Exploring Physics with Marble Runs and Hot Wheels in Second Grade

Physics was that class in high school that I wrongly believed was only for the super smart kids.  I thought that because that was the message that given to those of us who were not in the top 10% academically.  These were the days before AP Physics and much of the high stakes testing that kids are subjected to.  Back then you were either smart or ‘not.’  Unfortunately, and quite wrongly, I fell into the ‘not.’

Children, even the youngest, can learn a tremendous amount through exploring physical properties.  In fact, if it feels like play, they don’t even realize they are learning.  Over the past two weeks, my second grade students have explored the physical concepts of force, motion, mass, kinetic energy and centripetal force.  To the untrained eye, it may look like they were just playing with marbles and Hot Wheels, but to the veteran teacher, one is able to see that with a bit of gentle guidance, the principles of physics are being explored and understood.


I always give kids ‘sandbox time,’ a term a colleague introduced me to, when we have a new learning tool.  The marble runs were new to the kids and so I gave them about a half a period to explore.  Then I stopped and gave them all a challenge.  They had to merge their creation with another team of two and use all the pieces they had.  The collaboration and negotiations were incredible.  Some groups came together with no problems.  Others could barely connect their structures becuase they could not see how they might join.  We debriefed after this first lesson and talked about what was interesting and what was difficult about the new tool and working with other teams.



Then this past week, I brought out a favorite tool: Hot Wheels.  Hot Wheels were only a ‘boy toy’ when I was growing up and I am very proud to say that the girls in our school are just as big of fans.  In fact, they tend to have even greater understanding of how the parts go together and more defined fine motor skills.  This was true when I introduced a new element to the Hot Wheels kits: curves.  These new pieces allow the students to add gentle curves or even combine them into corkscrews and a wide variety of combinations.

After reviewing how these new pieces fit togehter, I gave the kids a challenge to begin the period.  They needed to have one loop and a curve in their design.  It had to complete the loop and curve sucessfully three times in order to be deemed a ‘success.’  When they had done that, they were to let me know and I added a video of their project to their Seesaw portfolio.

For the groups that finished fairly quickly, I also had them each describe the biggest thing they learned from the challenge.

The responses were almost always about how much power the car had to generate to make it through the loop; but it couldn’t have too much power or it would shoot off the curve.  What they were learning, albeit mostly through exploration, was the mathematics behind the physics.

What they saw was fun!

One of my favorite solutions didn’t involve an eleveated release at all.  This group had the idea of ‘pushing’ the car to give it enough power.  They pushed it from a flat surface and it passed through the loop and curve easily and efficiently.  They solved the challenge unlike any other group and did so in less than five minutes.  It was exciting to see the joy on their faces when I told them that no other groups had solved the problem that way.

And to think, they learned all that with Hot Wheels and Marble Runs!


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