Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Exploring Physics in Childhood

How did you explore the concepts of physics when you were a child? Do you remember the toy, Slinky? This was a toy that helped you intuitively learn physics. My sisters and I each owned a Slinky and had races with them down the stairs in our house. We were experimenting with how fast or slowly we pushed the Slinky off the steps, in actuality, an inclined plane. A physicist would have told us we were experimenting with force versus distance.

You don't have to be a physicist to explore the concepts of physics; you just need the right materials for exploration and discovery. Some concepts of basic physics involve exploring motion, gravity, friction and speed while using simple machines such as wheels, gears, pulleys, inclined planes, wedges, screws and levers. The exhibits in Make it Move (MIM) were developed so that children could explore some concepts of basic physics while playing with simple machines. As children play with the exhibits in MIM, they can begin to intuitively understand some of these concepts and, with the support of their grown-up play partners, learn the vocabulary to describe them. Look at how many words (bold) we can use to describe simple machines and some of the basic concepts in physics.

Children explore gears at our Gear Table. Here they discover that a gear is a wheel with teeth, which allow it to interlock and turn another gear. They may also notice the ratio between a bigger and smaller gear.

Playing at our Cam Ball Lifter, children observe cams, which are wheels or gears with an offset axle used to make something happen in a specific order. Here it does just as the name implies; it lifts the ball towards the funnel for increasingly greater energy in motion for the awaiting ramps.

Speaking of ramps, there are lots of opportunities to discover that ramps are inclined planes that help the speed of a ball move more easily, slower or faster. A simple machine that does the work for us! After all, isn't that what working with simple machines is all about, that is, using a force to move an object a distance?

The momentum of the object at the Experimentation Station may vary depending upon what object is chosen. Even our youngest visitors can be observed experimenting with balls and spools down one ramp and trying out the car on the magnetic levitation (mag lev) ramp.

To learn more about the design and building of the exhibits in Make it Move, read an interview with Mark Wickart, Exhibit Fabrication and Maintenance Manager; and Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits and Design, here.

If you and your child would like to explore (and have fun) with a Slinky, you can purchase one in our Explorer Store.

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