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If you assumed that physics was outside of your child’s grasp until secondary school, think again! Early STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) has gained momentum in recent years and considering that children learn best through play, it’s no surprise that games and activities hold the key to unlocking these skills. The more you help facilitate your child’s scientific discovery, the faster your child will understand the natural world and its role within it.
The concepts of friction and gravity are especially ripe for the picking in getting your child interested in physics, with plenty of opportunities for practical exercises, either indoors or outdoors. But how can parents best get started in a way that is age-appropriate and maximises the fun?
In canvassing the play-based opportunities to teach children about friction and gravity, we naturally sought the advice of our friends at VTech, Australia’s leader in electronic, educational toys. They’re the brains behind two new ‘marble run’ playsets – the Marble Rush Adventure Set and Marble Rush Launch Pad, accredited with a STEAM certification by the highly respected Toy Association. Let’s explore the ways to make friction and gravity fun for your kids and potentially inspire a lifelong passion!
Harness their natural curiosity
Children become sensitive to cause and effect at a young age, so rest assured that they have a natural curiosity that can flourish under the right play conditions. Too often, parents can become fixated on the complicated nature of science and underestimate the value of a back-to-basics approach to provide the building blocks for future learning. As we’re reminded by educators in the field: “Science literacy is like any other kind of literacy. Children need to be regularly exposed to a topic to feel comfortable with it and begin to understand it” [source]. For children under the age of 12 who aren’t ready for textbook-style learning, the best approach is hands-on, interactive activities that explore the elements of cause and effect, head-on.
Guidelines for introducing gravity and friction to kids:
The need to bring physics theory to life in real-world scenarios shouldn’t be a daunting prospect for parents. Remember these 5 golden rules for successful learning through play.
- Know your audience and keep it simple (no jargon!)
- Organise tactile, hands-on displays of movement with natural and synthetic materials
- When supervising physics-based activities, ask what/why/how questions to hold their interest
- Summarise key takeaways at the end of each play exercise
- Don’t give them all the answers; trial and error are important in learning outcomes (in fact, this is how many important scientific discoveries were made!)
If you’re struggling to think of games/activities that incorporate gravity and friction, or just want to identify a reliable one that covers all the bases, ‘marble run’ games are an ideal choice.
Why marble runs?
Marbles have been a fixture of play since ancient civilisations and are just as relevant for kids today. They feature in many games that invite kids to experiment with the laws of physics, and marble run games – which harness the movement of marbles on different tracks and courses – offer a framework to assist kids in reaching learning outcomes while being undeniably fun, edge-of-your-seat play!
As early STEAM education, experts conclude: “Marble obstacle course projects are an engaging way to help [kids] develop their understanding of the concepts of force, motion, inertia, gravity and balance. From simple courses made from household objects to more complex machines involving mechanical parts, marble obstacle course projects are adaptable to students of several grade levels and abilities” [source]. Indeed, VTech’s Marble Rush range consists of 3 building levels from beginner to advanced, meaning they are suitable for pre-schoolers right through to primary school-aged children. Thankfully for parents, it also means your child won’t outgrow the purchase for a number of years! Check them out here.
While marble runs can either be homemade or store-bought, the most important factor is that they allow for experimentation with changing variables such as track length, slopes/angles, and offer room for modifications to surface texture. So, how exactly does the learning process work for kids when constructing a marble run, and what role do parents play?
- How they teach gravity: Dropping things from a height and propelling them down (or up) a slope, is the aim of the game with marble runs, and ties in directly with gravity as the concept of ‘what goes up must come down. Or more scientifically, ‘the force that attracts a body towards the centre of the earth or towards any other physical body having mass.’
It’s important your child gets an opportunity to build and test different tracks that cause the marble to drop from different heights and angles and to speed up or slow down, to observe gravitational pull. Help your child make predictions to solidify their learning, by posing questions such as: When the slope is steeper, will the ball move faster or slower? When it comes out the bottom, will it go farther than it did before?
- How they teach friction: Friction is the resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another, and kids will surely notice its effect during a marble run – especially when new textures are incorporated to change the behaviour of the marble (slowing down) as it moves along the track. Rooted in kinetic energy or ‘energy in motion, it means the marble rolled on plastic will react differently to its movement on grass, for example.
You can help your child absorb this concept and form their own hypotheses, by proving different materials to line the tubes of the marble run and asking questions such as: Which materials do you think will slow down the marble? Which surfaces might make it go faster?
VTech’s Marble Rush Adventure Set and Marble Rush LaunchPad
Constructing your own marble run games entirely from scratch is not always practical, and performed games with more ‘bells and whistles’ can provide extra stimulation through a more holistic sensory experience. A leader in highly interactive marble run games, let’s explore the two new products in VTech’s exciting range that teach the principles of gravity and friction discussed above. They’re the perfect STEAM gift for this year’s holiday season!
VTech Marble Rush Adventure Set
It’s time for the ultimate project build, with the Marble Rush Adventure Set! This exciting colour-coded playset features all the pieces you need to create a Marble Rush Adventure full of jumps, stunts, and even an electronic Ferris wheel! The 2 electronic modules allow for marble runs to be reset or tracks to be split, all whilst playing cool music and sound effects to enhance the experience. With 10 marbles included and 135 building pieces to assemble, there is plenty of fun to be had! It includes easy to follow assembly instructions and is compatible with other VTech Marble Rush items.
- This building set includes 135 building pieces and features a spinning Ferris wheel, a musical light-show, fast tracks, extreme launchers and more, which easily connect together.
- Colour-coded blocks and the easy-to-follow guide help your child construct three different builds – from beginner to advanced – or to create your own customised course.
- Includes 10 marbles to drop and launch through the courses; compete to complete the basket or ramp challenges.
VTech Marble Rush LaunchPad
Are you ready for a far-out journey into space with the Marble Rush LaunchPad!? This exciting colour-coded playset features all the pieces you need to create a space-themed Marble Rush voyage full of jumps, stunts and even includes an electronic spaceship!
The electronic spaceship module triggers cool music and sound effects when marbles run through it, enhancing your child’s outer space-themed adventure! With 10 marbles included and 79 building pieces to assemble, it offers plenty of entertainment to facilitate kids’ learning. It includes easy to follow assembly instructions as is compatible with other VTech Marble Rush products.
- This colour-coded building set includes 79 building pieces and features a musical, light-show rocket ship, fast tracks, extreme launchers and more, which easily connects together.
- Colour-coded blocks and an easy-to-follow guide help you construct three different builds from beginner to advanced, or create your own customised version.
- Includes 10 marbles to drop and launch through courses; compete to complete the launcher and jump challenges.
To learn more about these products that nurture your child’s STEAM learning, visit the VTech website.