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Gravity, friction, inertia, and momentum. These are the physics concepts that can be explored with young children using a 4-to-5-foot board, a stack of books or bricks, and things you probably have around the house. Sound daunting? It’s really not. As a significant adult in your child’s life, you are a teacher. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to experiment and play with physics (but bravo if you are!).
Gather up some balls. Golf balls, practice golf balls, ping pong balls, tennis balls, baseballs, Nerf® balls, etc. Any and all small balls will do. Start at the top and let them roll down the board, two to three at a time. Observe what happens. Ask your child what they saw. Did they all get to the bottom at the same time? Which one(s) rolled further. Take a close look at the balls. Are they smooth or rough? Are they different sizes? Are they the same weight? These are all characteristics that will affect the way the balls roll down the board. Change the slope of the board by adding or removing some books or blocks. Observe whether or not this causes any changes.
So – where is the physics? Inertia just means that something stays at rest until a force acts on it. As you hold the objects at the top of the board, they don’t move until something makes them move. That’s where gravity comes into play. Gravity acts on the balls and pushes them down the board. Friction will affect the balls rolling down the board, as will the size and weight. Smoother balls with no indentations will roll faster than rougher, more textured ones. As the balls roll, they gain momentum. Momentum refers to how far the balls will roll once they’re off the board. This is affected, again, by the size, weight, and texture of the balls. Smoother balls with less friction will have more momentum than textured ones, and heavier balls (having greater mass) will have more than lighter ones (having less mass).
Now that you have a board, there are other experiments that can be done. Gather up pieces of different types and textures of cloth. Wrap them around blocks of short cans (like tuna cans) and secure around the rim with rubber bands. Allow these cloth-covered blocks to slide down the board. Many of the same observations can be made and questions can be asked here as with the balls experiments.
Physics with young children is fun. Often, no special equipment is needed. A lot of what you and your child do on a daily basis is actually physics, and these ideas are just a small part of it. Think about how this can be related to your child’s everyday life the next time they go down the slide at the playground. Ah, physics!