Stacking Cups

When we study Towers and Structures, we build with LOTS of different materials. One of my favorites is plastic cups.

Kids stack cups into tall towers, then they knock them down. (You could throw a ball, or drive a toy car into them, or tie a water bottle on a string to make a wrecking ball…See my Towers post for suggestions of demolition options.) Knocking them down is lots of fun, but it also teaches the engineering process: Design a building. Test how strong it is by trying to knock it down. Re-build it stronger and test again.

Here’s the video of a crash in action:

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! In these pictures, you’ll see that in class we use the big red solo cups, but if you don’t have as much space to work in, you could also use three ounce Dixie cups, or the plastic shot glasses you can find at a dollar store.

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. Then you can explore more from there.

Scaffolding Learning

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 a basic concept of 3-D, and walk away and see what you come back to! Here are some challenges to walk them through. Don’t feel like you have to rush through them all – as long as they are happy and engaged with one idea, let then do that over and over again – with repetition comes mastery. (Learn more about brain development.)

Make a 3 cup pyramid. Now, make it a 6 cup pyramid – 3 on the bottom, 2 in the middle, one on top. Now… if you put 7 cups in a line on the bottom, how many cups can you put on top? How many stories tall will your building be?

Try curving your line of cups at the base into a circle. Then what happens?

Now try putting four cups on the bottom, and placing one cup on top of them. How do we build out from there? Is this pyramid harder or easier to knock down than the first one? What if you use six cups to make a triangle at the base – what does that lead to? (Photo credit to Bedtime Math.)

Can you stack a tower that’s just one cup wide? How? (There are multiple options…..) Can you combine that with other methods?

As you continue challenging kids, sometimes they surprise you. I once had a 6 year old student who been stacking 40 cups in all sorts of different arrangements and knocking them down with a toy car. I challenged her “Can you build a tower using ALL these cups that the car CAN’T knock down?” She did it, but in a lateral thinking way I didn’t expect!

red 8

I challenge older kids: Can you build a tower that has just one cup on the base? Could you build one shaped like a heart? (Credit to Little Bins for Little Hands. Note that they’ve added in cardboard platforms for this one.)

What other variations can you come up with?

A couple Tips

*Green Tip: most of the red plastic cups we use have come from parties I’ve attended. I ask the guests/host if we could put a bag for empty cups next to the trash bin. I take them home and run them through the dishwasher, and poof, we’re re-using materials instead of recycling them after one use.

Accommodations: If the noise of crashing cups makes you crazy, or if you have someone with auditory sensory issues, I strongly recommend doing this on the floor on a soft rug, instead of stacking on a table. It is MUCH quieter when then cups crash down on a rug.

More Fun with Cup Stacking

On the game show Minute to Win It, they have a challenge called Yank It. You make a stack of cup, then index card, cup, index card… Then you try to quickly yank the card out so the cup falls into a stack with the cup below it.

There are championship competitions to see who can stack cups in a certain prescribed pattern the quickest… they move at amazing speed:

There’s also the Cup Stacking Song:

Have fun!

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