While the thought of science learning may make the mightiest adult buckle at the knees, it doesn’t frighten young children one iota. That's because kids have an innate sense of adventure and are naturally curious about how the world works - two prerequisites for science learning that preschoolers have in spades. But in order for a child’s natural sense of awe to grow into a bonafide interest in science, it must be nurtured.
Rest assured: you don’t have to join the ranks of Sir Isaac Newton, or wear a fancy lab coat to teach your preschooler simple physics concepts. “Lessons in science can be implemented into a child’s everyday experiences,” says retired pre-kindergarten teacher Tricia Young. And there is no better place to start than at your kid’s favorite outdoor hotspot. Here’s how to turn your child’s romp at the playground into a fun-filled adventure in science!
- Gaining Momentum
Momentum gives things the power to increase at an ever growing speed. Each time your child hops on a swing and pumps her legs, momentum is at work. The more she pumps those legs, the faster the swing will go!
On your next visit to the playground with your preschooler, head over to the swing set and introduce her to the concept of momentum. Start by saying something like, “Let’s see how much momentum you can build by pumping your legs on the swing.” Once your preschooler begins to move her legs, observe out loud that the momentum she's building by moving her legs is making the swing go faster. And when your child stops moving her legs, explain that since her legs are no longer in motion, the swing will lose momentum, and slow down until it stops.
- Resistance Training
Friction is the resistance encountered by moving objects when they are in contact with each other, and it is at play in everyday life – even when kids are at the playground. So before you head out on your next playground excursion, grab a carpet square and a large piece of cloth made from a material such as cotton (an old t-shirt will do).
Once you get to the playground, head on over to the sliding board and let your preschooler slide down while she’s sitting on the carpet square, and then again while sitting on the cloth material. When your child is done with the experiment, ask her which material gave the smoothest ride. Naturally, the carpet square will cause more resistance on the sliding board surface, so your youngster won’t have an easy time sliding down. Whereas the soft cloth will produce significantly less friction and glide effortlessly down the sliding board. Your child can do this simple friction activity using other materials such as cardboard, butcher paper, and waxed paper.
- Balancing Act
In order to achieve balance, two objects must be equal in weight to cancel each other out and maintain stability. And the perfect place to teach your child about the physics of balance is on a seesaw! You’ll need at least two people to carry out this experiment, preferably someone with a slight weight variance to your child, and a sturdy seesaw, such as the ones found on playgrounds. For safety purposes, lay down some ground rules for the kids to follow such as no jumping on or off the seesaw.
Once the rules are established, have the child that weighs the least sit on one end of the seesaw first, and then have the heavier child or adult sit on the opposite end. Did the seesaw stay balanced? Now, have the child that weighs the most scoot towards the center of the teeter-totter to see what happens. If the heavier child keeps inching towards the center, the seesaw will eventually balance – not because the kids’ weights changed, but because the larger child created enough distance on the seesaw to offset the weight of the child on the opposite end!
“When you’re introducing simple laws of physics to preschoolers, it’s important to talk to them to help them process their observations and raise their level of thinking,” says preschool program director Tammie Donald. But your goal is not to bore your child with long science lectures: it’s to plant seeds that will continuously nurture her natural desire to learn. Want more ways to introduce science learning at the playground? Here are more quick and easy ways to work science learning into any playground outing:
- Increased Heart Beat. Have your child feel his heartbeat before he starts to play. Let him run around the playground a couple of times, and then let him feel his heartbeat again. Does he notice his heart beating faster? Why did this happen?
- Resistance From Air. Give your child two pieces of paper (identical size and weight). Have him crumple one of the pieces of paper into a ball, and leave the other one flat. Let your child drop both pieces of paper from the top of the sliding board at the same time. Which piece of paper falls faster? Even though both pieces of paper are identical, the flat piece has more air resistance, so it takes longer to hit the ground.
- Windy Day Sand Experiment. On a windy day, have your child hold a handful of dry sand in one hand (provide goggles to protect your child’s eyes), and a handful of wet sand in the other. Ask him to extend his arms and open both hands toward the direction of the wind. Why didn’t the wet sand blow away?
- Direction of the Wind. On a slightly windy day, ask your child to use his senses to figure out which way the wind is blowing. Does he feel the wind on a certain part of his face? Is his shirt blowing in a particular direction? Which way are the leaves on the trees blowing?
- Sink or Float. Fill a container with water (carry a bottle of water to the playground), and drop different items in it – rocks, leaves, grass, and twigs. Which items sink to the bottom? Which items stay afloat?
- A Sand Examination. Have your child place a little sand on a piece of plain white paper and examine it with a magnifying glass. Are all the grains the same size and color? Do the grains of sand reflect light?
- Wet and Dry Sand Footprints. Have your child leave his footprint in both wet and dry sand. Which type of sand made the best footprint? Why?
- Rolling Balls Down the Slide. Let your child roll two different sized balls such as a tennis ball, and a basketball down the slide (don’t push the balls, let gravity do the work). Use a timer to determine which ball reaches the bottom of the slide the fastest.
- Wet and Dry Sand Shapes. Have your child fill one bucket with dry sand, and another bucket with wet sand. Pack the sand in both buckets tightly. Ask your child to gently turn each bucket upside down to remove the sand. What happened to the wet sand when it was poured out of the bucket? What about the dry sand?
- Shadow Hunt. Have your child walk around the playground and look for shadows made by playground equipment and trees. Encourage your child to find his own shadow, and do a little dancing!
Want more ideas for preschool science learning? Check out more of our preschool science activities.