Building towers is a great hands-on engineering activity that is 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.
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 activity works with a wide array of tower building materials. (Below, I describe: TP tubes, blocks, plastic cups, cardboard boxes, 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 activity. 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 (by trying to knock it down), then refine it, test again, start over as 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.
Toilet paper tubes, 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.
Cardstock or Index Cards
Take index cards, or cut squares or rectangles from cardstock. Cut slits in each. Assemble them by holding two cards perpendicular to each other, and sliding them together where the slits are. In the photos, the cards used were 2”x4”. We cut two slits per long side. Cuts were 1/2” deep and we cut them about 1” in from each edge. But, you can do whatever size you choose, and cut as many slits as you choose.
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.
You could save up all your cracker boxes, cereal boxes and so on and have an ever-growing supply of building blocks. Or, if you have file boxes or moving boxes, you can make HUGE towers.
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. For video of the crash in action, and LOTS more ideas, read my full post on stacking cups.
This post on Frugal Fun has some fun ideas for building with binder clips, craft sticks and clothespins. What else can you try?
Unifix Cubes, Lego
Sure, they’re supposed to be math manipulatives, but they’re also great interlocking building blocks! Legos and Duplos work great too!
If you’re near a river or on the beach and find flat stones, stone towers is a great nature art activity! Check out the Curious Kindergarten to learn more. You can also, with work, make pyramids of oranges or pinecones or all sorts of other 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.
Just search for that phrase, and you’ll find LOTS of info on it. This was designed as 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!
Build a House of Cards
Anything else that stacks:
You can build towers with books, with CD or DVD cases, with plastic leftover containers… whatever!! (More ideas here.) Tell your child that they can try almost anything, but 1) they have to check 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)
We’ve knocked towers 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 wrecking ball
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 while kids built a tower, then they could pick up the water bottle, and let it swing.
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.
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!
You could create a simple Rube Goldberg device to knock down a tower, using Domino chains, or a car rolling down a ramp, or a ball bounced off a balloon trampoline.
Use toothpicks, grapes, and cheese to build towers, and then dismantle them and eat them! Apple slices, bread cubes and marshmallows are other options.
I have only one 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 children.
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 when you add a new block, you want to make sure 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 attaching things together with tape, string or rubber bands might make it stronger. Or that a tripod – three points of contact is generally more stable than something balanced on two points…
For older kids, you can flip the stable base idea around, and challenge them to build something on a narrow base – how many items can they stack on top of one single block?
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.”
For more ideas about building towers, including links to fun videos about tower building (Curious George, Pingu, and Daniel’s Tiger all have episodes), check out my Towers lesson plan.
If you want more building ideas, check out my post on structures.