Science of Flight – STEM for Kids


When we study the Wind, we also study Flight as part of our Engineering unit.

Aerodynamic Shapes

Try the Bobby Dropper experiment. (I learned it on Mystery Science, a truly excellent science education program.) Take paper from the recycling bin. Slide a bobby pin (or a paper clip) onto a flat piece of paper. Slide another bobby pin (or paper clip) onto another piece of paper then crumple the paper into a ball around the pin. Climb up high and drop both pieces of paper. Do they fall at the same speed? Is there anything different about how they fall? Then ask kids to think of other things that float on the wind (leaves, snowflakes, feathers, maple seeds, dandelion seeds, plastic bags, frisbees, glider planes). Think of their shapes. How can you change the shape of a piece of paper so it is better at floating on the wind? Cut or fold the paper, test it against the crumpled ball. Tweak and repeat as many times as desired.

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. This is best for kids over age 6.

Wind Tunnel Testing

We have a wind tube that we built (learn how). You can test a wide variety of items in it to see what floats on a current of air – try scarves, plastic bags, paper cups, pipe cleaners twisted into a screw shape and more in a free exploration one class session.

Wind Tube

Then in the next session, start engineering! We use some simple flyer designs from the Orlando Science museum, including the paper helicopter.


Paper Helicopters

Print this template.

Cut along the solid lines, and fold along the solid lines to make a “helicopter” shape. This illustration is from NASA and you can find more instructions at that link. Climb to any high place, and drop the helicopter – it will twirl to the ground.

Straw Glider

TLDR: Take a 4 or 5 inch strip of cardstock and a 6 to 8 inch strip of cardstock that are about 3/4 – 1.5 inch wide. Curl them into rings. Tape them to both ends of a straw. Throw.

More details if you feel like being precise.

Cut a 4×6 index cards into strips that are 3/4 x 6 inches. Tape two pieces together to make a long strip. (Tip: If you overlap them by a half inch or so, that will help it curl more nicely than if they barely overlap.) 3. Make rings: Take the single strip, curl it into a ring and tape it. Then take the double-length strip. Curl and tape it. You now have a small and a big ring. Tape the straw to the inside of the circles. Small circle at one end, large at the other. Hold the glider in the middle with the rings up. Throw it like a paper airplane.

Recommended Kids’ Books about Flight

  • 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.
  • Also check out The Flying Girl: How Aida de Acosta Learned to Soar and Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine.

A GREAT Resource

NASA has a really great lesson plan on Aeronautics for Pre-K. It includes book recommendations, a lesson where children make observations about things from nature that glide (from flying squirrels to maple leaves) vs. things that fly (birds, bats, planes), and crafts like paper helicopters and gliders. It ties in sink and float experiments to aeronautics and lift, making a “hot air balloon”, egg drop challenge and much more. I could develop a 4 week long unit with this resource!

Have fun experimenting!

Check out my other posts on Wind, Balloons, and Projectiles.


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