Towers – Engineering for Kids

Here in the Seattle area, we are beginning a period of 6 weeks with no school, which means many parents are suddenly homeschooling. This post is for a do-at-home session of my Family Inventors’ Lab and Discovery Science Lab. It’s intended to provide hands-on science activities that are easy for parents to do with kids at home.

You basically just point your kids at a stack of materials, and tell them to start building. Then give them a demolition tool, and let them have fun knocking the towers back down and re-building.

What Age of Child

The best part about towers is that they work for kids from 1 year to 10 years and beyond. The older they are, the taller and more stable and more sophisticated the towers get, but they can all have fun with it! This makes this a good activity if you’ve got multiple kids of varying ages.

Building Experiments

You can offer a wide array of tower building materials. (Below, I describe: TP tubes, blocks, plastic cups, cardboard boxes, flat stones, and more.) You can also offer a number of methods for knocking them down. (A wrecking ball, a toy car, blow darts…)

You’ll notice that knocking them down is 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 play!

Also, a goal is to emphasize the tinkering mentality or engineering process: encourage  your child to build something, test it, then refine it, test it again, start over when needed.

Some children re-build with the goal of making the structure as solid and stable as they possibly could – trying to make a structure that can’t be knocked down. Some go the opposite way, and build structures that fall apart even more dramatically. Either goal is perfectly acceptable!

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.

Building Materials

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 (cut from boxes in the recycling bin). 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. Or you could add to the engineering aspect of it by having them put weights on a floor (like pennies or glass stones) and see how much weight various structures could support. That fourth image below shows how someone created a foundation of water bottle columns that were supported by a box so they couldn’t tip over, creating a very stable base. 

IMG_20160220_122245839 Preschool Engineering - Build Towers with TP rolls and cardboard. 20190928_182124475_iOS  20190928_200000104_iOS

Wood Blocks: If you have any set of wooden blocks, or especially Keva blocks, those are great for building towers, but even Jenga blocks work great as a building tool. (Or you could actually play Jenga – it helps to build structural engineering skills.)

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Cardboard Boxes – you could just save up all your cracker boxes, cereal boxes and so on and have an ever-growing supply of building blocks. Or, we happened to have a bunch of “banker boxes” – the cardboard file boxes, which are all the same size and are big enough you can build some REALLY BIG towers.

Plastic cups. Probably our most popular activity is building tall towers with 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! We’ve also used plastic shot glasses we found at a dollar store.

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

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If the noise of crashing cups makes you crazy, I strongly recommend doing this on the floor on a rug, instead of on a table. It is MUCH quieter when then cups crash down on a rug.

Here’s the video of a crash in action:

What’s fun about cups is you can 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!)

IMG_20160221_094709164 IMG_20160221_094728083

And then we keep exploring from there:

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Magna-tiles. If you happen to own Magna-Tiles, they’re great for both 3-D and 2-D towers.

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Office supplies: This post on Frugal Fun has some fun ideas for building with binder clips, craft sticks and clothespins. What else can you try?

Snack. Use toothpicks, grapes, and cheese to build towers, and then dismantle them and eat them! Apple slices, bread cubes and marshmallows are other options.

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Unifix CubesSure, they’re supposed to be math manipulatives, but they’re also great interlocking building blocks!

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Lego. Yep, can’t beat a classic.

Natural Materials. If you’re near a river or on the beach and find flat stones, stone towers is a great nature art activity! You can also, with work, make pyramids of oranges or pinecones or all sorts of other natural materials.

stone

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. You can’t do this with kids under 6, because they just don’t have the tape and string skills, or the manual dexterity not to break the noodles. But it’s fun for older kids!

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Build a House of Cards: Again, this doesn’t work for little kids, but patient 7 – 10 year olds may be able to manage a few levels. photo credit: House of cards via photopin (license)

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Anything else that stacks: You can build towers with books, with CD or DVD cases, with plastic leftover containers… whatever!! Tell your child that they can try almost anything, but 1) they have to make sure it’s OK with you, and 2) they have to put things away when they’re done (or help you at least)

Demolition Tools

I love my KEVA Wrecking Ball. But it may be hard to get shipments right now, given high demand in online shopping, so let’s look at options you may already have at home.

IMG_20160220_095924198Ball in a stocking pendulum: We’ve 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.

A hanging pendulum: We’ve taken an idea from Irresistible Ideas of tying a pendulum to the rafters, and using it to knock down tall towers of cereal boxes. We’ve also built a PVC frame to hang from. For a wrecking ball, you want something that is heavy enough it would knock down the boxes, but not so hard that it will hurt if it hit someone. 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, then they could pick up the water bottle, and let it swing.

img_20160917_110559202 pendulum1 pendulum2

Toy Cars – any toy car that’s heavy enough to knock down your building materials will do, but I especially like pull-back cars – these are the ones that when you pull them backwards, it winds them up, and you let go and they roll forward on their own.

Shake Table: Check out our quake simulator from Earthquake week.

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. Nerf darts also work great with many materials!

Foundations

You could use sand or any sensory material to bury foundations into to increase the stability of the building.

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Interpersonal Challenges

I’ve got an only child at home, but if you have more than one, you’re likely to get into some battles where one child smashes a tower the other one was hard at work on. You can ward off some of these sibling challenges with some setting of expectations.

For our class, 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). You could customize to your needs, knowing your child(ren).

Scaffolding their Learning

I let children build on their own for a long time, and then every once in a while, I drop in a new hint. Like the hint that if you stack one block so it perfectly lines up with the one below, the tower will be more stable than when they’re not well aligned. Or the hint that a wider base makes a more stable tower. Or that mixing materials can sometimes make a stronger tower. Or that a tripod – three points of contact is generally more stable than something balanced on two points…

For older kids, you can flip that around, and challenge them to build something on a narrow base – how many items can they stack on top of one single block?

Documentation

An important science skill is communication – recording and sharing your work. This is a great project for practicing that. (And it also works well if you’re trying to work from home – you can encourage your child to work on their own a lot, but give them a concrete plan for how and when they can check in with you to show you their best work.) So, I’d say “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 me over and I’ll take a picture of it. Then you can draw a picture of it, and write a description to remember what you did.”

tower

Math Extension

Tower building is also a great opportunity for exploring measurement, another key science skill. You can measure with standard units (how many inches tall is your tower) or non-standard units (how many soda cans tall).

Videos

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.)

And for fun, here’s something to check out about how imagination and engineering combine: Disney has teamed up with Khan Academy to offer a mini-course called “Imagineering in a Box”  It is all about how the Disney Imagineers create the rides at Disney Theme parks. The lessons may be more appropriate for  middle school and up, but some of the videos may be interesting for younger kids: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/hass-storytelling/imagineering-in-a-box

If you want more building ideas, check out my post on structures.

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