Physics with preschoolers

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Physics with Preschoolers

In the fall of 1998 I was a student intern in a preschool classroom at the Cushman Scott Children's Center in Amherst, MA. I spent three days a week with the three to five year olds. As a culmination of my internship I had to design and facilitate a two-week curriculum unit. As I planned my two weeks of master teaching I listened carefully to the children to find out what it was that they were most interested in. I also spoke with my colleagues and we came to the consensus that the preschoolers were really interested in things that spin. Thus my journey into the world of preschool physics began.

I began my search at the public library to try to find out all I could about beginning physics. I searched the Internet for lessons that revolved around “spinning things.” I wanted to provide the children with a variety of spinning objects to help expand their knowledge of the physical movement of spinning objects. I searched my house and found a wide variety of twirling objects that were generated by different forces. I gathered up wind up toys (a wind up car, a music box), a battery operated toy (a spin art machine), a wind powered toy (a pinwheel), a toy that is spun using ones hand (a doodle pen/top, microscope shaped kaleidoscope with a magnetic spinning base), a water powered toy (a water wheel sealed in a plastic container that turns when oil is poured through a tiny hole on one end onto the water wheel that then turns), a solar powered toy (a radiometer), and a string powered toy (a gyroscope) and placed them in a large mysterious box.

On my first day of my master teaching I presented the preschoolers with a closed mystery box at morning circle. I also placed a spinning art machine on an art table. As I pulled all the aforementioned spinning objects from the box I asked the children to look closely at all the items and see if they had anything in common. We passed the items around the circle and spoke about what each one was. Once all the toys were out of the box and examined by each child we talked about the similarities between the objects. I then asked the preschoolers to think about other things that spin. After we compiled a list of various spinning objects I suggested that the preschoolers experiment with the different spinning objects that I had brought in. I wanted to give them the opportunity to predict and later test why and how certain things spin. I placed the spinning objects on a big table and invited the children to experiment with the items. As they manipulated the objects I asked them about what it was that made these different items spin. This group of children gathered around the table shared ideas about the different spinning properties. Each child was given the opportunity to explain how he/she thought the item was powered. Some of the spinning contraptions were obvious: a string was pulled, a knob was turned; others will be harder to fathom, especially the solar paneled radiometer, the gyroscope and the fact that the green liquid and clear liquid act against each other in making the water wheel spin. With the more complicated items I offered hints and/or provided simple demonstrations to scaffold the children's comprehension. We discussed why the children came to their conclusions as they compared their findings with their classmates. My goal was to ultimately provide the opportunity for the preschoolers to understand the variety of forces that cause an item to spin.

This experimentation with the spinning objects continued for at least three weeks (even though my master teaching was only supposed to be two weeks long). Everyday I introduced a new spinning item and set up activities in which the children could make their own new spinning objects. I placed a waterwheel in the water table. I provided the materials for the children to make their own whirligigs, simple tops, pinwheels, and a spinning group mobile. Children also brought in their own spinning items from home. They told “spinning stories” and later acted them using their bodies as spinning objects.

I chose this curriculum unit based on the children's interests. The activities evolved from one day to the next. I looked at what the children were particularly interested and I focused on this. I ultimately wanted the preschoolers to discover for themselves the various ways that objects spin. We began by brainstorming about all the different things that spin. The children continually added items to the list throughout the three-week lesson. Through peer discussions and hands on experimentation they were able to think about additional items that spin. Their list included: a wheel, a dress, a person, a ball, a chicken, a cup, merry-go-round, smoke, a flashlight, a tree, a tail, rolling over like a telly tubby, your fingers, trains that spin as they go around corners, pumpkins, people, a piano stool, a driedel, and a tornado. They also experimented with the ways that the items spun so as to think about what caused the spinning to take place. By the end of the three-week period these three and four year olds really understood the different reasons why various objects are able to rotate. They had experimented with wind, water and solar energy. They had pulled strings and looked at the gears were responsible for movement. They were sharing their discoveries at home and in the classroom. They were completely engaged in this voyage of discovery.

The spinning items that drew the most interest were the spin art machine, the oil powered water wheel apparatus, the microscope/ kaleidoscope and the solar powered radiometer. The spin art machine was very engaging. The children poured spoonfuls of paint onto the wheel and watched as their colors blended into new colors as new designs and patterns were created. The oil-powered water wheel was also a big hit. The kids just kept taking turns turning it over and over. They were fascinated with the way that the oil caused the wheel to spin yet they thought that the green oil and the clear water were both water. They weren't sure about why the two didn't mix. They continually looked at the microscope/kaleidoscope while they arranged the magnets in different ways. The radiometer was a real mystery to them I showed it to them at circle so that they'd notice that it was stationary. I then set it on the windowsill and asked them to tell me if anything started to happen. At lunchtime the radiometer, sitting in the sunny window, was spinning like crazy. I asked the kids if they noticed anything about it now. First they noted that it was spinning. I asked them why and this conversation followed:
A - “Maybe there is air in them.”
J - “If you turn it maybe it will stop spinning.”
N - “Because the sun.”
Kate - “Why do you think it's the sun?”
N - “I don't know.”
J - “Because there's a screen. If you open the window it will spin even faster.”
E - “Because it is hot.”
J - “Because there's lots of air in there.”

The preschoolers also really liked the gyroscope but were unable to spin it themselves because the string would get caught in the gyroscope if it weren't held in a certain way. They wanted to pick the spinning gyroscope up but only a couple of the preschoolers were able to do this without stopping the spinning in the process. The pinwheels were also a bit of a disappointment. The students made and decorated these with the help of a teacher but had difficulty in getting them to twirl properly.

If I were to do this activity again I would try to find more activities that the preschoolers could do themselves with little help from a teacher. This would be difficult because they are so young. Instead of making pinwheels perhaps I could have just had them try to fold pieces of paper so that they could spin or facilitate activities in which they could use their bodies as spinning objects (I suggested they do this during dramatization though it didn't work out as I planned). I would try to find kid friendly gyroscopes so that the kids could power them themselves.

This activity could be extended in a variety of ways. A few suggestions are: a tornado in a bottle experiment, an oil and water mixture experiment which could include a lava lamp, a take apart table of spinning things, a pottery wheel, making books with spinning parts (I read a few of these and the kids loved them), a demonstration on spinning wool, and making board games with spinners.

This activity was based on the interests of the children. I focused on the children's prior knowledge as I facilitated several hands on activities that were instigated by the children's own ideas. I included the 5 E's learning cycle in my lesson plan. I used a constructivist approach as I invited the children to learn by elaborating on a topic that interested them and asking them to share their ideas with the class. They explored the items I brought in and discovered, through hands on experimentation, why they worked. They created spinning objects of their own as they tried to understand what makes them spin. They proposed various explanations and solutions about why the specific items spun. Finally the children were able to take action on what they learned by explaining to their classmates, their parents and their teachers about the discoveries they made concerning why different objects spin. Once again I thought I was teaching the young students about a particular topic (beginning physics) but they were actually teaching me.