Wind and Flight – STEM Activities for Kids


Today’s themes were Wind, Balloons, and Flight. These could be combined in one session, or split into two or three classes.


Question of the Day: What can the wind blow around?

Sorting activity – Can the Wind Move It? On a big table, or on the floor, put out ways to create a breeze, such as bellows, paper fans, balloon pumps, hair dryers and straws to blow through. Then put an assortment of objects out. Have children try blowing the objects around the table. For young kids (age 3 – 4), put out two bowls to sort into, labeled “Blows in the Wind” and “the Wind Can’t Move It”. Put out heavy objects the wind obviously can’t move, and light ones that it can. img_20161119_135439041For older children, put out three bowls “Easy to Move with Wind”, “Hard to Move with Wind” and “Didn’t Move” and a wide variety of objects. They’ll discover that, in general, lightest weight things are easiest to move, heavier things are harder, and heavy things don’t move. But, the strength of the wind matters, and the shape of the object matters. (source)

Playing with Fans: Set up a fan and put scarves or streamers or balloons or other lightweight objects out so the children can hold them up, see them blow in the wind, then let go and watch them flutter away. Optional: put out objects that are too heavy for the air from the fan to lift so they can discover that.

We also have some specialized equipment that we used in this class:

  • the scarf cannon (click on that link to learn how to build your own). We aimed the tube straight up at the ceiling so the scarves shot straight up and out, or you could float a lightweight plastic ball on the current of air.


  • the wind tube (see video below. Tutorial for how to build one is here). There’s endless fun in testing out various items in the tube: we tested paper cups – didn’t float on the air current, but would roll around in circles on the surface of the fan; snow cone cups will float – if you turn them upside down; scarves shoot out the top, then flutter to the ground, making them fun to catch; we have a little plastic Frisbee that never escapes – it just bangs around inside the tube. My favorite is food trays (what we call “snack boats”). Not only do they float on their own – but even better, you can put toys inside of them that are too heavy to float, but the boat catches the air so well that it can carry those toys up.
      • We also had kids build paper “wind tube flyers” using designs we found at the Orlando Science Museum.

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  • Elefun Game – we found this at a garage sale. It works sort of like a mini wind tube, but it’s a REALLY weak fan, so it barely floats out the fabric butterflies


Craft – Sailboats. We made sailboats using corks from wine bottles, rubber bands, popsicle sticks and stiff plastic sails. Read about my design process and see the “how to” tutorial here.

Water table: We filled a water table, then gave each kid a straw (labelled with their name) so they could use the straw to blow their sailboat around the water.


Building Project: We also put out the Duplo pinwheel kit, which encourages children to try following directions to build a pre-designed project, and a few toy pinwheels for children to explore.

img_20161119_154156496Group art project: The blustery day collage. Teacher Cym painted a large picture of a tree with some swirls and spirals to indicate the wind blowing across it. The kids glued on dried leaves, feathers, other things that would swirl in the wind. [option: you could ask the children things like – “should we glue a brick on the picture? Or rocks? No? Why not?” and explore the idea of what blows in the wind and what does not.]

Easy crafts: Teach how to accordion fold a fan out of paper. Cut a spiral of paper so it becomes a wind spinner. (we tested these in the wind tube too…)(

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Books to read: We read and Face the Wind by Cobb, which is one of the best non-fictions for this 3 – 7 year old age group that I have read! (After reading it, I looked up all the other books by Cobb, and added many to our curriculum.) Just a really nice combination of readable text, nice illustrations, clear concepts, examples that are familiar to kids, and ideas for experiments kids can do. (I did skip a few of these ideas when reading out loud, both for sake of time, and because it can be hard for kids to resist wanting to try every experiment they head a book describe, and we weren’t going to be doing all of them.

Other options: Wind by Bauer is a simple non-fiction book about wind. Feel the Wind by Dorros also looks like a good option. Mouse’s First Spring, or one of the many story books out there about things getting swept away in the wind. Other ones I’d like to check out include Like a Windy Day and the Fantastic Flying Books.

Balloons: The only balloon activity we did in this class session was that we got helium balloons, and we tested to see how much weight the balloons could lift. There’s lots more balloon activities in this post.


Kites: We built simple kites with paper and bamboo skewers. This is definitely an adult-assistance project for kids. We then tried flying them outside, but didn’t have enough wind that day. (Here are directions for lots of kites… kite

Paper Airplanes! You can put out books with ideas of how to fold them, or print designs from, or create a template where all they need to do is fold along the lines. Or just put out paper, and let the parents re-live their childhood hobbies.

Gliders. Last year, we built gliders with straws, tape, and wings made from recycled cardboard. Kids were encouraged to explore what size and shape of wings yielded the longest flight. We didn’t have any great successes with this. We may try again someday.

Recommended Books to Read:

      • Rosie Revere, Engineer by Beaty. Rosie dreams of being an engineer, and builds cool stuff out of trash, but then her uncle laughs at her and she stops inventing till Aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter in her later years) comes to visit. They build a heli-o-cheese-copter. It only flies for a moment and Rosie is discouraged, till Aunt Rose says “it’s the perfect first try! This great flop is over, it’s time for the next”. They keep building together. It’s exactly the kind of book I like to read in our Family Inventors class to inspire kids to be creative inventors.
      • Violet the Pilot is a fabulous book about a girl who tinkers in the family junkyard and makes fabulous flying machines and flies to the rescue.  I love this book too, it’s just a little long for circle.
      • I am Amelia Earhart is a nice biography of a girl/woman who loved to fly. Starts with a child building a cart to fly, then seeing an air show, then learning to fly. Writing style and comics style illustrations appeal to 4 – 7 year olds.
      • The Wondrous Whirligig: The Wright Brothers’ First Flying Machine
        by Glass. A story of Wilbur and Orville Wright, told in a way that kids in grade 1 – 3 could engage in / relate to. It tells of them as children and a failed whirligig flying machine, It’s based loosely on stories of their childhood. Too long for our class of 3 – 7 year olds, but my 5 year old son enjoyed having it read to him.
      • Humphrey, Albert, and the Flying Machine  by Lasky &Manders. The story begins at Princess Briar Rose’s party, just before she and all her court fall asleep (i.e. become the story of Sleeping Beauty). Two brothers work with Daniel Bernoulli (an eccentric inventor based VERY loosely on a real inventor from the 1700’s) to invent a flying machine to come to the rescue. Goofy and fun for ages 5 – 8. A little long for a circle time read-aloud.
      • The Boy and the Airplane. A wordless book with nice soft illustrations. Tells the story of a boy who was given a toy plane. He plays with it a lot, then it ends up on a roof. We see time pass as he plants a tree and waits for it to get tall enough to reach the roof… he’s an old man by then. He climbs the tree, gets the plane, plays for a bit, then gives it away to a little girl.
      • Amazing Airplanes by Mitton and Parker. For 3 – 6 year olds.

Have fun experimenting!

Balloons – A collection of STEM activities for kids

You could use these ideas as their own theme, or you could use them in Wind and Flight week, or in States of Matter when you discuss gas / air.

Question: How can you hold air? (One answer will be balloons, but we’ll also talk about all the containers that hold air inside them.)

Balloon Pump and Let Go: A really simple and cheap activity that can keep kids entertained for hours: give them a balloon pump and a pile of balloons. (Note: Kids age 4 and up can do this alone. The 2 and 3-year-olds needed help getting the balloon on and off the pump, but could pump by themselves.) They pump it up, then pull the balloon off, and let it go – it flies around the room as the air flows out. Hilarious! You can also talk about thrust if you want to and how the wind flowing out pushes the balloon forward. (This post does a great job of describing how to talk about the science of this with your child.)

Balloon Rocket Races: Make a track – thread a string through a straw. Tie the string from one side of the room to the other. Blow up a balloon, but don’t tie the end, just hold it carefully closed. Tape the balloon to the string, let go of the balloon, watch it fly (See pictures here). Another way to do this is to make a rocket out of an empty water bottle – mount the rocket on the straw. Then blow up the balloon and tape it to the bottom of the rocket.

Can air pressure hold up a cup: Watch the video. Basically, you put an uninflated balloon inside a plastic cup. Blow it up till it fills the cup – lift it up, it lifts the cup.

Balloon Face with Ears: Child can draw a face on an uninflated balloon. Then you blow up the balloon slightly. Have them hold two plastic cups – one on each side of the balloon – they need to apply pressure. Then you blow up the balloon – the air pressure should hold cups there. Apparently this is easier if you wet the cups first.

Helium Balloon vs. Balloon I blow up. Compare a helium balloon with a balloon your child has blown up. How are they the same? How are they different? Why?

How many balloons does it take to lift… Get some helium balloons. Find a basket or bag to tie on – try filling the bag with a variety of items (dominoes? coins? plastic dinosaurs?) How many objects can one balloon lift? If you add a second balloon, how many can you lift? You can also choose a heavy object and guess how many balloons you’ll need to lift it (Source). Just for fun, you could show a clip from the movie Up, with the house being carried away by balloons.

DIY Hot Air Balloon. We built a hot air balloon shape from tissue paper and blew a hair dryer into it to create the hot air to make it rise. It was moderately successful, but the balloon kept leaking air. You might have better luck with paper lanterns, using a hair dryer instead of candle/fuel burner. Or you can use a plastic trash bag or dry cleaner’s bag.

Hovercraft: Build a hovercraft with a balloon and CD. (I haven’t tried this one yet.)

Books to Read: Curious George and the Hot Air Balloon or Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Sweet.

Contraptions – Engineering for Kids


Engineering: My co-teacher and I attended a workshop last year called “The E in STEM – Exploring Engineering in Early Childhood” done by the folks from Kodo toys ( They said Engineering is all about problem-solving – you find a problem, you work toward a solution. Play is when kids make up problems to solve and call that fun. The focus of play is on the process – once you’ve solved one problem, you set up a new, more complicated one to solve.

The final week in our Engineering unit at Family Inventor’s Lab was Contraptions and Rube Goldbergs: Designing Interactions between Simple Machines. It was all about taking tools and concepts from our simple machines unit and our engineering unit and combining them in fun and playful ways. This was a day about Tinkering where kids were encouraged to build something, test it, adjust it, test it again, say “hey I wonder what would happen if we added X”, add X and test it again.

Activities for Tinkering with Chain Reactions and Contraptions

Challenge of the Day / The Launch Table: On one table, we set up a target to aim for, pompoms for ammunition, and then ramps, levers and fulcrums, corks, dowels, blocks and plastic spoons for launch equipment. (In past classes, we had explored Inclined Planes, Levers, and Catapults.) Kids were just shown the target and given a couple suggestions for what to try, and then left to play. I listened in on a couple of parents giving great guidance and asking great questions to extend their child’s learning. “What do you think will happen if…” “Hmm… that’s not heavy enough… can you find something heavier?” “OK, you got great height with that launch, but how can we work on accuracy – aiming it toward that target?” “If you roll this dowel down the ramp, would it hit the target?” “You’ve got great accuracy when you aim from up close  – what if we launch from further away?”


Ball Launcher: We brought our scarf cannon, but used it for launching balls (soft plastic balls like you would find in a ball pit, and Styrofoam balls.) Kids played “golf” with it, where the goal was to aim the tube so that when the ball shot out, it would roll through the tunnel blocks. They also did a variety of other experiments… a fun one would be to tie a hoop in the air and try to shoot the balls through it.


Ramps, Tunnels, and Balls: We have a Discovery Ramp kit from Kodo kids that allowed the kids to build some fun ramp projects.

Duplo Simple Machines kit: In the other weeks of our engineering unit, we would put out materials and instructions for a single project to do with Duplos. The goal those weeks was to give children practice following directions to achieve a pre-designed result. This week we put out the full Simple Machines kit for them to do free designing with.

DIY Marble Run: We had our ball wall there for kids to play with.


Marble Run: We also had this marble run, which is great, and could also be used as part of a larger Rube Goldberg series of actions, as seen in the video on this Tinkerlab page:


Train: We have a Domino Train which sets up perfect chains of dominos to knock over.

Domino Runs: We had dominos so children could set up chains of dominos to knock over. It’s fun to also include some “triggers” for Domino chains – things you can use to push over that first Domino in the chain. Examples we had were our Conveyor Belt from inclined planes week, our Wrecking Ball and pull-back car from Towers week, and a tube that you could aim at the dominoes then roll a marble through. It’s also fun to include some “goals”, such as a target to hit – we used a Duplo tower to hang a musical triangle in so the Domino chain could ring the bell at the end. This is a Rube built by one of the dads:


Pulleys: There’s all sorts of stuff you can do with pulleys and Rubes, but we just didn’t have enough time to use all our ideas. But, if you have a more extended time, be sure to include pulleys! (Read about our Simple Machines unit on pulleys.)

Crafts and Play

Button Spinners / Whirligigs: (Original idea from (Housing a Forest and Play, Eat, Grow)  Prep: These are traditionally done with large buttons. We wanted a bigger toy, so we used old CD’s – we glued a button in the center with Tacky Glue. You can also use any metal or plastic disc (baby food jar lids, margarine tub lids, or cardboard disks) and just drill two holes near the middle.

In class, kids decorate them with Sharpies, then ran a string through two holes. Kids could then put the fingers of one hand through one end of the string loop and the fingers of the other hand in the other end. They wind it up until the string is twisted tight, then stop twirling, hold the strings taut, and watch it spin. See a video tutorial at: and here’s more on how to spin it:


Depending on the materials used, whirligigs can make a buzzing sound when they spin, especially if the outside edge of the circle is cut in a sawtooth pattern. See an article on the history of these at

Researchers have now realized this simple technology can be used as a cheap, electricity-free centrifuge. By playing around with the disc size, hole positions, type of string and other variables, they have developed one that can spin at up to 125,000 revolutions per minute – the fastest rotational speed achieved by a human powered device. And fast enough to separate cells in blood samples for low cost diagnostic testing by health care workers in the lowest resource places in the world.

Craft: Climbing Critters: Make and Takes had a great post on how to make simple “climbing critters” – cardstock animals you mount on a loop of string – when you pull on the ends of the string, they “climb.” I made up a poster with instructions.

Mouse Trap: We set out the game Mouse Trap – a fun pre-made Rube Goldberg.

Water table: We put water wheels in the water table.


Intro to Concept: At opening circle, we talked about Rube Goldberg and showed one of his books of illustrations (Rube Goldberg: Inventions!), and we explained the idea of putting together a ridiculously complicated series of mechanical actions to accomplish a simple mechanical task. For example: instead of just turning on a light switch, you set up a ramp and a pulley, where you roll a ball down the ramp, it falls into a basket which pulls the pulley, which turns on the light. Why not just turn on the light switch? Because it’s more fun this way.

My co-teacher had built this sample Rube to demonstrate during circle. The design was based on this video:

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Sometimes the demo works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and everyone laughs together, then we re-build it and try again. It’s a good way to talk about the fact that sometimes things don’t work right the first time – it doesn’t mean we’ve failed and it will never work. It just means it doesn’t work YET and we might need to work a little harder on it. (Last year, my parent education session this day was on “Willingness to Fail is the Key to Success” on the Growth Based mindset, intentionally matched up with the kids’ theme of the day.)

After circle, we let the kids play with the Rube, and there was another peg board and supplies next to it to encourage kids to build their own

Books: We read the book Lights Out, which tells of a piggy who needs to figure out how to turn off his lights from his bed after he falls asleep. It’s a wordless book that shows a VERY complex series of contraptions – fun to read if you add sound effects – “thwack” goes the broom on the seesaw; boingeduh-boingeduh-boing goes the ball down the stairs.

At closing circle, we read Mechanimals about a farmer who builds mechanical animals, including a pig that flies. Some books we’ve read for previous themes that could tie in to contraptions are: Awesome Dawson and Wendel’s Workshop from Robot week, Violet the Pilot  and Rosie Revere, Engineer from Wind week and The Most Magnificent Thing. You could also include Dumpster Diver – described in my list of books about Inventors. (These are all affiliate links for learning more – books can be purchased from Amazon, or you can get them from the library.) If you know of a great book about a kid building contraptions or Rube Goldbergs, tell me about it in the comments!

Song – we didn’t find a song we loved for this week – best idea was Button Factory, which turns the child into a “kinetic sculpture” of movement. (Find videos on YouTube if you don’t know the tune.)

Hey! My name is Joe. And I work in a button factory
One day my boss came up to me.
He said “Jo, are you busy?” I said,”No”
He said “push this button with your right hand”

Apps and Videos

A great preview for this class would be to go to and watch his video called Joseph on Sesame Street – about Kinetic Art. Then watch any of his other videos! Also, on YouTube, just do a search for “domino chain reactions” or “Rube Goldberg machines.”, and you’ll find PLENTY of videos to entertain you.

A fun way to prepare a child for this class or to review the ideas could be to explore a “contraptions” app. This is completely optional!!!! Parents who don’t like their child to do screen time, can feel free to skip this idea. My favorite is Inventioneers. Pettson’s Inventions, by the same company, is also quite good. Bad Piggies, from the Angry Birds Universe, also is a contraptions app. If your child ONLY does the app and only builds virtual contraptions, I think that there’s limited learning potential here. But, if they work with real, physical objects hands-on, then explore in an app, then return to the physical objects, I think it can be a nice tie-in.

Inventioneers: This app is available on Android and IOS. It is free in the Kindle app store. It’s all about Rube Goldberg type processes – you drop an apple on the character’s head, he turns on his blower, which turns a fan, which moves a gear, which knocks the basketball off the platform onto the seesaw and into the basket.

A 6 or 7 year old might be able to play it alone if an adult played the first few levels with them to give them the basic concept. A 4 or 5 year old can enjoy watching an adult play it. You usually don’t get the answer right on the first try – you set up part of the process, press play to test it, adjust it, test it again, set up the next part of the process, test that, adjust it, and so on. Talk it all through with the child. Tell them what you’re trying and why. Ask them why something didn’t work and what you can do differently. It’s definitely a learning process which requires lots of tinkering.

More Ideas

If you want to play more with this idea, it’s easy! Just put out loose parts, like blocks, bells, pulleys, dominoes, marbles and more. Give your child a challenge to complete. Encourage building a step at a time. For example, if the goal is to ring a bell, maybe they first build a domino chain to ring it. Then they add a wrecking ball to trigger the dominos. Then they add something to bump the wrecking ball to get it started and so on.

I’ve pinned several ideas here:

The best discussions on the topic are: Rube Goldberg machine on Tinkerlab, and Gadgets and Contraptions at Science World. Enjoy!

Someday, I’d love to try building some automata to share in class. Learn about Automata at Exploratorium.

Designing a Sailboat for a Preschool STEM Class


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the process I went through designing a car that kids age 3 to 7 could build in my Family Inventors’ class. Now, for our upcoming session on Wind and Flight, it was time to design a sailboat that they could build.

My criteria:

  • possible for kids as young as 3 to build
  • must be able to float in the water table, and survive getting wet
  • must have a sail that can catch the wind, so kids can use a straw to blow it around (the theme of the week is wind, after all)
  • materials must be affordable, easily accessible, and require a reasonable amount of prep time. Bonus points for re-used / recycled materials
  • if you were planning to have kids float their boats on a stream or lake, you should tie a string on so the boat can’t float away out of reach AND use biodegradable materials in case you lose the boat to the water

I searched the internet (especially Pinterest) for ideas.

Options for boat body

With each of these options, I’ve linked to a webpage that has photos of this kind of boat and info on how to build it.

  • Corks. You could use a single cork – it would be likely to tip over when you blow at the sail, unless you use a weight for a keel – this author appears to have attached pennies to the bottom. Or using two or more corks would increase stability. They can be attached together with rubber bands, hot glue gun, or waterproof tape. I wondered how I would get enough corks for my class, and discovered you can order 100 Recycled Wine Corks for $16
  • Ice Cubes – fun idea for summer, but not something kids can make in class
  • Milk carton with one side cut out. My concerns were: gathering enough cartons, time for cleaning and prepping them, avoiding milk allergens
  • Plastic – I have corrugated plastic from old election signs and such. We used it for our retractable cars. It’s waterproof, flat, with channels for air. I tested it, and it floats well.
  • Pool noodle – Can either do by slicing the noodle into 1-2 inch thick “donuts” or by cutting 5 inch segments and then slicing those in half lengthwise. Potential issues: can you buy pool noodles in November? Also, prep time.
  • Popsicle sticks. Need to have a waterproof glue to fasten them together. If you’re comfortable with your child using a glue gun, that would work fine.
  • Popsicle sticks and corks combined.
  • Sponge. On the upside, zero prep if you use a whole sponge per boat. Downside: cost
  • Styrofoam meat trays. Potential concerns: where would I get them (we don’t cook meat at home), and cleaning to avoid food-borne bacteria. Styrofoam bowls, like you might get ice cream in, are another option.
  • Miscellaneous recycled materials. A great tinkering exercise would be to just gather lots of random materials from the recycling bin: lids, plastic bowls, plastic bottles you can cut the top off of, cups, Styrofoam egg cartons, etc. You’d need to have a way for them to mount the mast for the sails without necessarily cutting a hole in the bottom of the body. Maybe silly putty or a clay that they could stick to body and plant mast in.

I tested the corrugated plastic – it works fine. Takes a little prep work to cut all the bodies, and cut slits in them for masts, but it would be a do-able project.

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I ended up settling on corks. I haven’t used a glue gun in my class yet, and I know that taping round corks together would be a challenge for my students, so we’ll fasten them together with rubber bands. This also offers the advantage of being able to take them apart and re-use materials for other projects.

Options for mast:

  • Straws, popsicle sticks, dowels, and skewers – we have plenty of each. Because popsicle sticks are flat, they’re easier to fit between corks, so we’ll use those.

Options for sail:

  • Cardstock (works till it gets wet for the first time), craft foam, duct tape (see how to make a duct tape sail), sheets of flexible but strong plastic – I had one sheet of plastic, but have no idea where it came from. I have a laminator, so I tried printing pages with fun designs on them (pirate flags, Viking long boat design, etc) and sealing those in laminator plastic, then cutting out the flags. Sadly, after spending a little time in the water, the little bits of paper exposed at the cut edges would wick in water and the sealed paper would get wet. If I used the laminator in the future, I think I’d just seal close an empty sleeve – a little more flexible than ideal, but it’s an easy source for something workable.

Tutorial for Final Boat Design

Prep: Cut sails. I made 12 sails from a 8.5 x 11 sheet of plastic or of laminated paper. Cut slits big enough to slide popsicle stick through.


Assembly in class

  1. Mount sail on mast by sliding popsicle stick through the slots on the sail.
  2. Rubber band together two corks (cork A and cork B)*
  3. Rubber band together cork B and C.
  4. Put mast between cork B and C, facing toward A.
  5. Rubber band all three corks together.

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* Note: you could just rubber band all three together, but they may bunch up into a triangle if you do that.

littleBits vs. Snap Circuits

snap-circuits-vs-littlebitsThis post is a comparison of two modular electronics kits aimed at young children (through adults). We used both in the session of our Inventors’ Lab class where we talked about Electricity. (Note: I’ve also added some thoughts on Cubelets from Modular Robotics at the bottom of this post.)

Snap Circuits

What are they? Modular electronic components that snap together. You first lay out the configuration you want by snapping components onto a base plate which helps keep things evenly spaced. Then you connect them by snapping on wire modules to close the circuit. Here is a photo of a basic configuration with a switch and a light.


What are the components in the system?

They are plastic “building blocks” with metal snaps that click together. Blocks include:

  • Power source block for the batteries
  • Switch blocks – slide switch and press switch
  • Resistors
  • Lamp blocks, motors, music blocks, speakers
  • Wire blocks of different lengths, ranging from one snap to six. These are just used to connect other components to transport electricity. There are also jumper wires which allow more flexibility.

Circuits need to always include: a battery block, at least one component that limits the current through a circuit (such as the speaker, lamp, motor, or resistor.) If a child uses wire blocks to connect the two terminals of the battery, either directly with one block, or with a circuitous path of wire blocks only, it will cause a short circuit. Short circuits can damage components or drain your batteries.


Elenco, the company which makes Snap Circuits has been making kids’ electronics sets for many years – they were founded in 1972. They do many things very well. But, in attempting to be very scientifically accurate in their descriptions, they are too high level for the intended user (kids age 7 and up for this product). For example, “the photoresistor is a light-sensitive resistor, its value changes from nearly infinite in total darkness to about 1000 ohms when a bright light shines on it.”

Many of their details will be great someday when your kid is a 13 year old electronics geek who wants all the details. But, they’re mostly useless to a 7 year old who just wants to assemble circuits.


The assembly instructions for the projects are done as diagrams primarily, with some text next to them. Sometimes the text explains some info about the assembly, sometimes it talks about the science of what you’re doing, but it’s never step-by-step instructions. You rely on the diagrams for that. But unlike LEGO instructions, which break things down into several steps, these show the fully assembled circuit. The components are labeled with a 1 or 2 to show whether they’re in the first layer you lay down or the second (or third…)


For my almost 5 year old son, and for the 3 – 7 year olds in my class, these instructions are simply not comprehensible.

I wrote my own set of simplified instructions for the first several projects, which

1) change the objective to something easier to grasp and more appealing to a child (e.g. “to show how electricity is used to run a direct current (DC) motor” becomes “turn the switch on and the motor runs to turn the fan.”)

2) Add simple step-by-step instructions

3) instead of the multi-layer diagram, break it down into pictures which shows the first layer, then the first with the second added on, and so on.


Here are cards with simplified instructions for 6 simple circuits. You’re welcome to print and use them.

When we used Snap Circuits in class, we set the kit out with the cards describing 6 different projects and encouraged them to try building them. Some also experimented with their own designs. We did have to go over and disassemble and tidy up projects on a regular basis so that other kids could find the items they needed.


Age: Manufacturer rates as age 7 and up. In our class, we saw that for our 3 – 4 year olds, they liked watching their parents assemble it, but they really weren’t following the science of how the circuit works. And their fine motor skills and finger strength just weren’t up to the task of assembling circuits. Our 5 – 7 year olds fared better, but it was definitely a fine motor challenge. These older kids could follow the directions that I wrote (see above) but can’t follow the single-illustration instructions that appear in the book.

Where to Start: We’ve got the Snap Circuits Jr. Discovery Kit which has 30 parts, and instructions for 100 projects. It’s plenty to get you started.

Cost: The Jr. Discovery kit is only $17.50, so it’s easy to jump into this system. Their most expensive non-classroom-pack kit is the Snap Circuits Extreme SC-750 which is $71.

Expandability: There are many kits of Snap Circuits, with many components. There’s a lot you can do with them. The Snap Circuit Jr. kit has over 100 projects, including Lights & Police Sirens; Bomb Sounds, Alarm Circuit, Musical Doorbell, Spin Draw. Plenty of things to learn and discover. But, in the end, they’re limited to the Snap Circuits attached to the baseboard, and can’t offer the range of opportunities that littleBits offer.

Summary: If you’re looking for an affordable electronics kit for a geeky kid, age 7 – 12 who loves just sitting and building electronic circuits, this is a great product!


What are they? littleBits is kind of the Lego of electrical circuits. It’s a modular system.

The photo on the left shows a basic configuration: power cell, input switch (a push button) and an output (a bright LED light.) The photo on the right is a simple “project” hooking together the power and a motor. I built a little fan using a blue bead and some green plastic to mount on the motor. I set the motor on a wood block to give the fan room to turn.

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What are the components in the system?

The pieces are color coded by type:

  • Blue for power – the power switch you attach to the battery or to a USB cable.
  • Pink for inputs / controls – Take inputs such as sound, light, or pressure to affect the flow of current. Button, dimmer switch/ volume control, sound activated switch, light sensor switch, remote controllable switch, oscillator, etc.
  • Green for outputs / actions – These modules do something. Lights, buzzers, motors, fans, speakers, etc.
  • Orange for wires – Include a simple wire that just lets you separate your bits by a few inches, and a splitter, where two inputs can connect to one output. Then all sorts of components from inverters to USB I/O to MIDI.

A slogan in the instruction book is “you always need a blue and green. Pink and orange are optional in between.”

The color coded blocks snap together with magnets. They only go together the “right” way. If you try any other direction, the magnets repel each other. This ensures that the circuit will work, and you can’t short circuit.

The order you assemble components in matters: the pink inputs only affect components that come after them in the circuit.

Instructions: The base kit comes with an instruction book to explain the basics, and some simple configurations of bits.

basic-littlebits  basic-projects

For our class of 3 – 7 year olds, I thought having many ideas all on one page might be confusing to them, so I made up a set of 8 cards with photo instructions for 8 simple configurations of bits. (Feel free to print and use: littlebits PDF.) We set out the cards with a couple trays that let us sort bits by type so the kids could collect what they needed to assemble each project. For the 3 – 4 year olds, I would sit with them and explain the basic ideas to them and explore with them. The 5 – 7 year olds could do this self-guided.

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The instruction book also contains “ideas to get you started” on projects – other things you can invent by combining your littleBits with a wide variety of materials. The goal is to encourage tinkering. One of the sample projects they offer is the Art Bot (see photo). My son’s favorite was a joy buzzer called the Prank Handshake, which involves fastening the battery pack to your arm, running a wire down to a button input in your hand, and then another wire up to the buzzer. You hold them all in place with a rubber band, then slide your sleeve down to cover the power and buzzer.


We’ve played with this expandability a little. For example, we took the simple set-up of power module, wire, and motor. But then we built a windmill with popsicle sticks. When you turn on the power, the propeller rotates.


Age: The manufacturer says they’re for ages 8 and up, but my five year old can do everything with them that was in the instruction book, and come up with some of his own ideas. Even the 3 year olds in my class could handle the basic concepts. I don’t think there is a maximum age. When I look at all the possible components and project ideas, I think this system could continue to intrigue and challenge people of all ages.

Where to start: We have the littleBits Electronics Base Kit. You could also consider littleBits Rule Your Room Kit – I can see it really appealing to an 8 –  9 year old.

Cost: Here’s the downside to littleBits. A basic kit costs $100. They go up in price from there. You can also buy individual components at the littleBits store, for anywhere from $5 to $50 depending on what you buy. When I put them out in class, I’m really crossing my fingers that none get lost or stepped on. I can’t attest much to durability – they seem pretty sturdy, but since my boy wore his joy buzzer around a lot, the button component has been flaky, and I think one of the wires was damaged. The light sensor has a small screw to adjust the sensitivity – the kit comes with a little plastic screwdriver, but it got dinged up in one or two uses, so we use a metal one, but I worry about stripping the head of the screw.

You could also build your own DIY littleBits if you’re confident with a soldering and working with wiring. Tutorials at:

Infinite Expandability: The cool thing about littleBits is how you can use them with a huge range of other materials to create all sorts of fun projects. Because you’re not soldering anything together, it’s easy to take apart, re-assemble, test, take it apart and assemble it differently until you get the result you want. I’ve barely begun to play with this expandability, so will just share here some other people’s ideas:

At, littleBits users share their ideas. Today’s page there includes:

  • Harry Potter inspired projects: an animatronic Hedwig (when a motion sensor is triggered, a servo moves the head and lights flash in the eyes), a Voldemort disarmer, a Parselbot (a wheeled cart that moves an egg-carton snake), and a motorized Lego Hogwarts Express you control with a smart phone
  • Halloween challenge winners: a remote control ghost, a haunted house diorama with spinning furniture and flashing lights, and a scary Zombie that can be activated from inside the house to scare off trick or treaters with flashing lights and a scream
  • LOTS more!

Boston Tech Mom collects links to 30 top rated littleBits projects for kids, such as an electric toothbrush, box monster, and bubble flute.

A post on lifehacker on how to get started DIY’ing anything with littleBits covers:

  • getting started with the cloudBit, which connects your littleBits project to the internet and to other devices, such as a smart phone
  • getting started with the Arduino module
  • sample projects: get an SMS notification from a doorbell, build a weather dashboard that pulls real-time data from Weather Underground, and make your own MIDI synth

This page on Instructables collects projects like: LEGO house with garage door openers and windmills, a motorized mobile, and a spinning, blinking paper Tardis

Science Education Note: These are not great for teaching the idea of a circuit to kids. If you take a battery, hook a wire from it to a lightbulb, then another wire from the lightbulb to the other terminal on the battery, kids totally see and understand the idea of a circuit. In the littleBits, the wiring is hidden from sight, so when a kid hooks a light to the power module, they can’t see how the electrical current is traveling from the battery through the light and back to the battery.

They also do not offer the technical details in the instruction book. An Amazon reviewer, Joel Avrunin, noted “I really do wish they would use the technical term instead of the popular one … The dimmer module is a potentiometer/variable resistor. The toy is so easy to use, why not let kids learn the right terms while they play? The light sensor is a nice little device (though they could have called it a photodetector or photodiode).”  I agree and disagree… I like the instructions as they are, for making the system seem easy and accessible to kids by not using those technical terms. But it would be nice if there was a supplementary manual for older kids with the “now that you’ve played with them, you want to know more about how they work” approach and all that vocabulary.

Summary: I have to say: I LOVE the littleBits. They’re a great toy that my five year old really enjoys and learns from, plus we can keep them around and re-introduce off and on as he gets older, continuing to take his inventing skills to a new level. And they’re cooler than the nerdy Snap Circuits. But… they’re stupidly expensive! I am hoping that over time, with economies of scale, (and likely competitors) the price comes down. But for now they’re quite pricey.

Cubelets by Modular Robotics

I learned about these when shopping for robots. I think they’re mis-marketing these by calling them robots, as they’re not what most people would think of in that category. But, they do look pretty cool as competitors for Snap Circuits and LitttleBits in the snap-together electronic components field. I have not tried these, so can only tell you what I’ve learned from reading about them on Amazon. 

What are they? Two-inch cubes that click together with magnets. One is a battery pack, and like littleBits, the current and the “programming” travels through to the others when they’re clicked together.

There’s a good introduction to this system on their website:

Components: Sense blocks which include a light sensor, distance sensor, a temperature sensor, and a knob. Action blocks include a flashlight, drive – a set of wheels, a bar graph of lights,  and a speaker. Think blocks include one that blocks signals going through, a Bluetooth for remote control, inverse, minimum, and maximum cubelets. There are also plates for connecting the blocks with Lego – one’s like the bottom of a Lego that you can mount on top of other Legos, and one is like a top, that other Legos can be built on top of.

Where to Start / Expandability: The Cubelets SIX robot blocks comes with a battery cube, Drive, Flashlight, Distance, Brightness, and Passive Cubelets. It’s $160. Other cubes can be bought in kits, or individually on their website, for around $27 a cube.

Age: They say 4 and up, and the reviews on Amazon confirm it works for kids as young as 3 and that 12 and 13 year olds also have fun with it. (Although they tire over time with the limitations of the system.)

My summary: Looks really cool. I would buy them and play with them. If they didn’t cost $160 for a base set. Just too pricey for me. But, if I’d seen these before buying littleBits, I would definitely compare the two systems before starting on one.

Electricity – STEM for Kids


Here are the activities we used to explore electricity in our Family Inventor’s Lab, a STEM class for families with kids age 3 – 7.

Experiments with Electrical Circuits

Lighting a Bulb: The simplest, most straight-forward way to illustrate a circuit is to use a lightbulb on wires, and hook it up to a battery. You hold up the lightbulb and ask why it’s not lit. They say because it has no power. You hook one wire to the battery, then ask them if it’s lit. Then hook the other wire up. Now the light comes on. Point out the circuit – the electricity is pushed by the battery into this wire, then through the light, then through this wire back to the battery.

We used a 6 Volt Lantern Battery and some old lightbulbs on wires we have in the store room. (I can’t find ones quite like this on Amazon or at Radio Shack now, but you could do a similar experiment with LED bulbs and a less powerful battery.)

You can also add in a switch so they can see how the switch interrupts the circuit. We had mechanical switches and DIY switches we could include in the circuit. (If you don’t already own these materials, there are several simple kits that include the basics, such as School Specialty 560962 or the Eisco Labs kit.)


Challenge: Can you create an electric circuit using play-dough?
We made two batches of play-dough, one conductive (made with salt and cream of tartar) and one insulating (made with sugar and distilled water). See recipes at or We also had battery packs and LED Lights.
A simple circuit involves taking two balls of conductive dough. Push one wire from the battery pack into ball 1 and the other wire into ball 2, then insert one wire from the light into ball 1 and one into ball 2. Show the children the circuit.
Then play with it from there. What happens if we push the two balls together? We create a short circuit. The electricity just passes through the play-dough, not lighting the light. What if we put a layer of insulating dough between the two balls – light comes back on. Have the children test several lights, and sort them by color. (Note – they shouldn’t touch the wires on the lights directly to the battery terminals – that can cause them to burn out.) Have them build series circuits. There’s a lot more you can do with “squishy circuits” made of play-dough. Here’s a video of a TED talk on why squishy circuits are cool for kids.


Lemon Battery Battery: So, on many websites, and in many kids’ books about electricity, you’ll find directions for a lemon battery – you put a penny and a zinc screw in a lemon, and use it to light a lightbulb.

The science behind this is something like this: What’s happening in a voltaic battery: two electrodes – one copper and one zinc – are submerged in an electrolyte – an acidic solution (lemon juice in this case). Zinc and lemon produce electrons and copper and lemon lose electrons. Electrons pass through the lemon juice from one battery terminal to the other, creating electricity.

The idea for the experiment is: roll the lemon with some pressure to get it juicy, then insert into the lemon one zinc item (screw or eyelet) and one copper item (copper wire, rivet or copper penny – from before 1982 when pennies were more copper than zinc). Be sure the two metals don’t touch. Then take a lightbulb on wires – touch one wire to the zinc item and one to the copper to light the bulb. (Or so several sites / books claim.) We found that the current produced by the battery was way too weak to light even a very low voltage LED. We did get a voltmeter which could measure the current to show a small reaction was happening.
Apple Battery: This year, we used a Granny Smith apple and copper rivets. You take a wire from the battery pack, wrap it around a rivet, and push it into apple #1. You take the other wire, wrap it around a rivet, and push it into apple #2. Then take the probes for the voltmeter and place them in the apple – be sure to put the red probe into the apple with the red wire, and the black probe with the black wire. The voltmeter will register the electrical current. Our older kids understood that the voltmeter indicated electricity was passing. Our younger kids didn’t get that, but they liked pushing the rivets into the apple. 🙂
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Playing with Electrical Tools / Toys

Create electricity with a hand generator: We had a crank-powered flashlight and emergency radio plus several small flashlights with dynamos. (Like these, but we got ours in the Daiso dollar store for $1.50 each.) These were a great free play activity for the active kids – we turned off most of the lights in one room and they just played with flashlights and did flashlight tag.

Plasma ball: We had one of these to let kids see the “lightning”: Sphere Lightning Lamp

littleBits: We had the littleBits Electronics Base Kit. littleBits is kind of the Lego of electrical circuits. It’s a modular system, with little bits that click together with magnets, so it’s easy for even small children to assemble them correctly. There are inputs (buttons, dimmer switch / volume control, sound activated switch, etc.), and outputs (lights, buzzers, motors, etc.) The base kit comes with an instruction book to explain the basics, but also “ideas to get you started” on other things you can invent. I have a detailed review of littleBits and Snap Circuits here.

Here is a basic configuration: power cell, input switch (a push button) and an output (a bright LED light.)


Snap Circuits is another modular electronics kit. Kids snap items on to the base plate, such as battery packs, switches, lights, and motors. Then they snap on wire modules to complete the circuit. The set comes with an instruction manual, but I’ve created my own simplified directions for 5 of the projects. Our 5 – 7 year olds could assemble them but they were beyond the fine motor skills/strength and beyond the cognitive grasp of our little ones. Find a detailed comparison of these and littleBits here.


Sensor Toys: Ok, I know you’ve all seen toys during your life where if you touch two metal contacts on the bottom, it completes a circuit and the toy does something.

Years ago, my daughter got a toy chick one Easter that would chirp when you held it in your hands. When she brought her chick to kindergarten, she and her classmates discovered all sorts of cool concepts about electricity by playing with it. For example, if one person touches one contact and another person touches the other contact, the bird does not chirp. But then when those two people hold hands (to complete a circuit) the bird chirps. The bird chirps when set on a metal surface but not if set on wood or rubber, and so on. Her teacher, a master of emergent learning, was so excited by this. He said he wanted to jump in with “ooh! ooh! it’s electricity” and explain it all at the start of the day. Instead, he told me he “sat on his hands” all day and didn’t explain it until the end of the day when he asked the kids to share all the things they learned, make observations about what made the chick chirp and what didn’t, and what they thought was the reason. And only after that discussion did he explain the principles of electricity.

For our class, I found a battered Easter chick at Goodwill, and I ordered this Tedco Sensor Ball which flashes and makes noise. (This Energy Stick looks like a great option, plus if you look at that item on Amazon, it suggests several other related products.)

Operation. We put out the classic board game Operation. The goal of the game is to use wire tweezers to pick little pieces of plastic out of openings without making it buzz and light up. So, let’s look at the science… why does it light up and buzz?


Our 3 – 4 year olds basically just had fun setting off the buzzer over and over. Our older kids got both the point of the game (to try to get the plastic out without hitting the buzzer – a great fine motor challenge) AND got the idea of the electrical circuit. Here’s a poster to go with this activity.

Static Electricity

Weather Note: There’s lots of great static electricity activities you can do, but it’s worth noting that your success will depend a lot on the weather! We figured that in January, our classroom air would be quite dry due to all the forced air heat that was blowing through the room. However, when the outdoor humidity is at 85% as it was last Saturday, your static electricity demonstrations will be less effective than you had hoped…

History and an Experiment to Go With It: 2,500 years ago a Greek mathematician and astronomer named Thales (TAY-less) first noticed the effects of static electricity. He was polishing a piece of amber, with a piece of wool or fur. Thales discovered that after he rubbed the amber that it attracted dust particles or other light objects like straw or feathers. (More history here:  You could re-create this in class with amber, sheep skin, and feathers.

Static Station. We offered multiple ways to generate static electricity – balloons kids could rub in their hair, combs and a plastic ruler that they could rub plus wool and silk to rub them with. Then we offered multiple items that will react visibly to the pull of static electricity. Some options are: puffed rice cereal, torn up tissue paper, plastic tubes filled with Styrofoam pellets, feathers, rabbit fur, and an empty aluminum can. You can also have a plate of salt and pepper. Wave the static charged balloon over it – the pepper will fly up first, and the heavier salt will be slower to attract. You could have a contest where kids charge their balloons, then stick balloons to a wall, and see whose balloon stays stuck the longest.

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Light a bulb with static: Our teacher rubbed a balloon on her hair to build up a static charge, then held the balloon to one end of a compact fluorescent bulb, and it made it light up briefly. (It worked better in the morning class before the humidity spiked outside!) Learn more at:

Make Lightning: has two methods for getting a spark. We haven’t tested these.

Water table: Have a static generator (balloon and hair, or amber and wool, or comb and wool) next to the water table. Charge it up, then pour a trickle of water past it – will the static electricity “bend” the stream of water? Here’s a poster to go with this.

The bending water is a little subtle. The littlest kids don’t really get it. The 5 – 7 year olds would understand it if FIRST we showed that normally when you pour water, it flows straight down, then we showed how the static bends the water.

Alternate water table idea: Put in scoops and water wheels. Put pictures of water wheel generators next to the table so you can explain how, before the invention of electricity, water wheels on streams were used to do work (like grind grain or pump bellows.)

Art: We’ve tried a few ideas, which are tangentially related to electricity.  1) drawings with Spirograph to represent electron orbits. 2) Scratch art pictures of lightning bolts… scribble with oil pastels to fill a piece of paper with bright colors. Paint over that with dark blue/black acrylic paint like the night sky. While the paint is still wet, use a stick to draw lightning bolts – it will move the paint aside to reveal the colors below. 3) Use electricity to draw by using a record player turntable. Put a paper plate on where the record goes, turn it on, and draw. 4) You could build a Scribblebot and use that to make art. You tape three markers onto a plastic cup to form “legs” on the robot. Add a motor and a battery, and your scribble bot dances around, leaving a drawing behind.

Tissue Paper Art: On I Heart Crafty Things, we found this great idea for a butterfly made of tissue paper where the wings will flutter in reaction to a static electricity source such as a charged up balloon. My co-teacher had the seasonally appropriate idea to do a tree instead, where the fall leaves flutter. They cut leaves out of tissue paper and Mylar wrapping paper. The key thing you need to explain to the kids is to only glue down PART of the leaf. They need to leave most of the leaf loose to flutter. Here’s sheet of instructions.


Circle Time – Static Electricity

There are two big ideas to communicate: 1) things are made of atoms – atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. 2) Sometimes when things rub together, they lose electrons, and that “charges up” the item with static electricity.

Parachute: Begin by playing with the parachute. Especially do games where the kids are under the parachute that’s going up and down. After a while, point out how all their hair is standing on end. It’s charged with static, and the hairs are “repulsing” each other and trying to move away from each other.

If you want a theme song, play the Schoolhouse Rock Electricity Song. When it says anything else, ripple the parachute, but whenever it says “Electricity, Electricity” raise and lower the parachute twice.

History: Share the history of Thales, mentioned above.

Grounding in their Experience: Ask “have you ever slid down a plastic slide and then gotten a shock when you touched someone? Have you ever played parachute games at circle – did you notice that for the kids who went under the parachute, their hair would then stand up straight? When your parent gets laundry out of the dryer, have you ever seen a sock stuck on to something? That is static electricity.”

What’s happening? Explain that all things are made of atoms. Little itty bitty particles we can’t see. (There are millions in one eyelash.) Each atom is made up of three parts: protons and neutrons are held together tightly in the middle. Electrons are negatively charged and they’re held loosely. [Illustrate this with 3 balls of playdough – stick two together to be the proton and neutron, then use the other ball to show the orbiting electron.] Electrons bounce from atom to atom easily. So, when there’s a static charge in my hair, because I’ve been playing under the parachute, an electron might jump away from me to something else. [Show with the play-dough electron.]

Static electricity demos: Use your hair to charge a balloon, or fabric to charge a comb, then demonstrate how tissue paper reacts, or how you can pick up rice cereal with it. These things are attracted to each other. Then lay an empty aluminum can on its side, and hold the static item near it. The can will either roll toward the balloon or away. (Learn more at Exploratorium.) Light a fluorescent bulb with static electricity.

Circle Time – Electricity

Our third big idea is: For electricity to work, you need a complete circuit. You connect the negative terminal on the battery to the output (a light or a buzzer) with something that conducts electricity (wire, water, conductive play-dough), then connect the output back to the positive terminal. This allows current to flow continuously.

Ask the kids what they know about electricity, and how we use electricity. This grounds the rest of the discussion in their experience.

Song: My co-teacher wrote a simple song, that goes:
Electricity is a powerful thing… I know, I know…  Electricity is a powerful thing… I know, I know…
Then we ask kids to suggest something that they use electricity for, and we substitute in those words.
Electricity lights our streets…  I know, I know. Electricity lights our streets, I know, I know.
Electricity warms our Homes… Electricity starts our cars… Electricity makes lightning >boom<  (Etcetera 🙂

Intro: Thanks to the work of lots of scientists and inventors throughout history, we’ve figured out how to capture and store electricity. One of the places we store it is in a battery. We’ve also figured out how to help move electrons so they do work. For example, they can light a light, make a buzzer buzz, or turn a fan, like we did with the Snap Circuits and littleBits. To make any of these things work, we have to hook up the power source and the thing we want to power so electricity can move from one to the other.

Circuits Demo: Use the batteries and lightbulbs and switches to demonstrate the idea of circuits and how current passes through a circuit. And how a switch interrupts the circuit.

Pass the current: Have kids hold hands in a circle. Squeeze a child’s hand, they squeeze the next hand, and so on, to pass the current all the way around a circle.

After you have done this, use your sensor toy (see above.) You touch one sensor. Have the child next to you touch the other sensor. Nothing happens. Hold hands with that child – you’ve completed the circuit – the light comes on, or the chick cheeps. Now, let go of that neighbor’s hand, and take the hand of the child on your other side. Have all the children join hands, so kids can see that the current travels from you through all of them, back to the sensor. When we all hold hands, the chick cheeps. If anyone lets go, it interrupts the circle, and the chick stops cheeping.

You could also play either of the games described below.



Books for Circle

I honestly haven’t found any I love. I’m working on writing my own. 🙂

  • Oscar and the Bird.  When Oscar the kitten finds a tractor in a field and accidentally turns on the windshield wipers, he is full of questions about electricity. Luckily, Bird knows the answers! With the help of his friend, Oscar finds out how electricity is made and stored, which machines need electricity to work — and why we always need to be careful around wires, batteries, plugs, and sockets. Ages 4 – 8. This would be a great SECOND book to read if we’d first read a book with a nice summary of basics of electricity.
  • Electricity: Bulbs, Batteries, and Sparks (Amazing Science). A little long, but otherwise a good circle book for ages 5 and up. (skip the “fun facts” when reading aloud.) Over the head of younger ones.
  • Switch On, Switch Off by Berger. Library description: Explains how electricity is produced and transmitted, how to create electricity using wire and a magnet, how generators supply electricity for cities, and how electricity works in homes. Ages 6 – 8. Probably too long for circle.

Good resource books for older kids (age 5+) and for experiment ideas. Not for circle.

Group Activities

Electrons: Explain that all things are made up of molecules (reminder of the states of matter activities last week.) All molecules are made of atoms. Atoms are made of protons and neutrons which hold tight together in the nucleus, and electrons are held loosely. Give each child a die (or a coin) where some/one side is labelled “proton or neutron” and one is labeled electron. On each turn, they roll their die or flip their coin, then pick it up. If it says proton or neutron, they run to the center of the room and huddle together. If it says electron, they orbit in a circle around the protons and neutrons.

Pass the Electron Game: This idea started with an idea on Hub Pages:  Have all the kids stand in a line. Tell them they are a copper wire. Give each one electron (a ball or other small toy). Tell them they’re a balanced copper atom. But, when the battery (the teacher) gives an extra electron to one child, they have to pass on one of their electrons as quick as they can. When the extra electron gets to the end of the line, flash a flashlight to show the electricity was discharged. We tried this in our morning class – the teacher told them that they should take the new electron in their left hand, pass the old one on, then pass the new one to the right hand. But it turned out that it was too much of a small motor challenge for our three and four year olds – they had a hard time transferring balls from hand to hand. There are two ways to fix that. One is that they hold THEIR electron in their left hand the whole time and always use their right hand to take and pass the new electron. The other is what we did in our afternoon class, where we just pretended they were holding their own balanced electron, and the only moving ball was the extra electron that was passed to them. We were then able to pass several electrons at once, for a “hot potato” style game. You can also curl the end of the circle to complete a circuit.


Cars – Engineering for Kids


After we studied all the Simple Machines, we spent a day looking at a complex machine: the car.

Engineering Projects

I wanted the students to be able to build a car that rolled. I explored lots of different ideas – learn about them all in this post: Designing a Car Project. They range from very simple cars built of toilet paper skewers and cardboard wheels to much more sophisticated projects. You could also do a tinkering station where kids were offered lots of options for bodies, wheels, and axles and allowed to create whatever they wanted. I wanted to build “motorized” cars, and these are the designs I came up with:

Retractable Car. During Discovery Time at the beginning of class, we worked on a basic car. They used corrugated plastic bodies, taped on straw wheel bearings, threaded wooden dowels through those and attached wooden wheels. During opening circle, we tested these. Then I explained to them that we would take them to the next level by adding a retractable badge clip to motorize it so it could run on its own as a pull-back and release car. I demo-ed a sample. We worked on and tested those during Tinkering Time. Then, during closing circle, I explained how the bigger a wheel’s diameter, the further it rolls on each revolution. I challenged them for “homework” to try adding big wheels to their car to see what happens. I demo’ed my car with CD’s added for wheels. See a tutorial on how to build these cars here:


I was pretty happy with how the project turned out, but I do have to say, there’s a lot of prep worked involved, plus the materials are a little pricey. $1.60 per car for wooden dowels and wheels, plus around $1 for a retractable badge.

Clothespin Racer: In the design process for the retractable car, at one point we thought of using a flywheel style pull-back car mechanism, and checked whether we could buy kits with these. We didn’t find kits, but we did learn that pull-back cars are cheap – about 35 cents each. So, we invented these clothespin racers, which are quick, simple to build, fun and zippy. Find a tutorial at:


Art / Engineering Parent-Child Project

Design a car: We asked all the parents to bring in big cardboard boxes from home. We made cars by adding black paper plates for wheels (fastened on with brads/paper fasteners so they can turn), straps so they could wear them over their shoulders and a variety of decorations. This is not something the kids can do completely independently but it’s a great project for collaboration between adults and kids, and there’s a certain thrill in building something really big to take home. (Click on picture for bigger view.)


To read a full post about this project, and see lots more pictures, go to

Art Projects

Process art – Monster Truck Painting: We put paper on a table, then poured three blobs of paint on the table, and added three “monster trucks” from McDonald’s Happy Meal toys that had big treads on the tires. These are the kind of car that you pull back on and they roll forward on their own. We put toilet paper roll bumpers all around the table so they wouldn’t be constantly flying off the table. (None ever actually left the table with this set-up) This was a big hit with our 2 to 4-year-old boys.


Product art: Last year, we got wooden cars from Discount School supply and painted them with metallic paints. At ~$2 a car, this is a pricier project than we usually do, but it was nice for them to be able to make something that they could roll around. I’m happier with this year’s projects, where they built cars


You could also offer: Cut out shapes from paper that children can use to assemble a car collage out of geometric shapes; coloring pages with pictures of cars, or large paper on the floor that kids can draw their own cities and roads on to drive cars around.

Free Play / Math / Physics Experiments

Sorting: We had a collection of toy vehicles kids could sort into “cars” and “not cars.”

Race a car: We set out blocks, black foam core boards or plastic panels, ramps from Kodo Engineering, toy cars, and a yard stick. Kids could build ramps, race cars down them, and measure how far their cars went. They could notice whether the distance travelled was affected by how steep the ramp was.

We’ll also put out these cars from a Delta Science Modules kit we inherited.


Free play: We filled the sensory table with kinetic sand and toy cars to drive around in it. We had a steering wheel and set of brake/gas pedals that had come with a video game driving simulator, and we set those up on a table for pretend driving play. (Also on the table we put laminated photos of “view out the windshield” with views of ocean, woods, snowy roads, the moon, and more to enhance their imaginary play.) We have a large rug with a road drawn on it, so we put out more cars for them to drive around.


We also put out one of these two Duplo car projects: the Duplo car launcher, and the Measuring Car. Some children would take apart the Duplo project and re-build it. Some just play with the assembled kit.

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Snack: Our snack volunteer brought in a great creative snack! Apple slice cars with grapes for wheels – check out the photo at the top of this post.

Circle Time:

Illustrating the concept: I made up posters, one titled “A Car is a Complex Machine – made up of lots of simple machines” and the other “Simple Machines that are Used with Cars, Trucks, and Buses.” I have photos of a number of examples, and next to each one, a diagram of the simple machine it represents. You can see a sample poster here… note that I do not hold copyright to any of the images used here and am not authorized to distribute this poster… but you could make your own!

Books: I didn’t find any books that were specifically about the relationship between cars and simple machines, but there are lots of great car books. In our opening circle, we read “If I Built a Car” by van Dusen. This is a very fun read-aloud fantasy about a child designing and building a fabulous car: “I’ll show you inside. I’ve put in a couch. It’s comfy and wide. Plus a fireplace, fish tank, and here’s something cool – The floor can slide open, and look – there’s a pool!” Wonderfully retro styling on the car, with chrome and fins.


Other nice book options: “Pete the Cat: The Wheels on the Bus“, because who can resist such a great combination? I would highly recommend Going Places, described in my Books about Inventors recommendations. A good option for toddlers is My Car by Byron Barton and for preschoolers, check out Cool Cars by Mitton and Parker and Cars Galore by Stein, Four to five year olds like Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

For awareness of other cultures, read Galimoto by Williams and Stock, which tells the story of a young boy in Malawi Africa, who wants to build a galimoto – a word that means car, but it’s also the name of push-toys made by children. The boy has a box with all of his worldly possessions – a ball of plastic bags tied with strings, a knife made from a tin can, and a puppet made from cornstalks. He has a few pieces of wire. Throughout the story, he scavenges, scrounges, and trades for other small bits and snippets of wire till he has enough to make a wire toy car to race with his friends.

Closing circle time – the Drive-In Movie. All the kids brought their cardboard cars over to circle time, and we watched a movie. I had edited down 12 minute versions of each of these, so we could watch the whole thing. The little kids watched Sid the Science Kid episode #125, “Climb Ignatz”, which is a review of simple machines. The big kids watched Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Simple Machines episode.

Resource: There’s a great list of links to more ideas on teaching simple machines to kids, and especially on teaching how cars and simple machines are related, at:

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 our activities are appropriate for classroom teachers, parents who homeschool, or after school programs.