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Let's Get Physics-al: How everyday play can teach how things work

Kid's Science Games

Did you know you have a budding physicist in your home? Every time your children experiment to learn how things work, they are channeling their inner physicist. What may seem like purposeless, random, or repetitive activities are often very specific scientific observations to help understand the workings of the world…also known as physics.

One of the basic principles of physics is that there are six simple machines that can make our work easier. These include a lever, inclined plane, wheel and axle, screw, wedge, and pulley. Everyday toys, environments, and situations may already be providing your child with exposure to these six simple machines. While the names are not particularly important to young children, the opportunity to experiment with them is.

Here are some easy ways to guide your child's experimentation with these principles of physics, right in your own home:

  • Understanding the inclined plane: Have your child observe that a ball rolls more quickly down a ramp than it does when it is rolled across the flat floor. Have him/her experiment with steeper inclines, and ask what was observed.
  • Fun with wheels and axles: Encouraging a child's innate fascination with all things with wheels - wheelbarrows, small trucks, tricycles, scooters, etc. - gives them early practice with the advantages of the wheel and axle.
  • Ramping up: Your child can experiment with building or using ramps for marble rolls, small car races, or moving water from one place to another. 
  • The wonder of wheelbarrows: Children love to use wheeled vehicles (a wheelbarrow or small dump truck) to help with the work of moving blocks, dirt, or other materials.  In a park or your backyard, your toddler can move dirt with a toy dump truck or move objects from place to place with a child-sized wheelbarrow. If you're able to lock the wheels on the truck or wheelbarrow, have your child try dragging the materials instead of rolling them. Discuss the difference in the experience.
  • Tool time: Safe plastic workbenches are a toddler favorite, giving your child chances to master a variety of tools and their functions, such as hammers (levers), screws, and vices. As your child grows, so can the tools - many tool companies offer child-sized versions of the real thing.
  • Give them a lift: Help your child experiment with lifting with or without a pulley, and talk about the difference. With your assistance, allow your child to use or make a small pulley to lift small buckets of sand, blocks, and other objects. Pulleys can be purchased at the hardware store or can be made from a coat hanger and empty spool of thread.

Some of us may not feel like science is our strongest area of expertise; but it doesn't take a mastery of physics to notice children's interests in how things work and to then build upon these interests to nurture inquisitive young scientists.

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