If you live in an area where maple trees grow, your kids might have found maple seeds, also called “helicopter seeds” for the spiral flight pattern they take when dropped, to be fascinating toys. Take to the air with science by experimenting with helicopter seeds right in your own backyard!
Maple leaf (“helicopter”) seeds, various shapes and sizes, collected from outdoors
What You Do:
Help your child collect maple leaf “helicopter” seeds during a walk outside. You’ll likely find plenty on the ground under the maple trees in your neighborhood.
Have your child pick seeds of various widths and lengths. Have him measure the length of seeds he will use and make a chart, drawing a picture of each seed and recording the length of each one.
Have him make a hypothesis, a best guess, about which seed will rotate fastest when dropped from the same level of height.
Next he can drop each seed from the same level of height and observe the flight pattern of each seed. He can record on his chart a diagram or written description of the flight pattern. Did the seed spin quickly? Slowly? In a tight circle? In a wider circle? Horizontally? Or did it spin with the seed pod part lower down and the leaf part pointing up vertically?
How did the spinning results compare with his hypothesis about which seed would spin fastest? Can he make any general conclusions about how helicopter seeds spin when they are certain lengths? For example, he might find that shorter length seeds spin fastest, or that seeds with larger seed pods spin more vertically.
Another experiment idea is to put invisible tape on some maple leaf seeds and then record flight patterns, comparing taped to non-taped leaves. He can also try comparing the flight of wet seeds to dry ones.
Explain to your child that aerodynamics make seeds spin, much like a real helicopter’s blades. Air pressure over the surface of the maple seed sucks the wing upward to oppose the gravity which simultaneously pulls it down. Wind speed also affects the flights of helicopter seeds. There’s so much to learn from tiny seeds!
Beth Levin has an M.A. in Curriculum and Education from Columbia University Teachers College. She has written educational activities for Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and Renaissance Learning publishers. She has a substitute teaching credential for grades K-12 in Oregon, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.