Push and Pull: Physics of Motion in Action - DuPage Children's Museum

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Push and Pull: Physics of Motion in Action

July 14, 2016

Last week, Alix Tonsgard, our Early Learning Specialist, explored some of the basic underpinnings of physics in action for children. This week, we add to our base with some more thoughts on how to explore the physics of motion both at home and at the museum.

A toddler’s earliest experiences are based on developing and coordinating motor skills. They start their lives trying to move, then master crawling before graduating to pulling themselves upright without assistance. Thus, the child builds on prior mental pathways by developing problem-solving strategies to take new and novel approaches to their movements. With age and maturity comes more developed thoughts and problem solving. With this increased mental complexity, problem solving also becomes more developed.

The Beginnings of Physics
As parents, we facilitate these cognitive connections by offering play materials that allow children to create solutions to increasingly complex tasks. In their book, Ramps & Pathways: A Constructivist Approach to Physics With Young Children, Rheta DeVries and Christina Sales discuss how we construct knowledge in ways that develop thinking and organize thoughts, and thus building intelligence.

Children continually experience new things in their environment. Objects in motion are part of their world. Problem-solving and science both begin with attempting to answer questions. What makes things move? What makes a ball roll? Or stop rolling? The physics of motion are all around us, yet moving objects are such commonplace events that we often take them for granted. Yet these everyday happenings are valuable teachable moments that your young child can investigate.

All motion starts with a force, which is simply a push or a pull. To get a stationary ball to move, a force must be exerted. You can either push the ball or pull it, but some force must be applied to make the ball change position from its resting, stationary state. In science, we refer to this as inertia, the tendency for an object, in this case the ball, to remain at its present state of motion. If the ball is stationary it will stay still, motionless until a force is exerted to get it to move. Likewise, a rolling ball will stay moving forever unless it is acted on by a force. Let us see how we can use these ideas with our children.

At Home Activities

Using blocks, books, boxes or Lego bricks, have children create a small tower as a starting point for the ramp. Teachers use all kinds of materials for ramps: long paper tubes, wood cove moldings, pool noodles, black foam pipe insulation, PVC pipe or Hot Wheels track. Have several objects available to send down the ramp: marbles, golf balls, or toy cars.

Children can experiment with the many variables that go into this activity. What happens to the speed of the object traveling down the ramp as the height of the ramp changes? What makes the object stop moving? Can you make it accelerate or decelerate?

Have the child explore variations of this activity. Besides the height of the ramp, ask the child to experiment with different shaped objects going down the incline (a small wooden block, the weight of the objects, the size of the object or different surface materials for the ramp (cardboard versus sandpaper, for example).

Soda Ball Bowling
Kids can experiment with this classic version of bowling. Fill ten water bottles with colored liquid and use an appropriate-sized ball for your own version of bowling.

How much force is required for the bowling ball to knock over the pins? What happens when you change the amount of force on the ball?

Demonstrate how to arrange the pins as in traditional bowling or invite the children to create different patterns. Help the kids keep track of how many pins have been knocked over.

CD Hovercraft
Use a hot glue gun to attach a squirt-type bottle cap over the center hole of an old CD. If this type of cap is not available, a regular bottle cap with many nail holes will work. Use just enough glue to make the seal airtight. Inflate the balloon and stretch it over the bottle cap. Set the hovercraft on a smooth table and let it go.

If your hovercraft is unsuccessful at first, test that you have an airtight seal around the bottle cap. You and enhance air flow by adding more holes to the bottle cap.

Ask children what is happening. What makes your hovercraft float? What forces are at work? What happens when you have more or less air in the balloon? Let the child investigate to find the answers.

At The Children’s Museum

Ramps and Rollers
Our museum started in 1987 as a mobile kit of ramps and rollers being brought out to area preschools, park districts, scout troops, and other organizations. Our museum founders, Louise Beem and Dorothy Carpenter, realized that simple physics were an excellent vehicle for exploration and problem solving. We have an an entire area of the museum dedicated to making things move.

Try the original wood blocks that Dorothy and Louise used. Let the child explore in many different ways. Can they make the ball change directions? What will make the ball move uphill? Experiment with combinations of our original wood track pieces with the new rubber track we have available.

Foam Wall Track
We offer several variations of using ramps to allow children to experiment and construct knowledge. With our foam wall, plastic shelves of different lengths are inserted to make a vertical maze for a ball to travel through. This exhibit allows a ball to travel back and forth in a myriad of options that your child can explore.

Magnetic Wall Tracks
At the museum, we have two magnetic wall track systems to create ramps out. Can they make the ball go back and forth along their maze system? Can they add more track to make their project bigger?

And On and On and On
While at the museum, don’t forget all the other exhibits that help children learn about motion! Enjoy your child’s discoveries as they take their first steps into the world of physics.


Bucher, E. and Hernandez, M. 2016. “Beyond Bouncing the Ball: Toddlers and Teachers Investigate Physics.” Young Children 71(3): 17-24

Copple, C., & S. Bredekamp, eds. 2009. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth Through Age 8. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Kamii, C., & R. DeVries. 1993. Physical Knowledge in Preschool Education: Implications of Piaget’s Theory. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Bittman, E. 2016. “Simple Physics Experiments for Kids: Pushing and Pulling.” We Are Teachers.

NAEYC. 2009. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. National Association for the Education of Young Children.