Risky Physics Lessons For Preschoolers and Kindergartners

In these past weeks we have been learning about physics in the Pre-K and kindergarten class and we been putting bodies and tires to the test. Our supplies are simple; we hand over two ropes each about 25 feet in length, some wooden beams, and several car tires.

Through the use of these materials kids are able to experiment outside with knots, slopes, angles, ideas, and different ways of balancing. After setting up what I referred to as an “obstacle course,” and the kids coined as a “playground,” others in the class soon join in. Adjustments are made as they learned to counter measure each step they take, calculating each move and setting up their physics experiments in accordance to their visual perceptions. Occasional someone tumbles and quickly bounces up, to try again, shifting a step or grip or readjusting their positioning to make the movement possible.

Outside with the ropes they make up their own knots or wrap them around various objects (play structure, stumps, trees, poles, etc.) to test out the friction and resistance as they either pull, climb, stretch, or wrap their bodies around the rope. They also attached a rope across the upper part of the slide using to supportive beams as anchors – then used the rope to pull them selves up the slide as a group. Jimmy, a five year old set up a pulley like system to around a pole to drag a stump. As a facilitator I occasionally would set up a tight rope for the challenge of walking on or a tire swing. But most of the physics experiments were conducted through the ingenuity of play with rather simple materials.

In another schoolyard are a bunch of wooden beams and car tires.
These random objects laid out on the play-yard entice them to experiment. Their testing out their balance and coordination by propping wooden beams against the fence and climbing to the highest point – to then slide down – always trying again and with a new angle.

The other day someone had the idea to lay two of the beams side by side on a table outside, along with another two that butted right up against the two on the table, which sloped to the ground. They then were taking turns carrying and passing tires to each other – rolling the tires down a slight gap they kept in the between the two boards and watched in awe and excitement as the tires rolled down the slope they created. Their creation was ingenious certainly nothing I thought of using the materials for, as a teacher who simple just decided to casually leave them in a heap in the middle of our school yard, one afternoon.

But can these self-imposed or cooperate physics games or play occur without some degree of risk? Yes, we had one bump on the head and several falls, but certainly no blood shed. And this is a rather physical group, as most four and five year olds are.

Movement is critical at this particular age group and their always wanting to test new heights, either through scaling furniture, fences, adult legs, playground structures and it is our duty to provide safe ways for this need for movement to occur. And it begins by introducing the materials and also letting go of some adult anxieties.

Adults have a habit of placing reservations about what a child or child cannot do in their world of exploration – and these self imposed expectations, can inhibit what could other wise be a moment for growth and new insight. In other words, as an adult it is easy to impose restrictions on play based on a general concern for safety without fully rethinking what can be gained from taking the actual risk.

The simple response most teachers would mutter, who don’t rethink the distinction between what is risky and what is unsafe typically sounds like this: “please stop that because it is unsafe.” Of course, we want to rule out those unsafe measures, but in an environment where play is a commonly accepted and an appropriately integrated into the curriculum, rarely have I experienced a child perform a activity or take a risk that had me concerned for their safety and the safety of others. For instance, if a child is picking up a five pound rock, as I have commonly observed in the playground to test their strength and to have a sensory experience with the rawness of the earth – I can never just spew out of my mouth that what their doing is unsafe. Yes, this may possible lead to an unsafe situations, but their intentions in a loving supportive school community is not to bash in the head of another, but to simply have that innate experience of gripping the rock and feeling the power of releasing it – and hearing the sound of it collide with the ground. In this case, redirecting the rock being thrown with an impromptu: “I’m noticing you like throwing that rock, however would you mind throwing it in the garden area – away from other people,” would clearly address the obvious safety concern without crushing their empowering sensation of throwing a heavy rock.

Simply put, it’s easy to have knee jerk reactions to risky experiences in preschool, however as concerned adults who want to nurture self-reliance is it not worth looking closer at what it means for kids to be “safe?” And then we can start by asking ourselves, what sort of opportunities in their environment do we want to provide for children to optimally thrive? After all raising four and five year olds can be a risky business.

Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please leave a comment.

  1. #1 by Peripheral Vision on February 13, 2007 - 7:37 am

  2. #2 by Magda Santos on June 27, 2007 - 1:38 am

    Aha to be free and link rope and tires and wood together without the moans of civillians worried about the dangers children will encounter on the playground of their imaginations.

    Just ask my neighbor.

  3. #3 by Jayne Carpenter on September 17, 2010 - 7:20 pm

    What a great post! I am the early childhood specialist at DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville IL. We integrate art, math and science when planning and creating exhibits and programs. We have a resource for parents about the value of risk taking in play. We also have an exhibit area called Make it Move, which explores physics in action! I would like to show this post at a presentation I’m doing for teachers at a local conference in November. Would enjoy hearing back from you.

  1. Give Kids Rope « PRESCHOOL PUNK

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