learning through play: air cannons and marble mazes

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We’ve been doing some fun science play the last little while. A few days ago the boys and I made “air cannons” with old yogurt containers. Just poke a hole in the bottom of the containers, cut the end off a balloon and pull the balloon over the big opening of the yogurt container. Or instead of a balloon you can seal a plastic bag around the opening, so that the bag can be slowly pulled out (sucking air in) and then pushed in.  After the fun of just pressing on it wore off, the children wanted it to fire something, so we attached a straw and shot spitballs through it. Later we experimented with shooting feathers and marbles from them.

Then I took a glass jar, filled it half full with water and blue food coloring, and used part of a balloon over the jar opening. I showed the kids how when I pressed down gently on a bit of the balloon the balloon bulged up in other places. There was no place for the air to escape. Next I took a straw and some obnoxious blue modeling stuff (that I hate because it inevitably gets mashed into carpets) and I peeled back the balloon at one part and fixed the straw as an escape valve. Then I could press down hard on the balloon and we could watch the water shoot up and out of the straw.

The next day the boys started building marble mazes with a set of wooden marble maze pieces an uncle and aunt gave them. After they had played for a while, I noticed that one of the marble maze pieces was the perfect size to stick out the window of a wooden castle we have. So we started seeing how we could incorporate the castle into the marble maze. We invited friends over and they joined us in trying to build onto the castle. By this time the marble maze pieces were taking a supporting role and not center stage. We had taken to fixing things up with strings, pipe cleaners, wooden dowels, card paper and any other building supplies we could find around the house. Most of our ideas didn’t quite work, but for a while we had a cardboard tube set up as a teeter totter, ready to drop a marble a random direction. We were aiming to get it so that the marble would drop into a paper cup which would then unwind a string from around a stick at the same time winding a string up the other end of the stick. We did find that we could close a little castle door by dropping marbles down a ramp into a paper-net attached to the drawbridge strings, thus making them pull the drawbridge up. We also experimented with catapult possibilities.
I still have memories from a presentation I watched once as a teenager. It was part of a training session for volunteer councilors at a children’s camp, and the presenter talked about how instead of just leading children through a step by step process to create the same craft everyone else is, we could present the children with an abundance of materials and encourage them to create something of their own. During the conversation the woman mentioned a place called Imagination Market, a store which I later went to. For a token amount of money a person could fill a container with bits of colored wire, little computer chips, fabric scraps and other assorted cast-offs. I went there a couple of times and it was an amazing place. While I don’t know of a comparable store near where I live now, I attempt to stockpile random objects that my children can use.I struggle sometimes with the question of how much to guide the children through activities like these and how much to let the children do their own creations. When we are building something like the castle marble maze should I share my ideas with them or leave them to come up with their own ideas only? At times I find that stepping in and making suggestions does encourage them to think of the objects they are using in different ways. It is always a balance but I like that they will often reject my ideas in favor of their own. When we do our collective projects like this I am not the person with the right answers but simplely another explorer. If they don’t think one of my ideas will work they argue with me. Sometimes I can prove them wrong, sometimes they prove me wrong. They will also expand upon my ideas and take them directions I hadn’t thought of.When an idea fails we say “back to the drawing board” or “don’t sell the bike shop yet Orville.” That last is a quote from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, and I love that Calvin and Hobbes gives me chances to explain to them other things, like who Orville was. Everything interconnects. I want my kids to think of themselves as inventors and to have lots of opportunities to invent things.
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One Comment


    This is awesome! Thanks for the ideas. Lately I’ve been stockpiling some materials for my boys, and I want to try to allow them to build/construct on their own too. It’s so hard to know when to not intervene. My youngest is 2, so he needs a lot of help. I hope as they get older, I’ll be able to back off more, and I’ll know WHEN I need to back off more.

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