cardboard.

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 (or domino style chains) 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: Last year, we used Jenga blocks as a building tool. We built towers with Jenga, then knocked them down with a home-made pendulum – a tennis ball inside a 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 because its target and its effect was very similar to the wrecking ball and they liked the wrecking ball better.


Jenga game: This year, we offered the Jenga game on a table, with some chairs set at it. In each class session, we had a couple kids who really enjoyed playing Jenga with a parent – stacking a tall tower, and carefully sliding blocks out and stacking them on top, trying hard not to knock it down.


A new pendulum plan – cardboard box towers: This year, we took an idea from Irresistible Ideas of tying the pendulum to the rafters, and using it to knock down tall towers of cereal boxes. We didn’t have rafters, so we built a PVC frame. For our wrecking ball, we wanted something that was heavy enough it would knock down the boxes, but not so hard that it would hurt if it hit someone. (So, a baseball in a nylon was not a good idea, we thought. And we weren’t sure the tennis ball in a nylon would be heavy enough. We used a one-liter plastic bottle, filled 2/3 of the way with water.) We’d set the water bottle on a platform (OK, a recycling bin turned upside down) while kids built a tower under the PVC frame, then they could pick up the water bottle, and let it swing. This was popular with a wide variety of ages. The older kids and adults liked building the towers. The younger kids liked knocking them down.

img_20160917_110559202 pendulum1 pendulum2

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 really 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 last year, we made an exception to allow for building the tallest possible towers:

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This year, we just did the activity on the floor. This had the additional advantage that it is MUCH quieter when then cups crash down on a rug – the clattering crashes on the table and the floor last year were really loud.

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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And then we keep exploring from there:

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Mini plastic cups: I also found little plastic shot glasses at a dollar store, 24 for a buck. So we added those in this year, with a toy monster truck to knock them down.


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


Foundations. This year, we put sand and blocks in the sensory table, and encouraged kids to try building towers on the flat ground versus with the bottom block buried in the sand for stability.

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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. We used toothpicks, grapes, and cheese 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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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.

IMG_20160220_110647891 crane

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 pipe cleaners and Floral Wire for the metal structure, plastic pony beads and adhesive foam shapes as the decorations. Last year, we used  Styrofoam for the bases. This year, we used paper plates, and playdough.

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IMG_20160220_110605353    IMG_20160220_144108856  watts2

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. Last year, I tried having them cut black buildings to put on a blue background and mini post-its for the windows. (Peeling mini post-its off the pad is good small motor practice for little ones. Buy your post-its at the dollar store – the office supply stores charge way too much.) It was an OK project, but not a hit. This year, I found a picture of Seattle’s skyline in silhouette. I printed it as a large mural and placed it on the wall for kids to decorate with mini post-its. No one did anything with it, but I think it was just a bad / invisible location.

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Another idea I’ve had, but haven’t tested. You could 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 haven’t used 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.) This year, we placed these on a table with a mirrored box which created fun reflections.

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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 then illustrated that in general, a wider base makes a more stable tower. We took a stack of ten square Duplos. Showed how easy it was to tip over. Then we showed a stack of ten Duplos in a pyramid shape (4 in a row on the bottom, then 3, then 2, then 1). Much harder to tip over if you press from the sides, but still easy if you push on the flat wall. Then we showed ten Duplos in a 3 dimensional pyramid (a “rectangle” of 6 on the bottom, then a line of 3 blocks, then one on top) – much harder to knock over.

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.



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: Last year, 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!”


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. Not an interesting read-aloud.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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.


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)


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.)

Explore More – “Homework”  We told parents in our class – this is an EASY theme to play with more at home. Just put out any supply your child can build a tower with. Challenge them to build the tallest tower they can – show them how to use a ruler or measuring tape to see how tall it is, and how to record their results in a building journal. Challenge them to build a stable tower that is really hard to knock down. Test the design with a home-made pendulum or a pull-back car (the ones that you pull back to wind them up, then release and they drive forward.)

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.

Parents in a Kids’ Class

I teach a Saturday class for families with kids age 3 – 7, called Family Inventor’s Lab. The parents are required to attend class one day a month when we have our parent education session, and they’re required to work in the classroom once a month. On other days, they can choose to drop off or they can choose to stay and play. Many stay and play.

How Parents Can Support Learning in Class

In order to learn, kids need a balance of: formal “teaching”, guided learning, free play, and rest. (Learn more: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2014/09/25/balanced-learning-methods/)

Free play: In class, we have several “stations” around the room with activities for kids to try. Some will test out everything in the room, and others will spend the full time doing one activity. Both choices are totally OK with us!!! We figure children spend the most time where they’re learning the most. So, if a child  is engaged in an activity and learning and discovering, parents can either 1) sit back and watch them 2) “play” on their own – doing an activity next to their child – making their own project, or 3) play along with them, but letting them guide the play. (I prefer that parents not spend a lot of class time on their phone… paying attention and participating in class shows the child that the class is fun and valuable… paying attention to your phone shows the child that the important and fun things are on the screen.)

Guided learning: When kids hit the edge of their abilities and are ready to grow, parents might 1) scaffold: notice what they’ve been doing, then teach them a new concept to test out (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.

Formal teaching: Circle time is when my co-teacher and I do our formal teaching. We ask the parents that are there to participate. If the parents pay attention to the story, and sing along with the songs, it encourages the children to do so. Having a role model for appropriate group participation really helps!

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 our Towers class. (FYI, the structure on the right is the Space Needle in big blocks.) An aunt and a grandma also did lots of fun work at the Watts Tower project, but I unfortunately didn’t catch any pictures of that.

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I think it’s fabulous when the parents play. First, because it makes class more fun for all of us. It’s Saturday, we should all be having fun!!

Second, parents’ work is generally more inventive or more sophisticated than children’s. Taking a project to a higher level, 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. My dad also had an on-going collection of projects – bodywork on the car, building cabinets in the kitchen… But my dad “played” more than mom – 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 parents are doing something new and figuring something out for the first time, and even when parents make mistakes, because then our kids see us go through the same process of trial and error they do all the time.

Taking It Home

When parents spend time in the classroom, they get to see all our activities in person, and see which ones most engage their children. Sometimes they decide to do those activities at home – we have a few specialty toys and building materials we use that parents choose to buy for home, but as much as possible, we try to use household materials and recycled goods that they have easy and free access to. Parents will also sometimes take ideas we used in class and take them to a higher level at home, where they can work one-on-one with their child.

Participating in class also means that they hear the concepts we teach in circle time, and can take those home as well – in the next week, they can help their children notice where those concepts appear in their day-to-day life…they can point out the moving truck with the inclined plane ramp, and the dolly on wheels to make work easier to do. They can help their child notice a problem / challenge, and ask them if they can invent something to fix it. Reinforcing the class concepts in multiple environments really helps the child to grasp them.

The Ever-Evolving Adventure Playground

On Sunday, our Inventors’ Lab class did a field trip to the Adventure Playground on Mercer Island, WA. (Learn all about it here: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/08/28/adventure-playground/)

We were last there on August 18, so we had the chance to compare… When kids are allowed to freely dismantle and re-build and add to the existing structures, what changes over the course of the month?

Last month, we worked a lot on adding a handrail to a “bridge” that was just one 8-inch wide, 8-foot long plank 4 feet off the ground, and on building a swing. (Learn about those processes here: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/08/28/problem-solving/)


When we arrived this time, our swing was long gone. The long branch we used for a handrail had been sawed in half. Part of the handrail was still there, although the rope had slipped, so it was no longer tied up at handrail lever. But, a handrail was no longer really needed, because where that single plank bridge had been, there was now a wide plywood platform and a ladder that had been laid horizontal to form a bridge.




“Our” platform had also gained a cool climbing wall, another ladder, some metal railings underneath, and a slide.


That yellow slide may look familiar… In our last visit, we’d seen it attached to one rickety platform, and observed a child take it off that platform and move it somewhere more stable (platform #2), and now it had moved on to platform #3.

Platform #2 had also changed – it had lost one whole section, plus a step on a high ladder – I think it had been cannibalized for other projects.

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Building at the Adventure Playground in the short-term can be about creating a “product”. Deciding to build a swing and working hard till it’s done, and then having the great satisfaction that comes from creating that product. But, over time, the playground is definitely about Process – it continuously evolves and changes, as each child brings in their own ideas and creates their own plan.

Yesterday, we were there and building for two hours, but ended up not leaving a product behind. My husband set the ambitious goal of building a bridge between two platforms that were about 20 feet apart with just one tree between them for vertical support. We worked and worked, and had a connecting bridge.


But we simply couldn’t find a way to stabilize it enough. If a child had tried to cross it, it might have been OK…. or it might have collapsed. We didn’t feel it was safe or responsible to leave it there. So, in the end, our last ten minutes there was about tearing down everything we’d built over the last few hours. Our son was a little disappointed that we weren’t leaving a mark behind this time, but was easily cheered by the promise of potato chips in the car as a reward for all our work.




What is an Inventor?

This year, for our first session of Family Inventor’s Lab, we did an orientation to the class, tried a wide variety of hands-on STEM activities, and talked about Inventors.

Opening Circle


We asked the kids “What is an Inventor?” A hand shoots up – “It’s someone who invents things.” We asked what “invents” means. “They make inventions.”

With a little more work, we got to the idea that an inventor is someone who creates something new that has never existed before, or is someone who takes someone else’s invention and makes it better in some way.

We talked about why people invent. I said “Imagine I’m walking in the woods, and I see an apple tree, and I really want an apple… but [I stretch my arm up as high as I can] I just can’t reach one. What do I do?” One child suggested jump, so I mimed jumping as high as I can – still can’t reach it on my own. Another child suggested a ladder. I agreed that using a tool like a ladder would be a big help. Another suggested using a stick to knock it down. Another suggested a cutter – he’d been apple picking and they’d used a cutting tool mounted on a long stick.

I summarized with “When you have a problem you want to fix, like you really want that apple, you can use a tool to reach it, or invent another way to get it. So, inventors are trying to solve problems or make something easier to do.”

If you had more time you could take this further. For example, ask “Imagine you were flying kites with friends, but your kite didn’t fly as high as you wanted it to. Could you figure out a way to make a kite differently so it would fly higher?” Or “If your friends liked to go sledding and have races, and they always beat you in the race, would you want to make a better slide that was faster so you could beat them? Could you invent a faster sled?”


mattieWe then read a story, Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by McCully. Things I really like about this book: it features a female inventor. It talks about her design process, with illustrations showing the sketches she made (really, they’re drawings by the book illustrator, except the patent application drawings near the end of the book, which are Knight’s actual drawings). It starts with her as a girl, making toys for her brothers, which helps our students connect with her. She then builds kites that fly higher and sleds that slide faster than the ones the other kids have, goals which our students can relate to.

Then, when she’s a 12 year old girl working in a textile mill, one of her friends is injured when a shuttle flies off a loom and she invents a guard to protect from this happening again – an important invention that is added to every loom in every mill in Manchester, NH. The kids were impressed that a kid could do that. She is then working in a factory that makes paper bags that are folded and pasted shut at one end. But, there were a few problems with these bags. [I took a break from reading and did a demo with a simple flat paper bag – when I set groceries in it, it tips over, it doesn’t stand by itself. When I put in bulky items, it rips.] So, Mattie set about trying to invent a better bag with a flat square bottom. She sketched ideas, then made paper models, then built a wooden prototype… it didn’t work right the first time, so she tinkered with it, and then cranked out thousands of paper bags. [I took out a brown paper lunch bag, and demo’ed how it stands up by itself and doesn’t break so easily. The physical demonstration really helped my students grasp the point.] The book ends saying that we still use this bag design to this day.

What I don’t like… it’s just way too long for a group read-aloud with my age group of 3 – 7 year olds. I re-wrote the story in my own words, printed that and taped it to the back of the book, and I read those words as I flipped through the pages to show the pictures. (Note: I did explain to the kids that i had done that, because I knew the readers would notice.) My version had about one third the words that were in the original.

Further Discussion

I then talked about the steps in the  inventing process.

  • First you come up with a problem that needs solved or a challenge you want to meet. (examples: reaching the apple, making a faster sled, making a guard so the shuttle can’t fly off the loom).
  • Then you brainstorm ideas for how to solve it. Like how Mattie drew ideas in her sketchbook.
  • Then you start building. Sometimes you can’t tell if something will work until you actually start to work. Mattie built paper models and a wooden prototype.
  • Then you test it – sometimes it works the first time, but usually you have to adjust it, test again, adjust and test again, till you get it just right.

We had worked on pompom puffers in class that day, and I asked the kids about what that process was like and whether they’d had to do some fixing and tweaking to get it just right.

The Inventors’ Lab Theme Song

We decided to write a theme song for the class, about the process of inventing. It’s to the tune of a sea shanty called Bully in the Alley (tune here.)

Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Way, hey, building and inventing
Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

There’s a challenge that I want to do
Way, hey, building and inventing
Here’s the process that I will go through
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

I brainstorm ideas from which to choose
Way, hey, building and inventing
I look for supplies that I can use
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

Now it’s time to build my innovation
Way, hey, building and inventing
As I work I get more inspiration
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

I test it out to see what’s wrong and then
Way, hey, building and inventing
I fix and tweak and do the test again
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

My work is done, the challenge has been met
Way, hey, building and inventing
I think it’s my best invention yet.
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Way, hey, building and inventing
Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Here at the Inventor’s Lab.

Class Activities

You could choose a wide variety of science themed activities for this topic. (See all my other posts for 100+ ideas for activities.) Because we do 30 weeks of class a year, we’re already using lots of great activity ideas somewhere else in the class year. So, for this session, we chose some of our favorites from other weeks much later in the year, and we’ll reprise them when their topics roll around, but we also had a few activities that just didn’t quite fit any theme, and this was our chance to fit them into the class. Here’s what we did:

Pompom Puffer

img_20160902_183300355This is a fun project where you cut a circle from cardstock, cut a hole in the center, roll it into a cone shape, and tape to a bendy straw. Then you set a pompom in the cone, and blow through the straw, trying to keep the pompom afloat in the air over the cone without escaping. (I got the idea online somewhere, and I try to always track and credit my sources, but I lost track of where this idea came from. 😦  If anyone knows, please note source in the comments!) Here is a PDF with my directions and a template for the circle


Wind Tube

wind-tubeLast year, we built our own Wind Tube, based on directions from the Exploratorium. It’s a clear tube mounted above a fan. When you place really lightweight things in the tube, like a scarf, they blow right out the top. If you place a heavy thing, it sits on the fan. The most fun are the mid-weight items – the plastic ball that’s too heavy to float, but will roll round and round in circles on the fan, or the paper cup that will float a few feet up but never quite escape the tube. It’s a great deal of fun to play with for everyone from toddlers to adults. See videos of the tube in action: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2015/02/02/wind-tube/

We’ll bring it back to class when we study wind and flight.

Balloon Pump and Release
Exactly what it sounds like: kids use a balloon pump to inflate a balloon, then they let it go and it flies wildly around the room, then they repeat. One of the easiest possible and cheapest activities we know of. It’s always a hit. We’ll bring it back in winter quarter when we talk about states of matter, because we’ll talk about how the balloon traps an invisible gas (air) and when the gas escapes, it propels the balloon. Using the balloon pump requires some good motor coordination, so it’s a physical skill learning experience for our littler ones.

Expanding Ivory Soap

soapI got this idea (and the picture at the right) from Happy Hooligans. You can also search online for “Ivory Soap microwave” and see lots more pictures and descriptions of the process. Take a bar of Ivory soap (or half a bar). Put it on a microwave safe plate. Have the children feel how hard it is, and observe its size and shape.

Microwave for 1 – 2 minutes. Watch it as it bubbles and puffs and expands, to fill the microwave. When you open the door, it will deflate, like a soap soufflé. When it cools, have the kids feel it (it’s fluffy), and observe its size and shape. Explain the science behind it – there’s lots of air in Ivory soap, and as you heat it, the air expands, pushing the soap up and outward.

Tool of the Week – Egg Beater

We have a featured tool every week. The goal is just to introduce a wide variety of tools, and let kids begin practicing the motor skills needed to use the tool, and start gaining the understanding of when/where the tool might be used. This week’s tool was whisks and egg beaters. At the beginning of class, we had them out next to a tub of water. After we did the soap experiment, we told the kids to crumble up the soap foam into the water, and then use the whisks and beaters to beat it till it made lots of foamy bubbles. img_20160910_131111443_hdr bubbles

Sorting Activity

We do a lot of sorting activities. Sometimes the littlest kids just play with the items instead of sorting, and that’s OK too, as they’re learning and exploring. But, for the older kids, learning to observe, categorize and sort is a key skill for math and science thinking. Often it’s a simple binary sort – everything is either A or B. Sometimes we add in another  layer for older kids, encouraging them to sort by multiple criteria: putting in order by size, or sorting the same objects by color and then by size.

img_20160910_131203308Today’s sort was natural vs. man-made (aka shaped by nature or invented by a person.) Lots of the items were very obvious – a few were intentionally challenging – like the beach glass that looked like a weathered translucent scallop shell and the clear quartz that looked like glass.

Math Activity – Pattern Machine

pattern-machineThere’s a great website called Talking Math with Kids. He sells a product called the Pattern Machine (picture is from his site). You press the button and it pops up. Press it again and it stays down. It’s fun for even little kids to do, and it good for fine motor skill building. But it’s also a mathematical thinking tool. Kids use it to create and recognize patterns, which just seems like fun to them, but is also training the brain. They may try something like all buttons up, or every other button up, or all the buttons in every other row up, or all the buttons on the outside edges up or they might use it to make letter or number shapes with. Any way they use it is fine with us – it’s a process oriented activity.

Spin Art on the Record Player

img_20160910_131134635We have an old kids’ record player that we use to make art on – put a paper plate on the spindle, turn the record on, and start to draw. We’ve done this for years. And I only just realized that this may these children’s only experience with a record player…

Home-Made Marble Mazes and Tumble Trax

img_20160825_163921585I made some simple mazes with cardboard box lids, craft sticks and glue gun. Learn more about them in this post. I put a sign with them encouraging parents to try making their own at home.We also put out a set of Tumble Trax Magnetic Marble Run, which is one of my favorite marble run toys, and quite affordable. We have an Oil Drip Pan we use for a magnetic surface.


And More!

We filled the sensory tub with rice, beans, magnetic items, non-magnetic items, and magnet wands, so children could run the wands through the tub, and see what they picked up and what they left behind.

In the water tub, we had water beads, fish nets, and a strainer for gathering up the water beads. The fun part was that some of the water beads were clear, and were invisible when floating in the water. So, kids would use the nets to scoop up the four colored beads they saw, and discover that they had caught 6 or 7 beads total.

For imaginary play, we had a puppet theater out with puppets – just the woodland puppets we had in the closet. it would be great fun to have inventor puppets in the future – an Albert Einstein, a Ben Franklin, and so on… I’ll have to think on that more.

We had the block cabinet open for kids to build anything they wanted. We placed a few large plastic animals with them and encouraged kids to build a home for the animals. (Sometimes just placing another item with blocks can prompt more active block play as it inspires ideas.) We had a few students who did some serious work with the blocks, then did a great job of helping us put them all away!

blocks2 blocks1

Closing Circle

We ended with a reprise of the chorus from our Inventors’ Lab theme songs, then we gave a preview of upcoming weeks – next week when we build towers, and future weeks when we’ll learn about Simple Machines.

We described the most basic idea about simple machines – that they make work easier to do, and we briefly introduced the machines, then taught this Simple Machines song, which we’ll revisit over the next few weeks: www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1Fhs8pXGxM

We finished by reading The Most Magnificent Thing by Spires, which is a delightful story of a little girl who has in her head the image of the most magnificent invention. But she builds, and hammers, and tweaks and so on and she has lots of failed inventions. And she gets really mad. But then she goes for a walk, calms down, and gets back to work until she succeeds in making the most magnificent thing!


On the shelf, we had lots of our favorite books from our list of Best Books about Inventors to help inspire our little learners.

Follow-Up Activities

Talk to your child about inventions – as you go through your days, talk about the tools you use (phone, computer, microwave, coffee maker and so on) and share what you know about how tasks were done before this invention and how this invention makes it easier. We’ve all seen lots of technological innovation during our lives – talk about some of your experiences with changing and improving technology.

Encourage your child to invent…. when there’s a “problem” in your day, encourage them to brainstorm and test lots of ways to solve that problem. My son was having some challenges zipping his new backpack, so we figured out how to attach a metal ring to the zipper pull that’s easier to grab hold of. What challenges can your child solve this week?

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.