Force and motion for kids

Physics activities that help you teach your preschooler about motion and force

You may think your preschooler is a perpetual motion machine. To be honest, most act like they can hardly stop running, skipping and dancing, asking question every step of the way. Take advantage of your child’s curiosity and explore the world of motion. Introduce your child to basics of physics with things that you can find around your house.

Potential vs. Kinetic Energy

Some adults have a hard time remembering the difference between kinetic and potential energy. The fastest way to think of this is to remember that “potential” energy is energy that isn’t doing anything at the moment. It has the potential to do anything. So just about anything that is standing still has potential energy. Kinetic energy is energy in motion. It can be momentary or it can put a series of events into motion. You have seen the transfer from potential to kinetic energy if you have ever seen someone push down a single domino and set off a chain reaction. You can do something similar with your child. However, dominoes and preschoolers are a recipe for frustration. Instead, make your series out of far larger bricks.

For this activity, you will need twenty to thirty cereal boxes. Since it may take a few weeks to save that many boxes, feel free to open the top and bottom of the cereal boxes so that they store flat. When you have enough boxes, just fold the top and bottom back together so that they are three dimensional rectangles again.

Line up the boxes like dominoes in a large area on the floor. After you have finished, talk to your child about the difference between potential and kinetic energy. They may not understand the words, but by exposing your child to the correct vocabulary, you are familiarizing your child with the world of science.

Tell your child that while the boxes are just standing there, they have the potential to fall in any direction you wish to push them. Show your child by pushing the first box over away from the rest of the line.

Tell your child that when the box is moving it has kinetic energy. That energy can go into the floor, or into the next box, depending on which way it falls. If it falls into the box next to it, the first box uses the potential energy of the second box to make it move. The second box sparks the potential energy of the third box and so on until either a box misses or the last box falls.

Plus, it’s just fun to watch the boxes fall over.

After all the boxes fall, try arranging them in a new configuration. See how many different ways you can use the kinetic energy of one box to ignite the potential energy of the next.

Slip Sliding Away

Who doesn’t love a slide. But does your child understand how the slide works? You can explore the basic concepts of gravity and fiction with this fun activity.

For this you will need a small, flat can such as one used for tuna or pet food. You will also need a flat piece of wood, like a shelf that is about three feet long and at least twice as wide as your can, and a chair. Finally, you will need a variety of substances such as liquid soap, oil, waxed paper, shortening or coconut oil, water, and whatever else you might have around the house that might be slippery. Be sure to choose non-toxic substances.

You might want to do this activity outside, since it can get messy.

Place the board on an angle from the seat of the chair to the ground so that you have a good slant to form a slide. Let your child place the can at the top of the slide and let go. See how long it takes for the can to slide from the top to the bottom of the board. If you wish, use the stop watch function on your phone to time the descent.

It is possible that the can will stop sliding at some point on the board. That isn’t a problem. Just encourage your child to give the can a little push.

After you have a good idea of how long it takes for the can to slide down the bare board, try a different method. Cover the board in wax paper and see if the can slides down faster. Cover the waxed paper with oil, or liquid soap. See if it slides down faster. Continue covering the board in different slippery substances and see what makes the can slide down the fastest.

Cereal Box Plinko

Explore how many obstacles it takes to stop a falling object with this experiment. For the activity, you will need a ping pong ball, an empty cereal box, a hole punch, an art knife, plastic wrap and a variety of stick pens. Pens are sharp enough to poke through the plastic but is safe for children to use.

Cut a series of holes in the back of a cereal box with the hole punch or the craft knife. You can cut them randomly, or cut them in whatever pattern pleases you. Cut a hole large enough for the ping pong ball in the top and bottom of the box. Then, cut a large window in the front of your cereal box. Wrap the entire box in plastic wrap, so that you have a clear window in the front of your box.

First, show your child what happens when you drop the ping pong ball through the hole in the top of the box. You can watch the ball fall through the box through the window. Then show your child how to push a pen through a hole in the back of the box and poke it through the plastic in the front of the box. Try to position the first pen under the hole at the top of the box so that your child can see the ball bounce off the pen. Allow your child to push more pens through the holes in the box. Drop the ball through the hole and watch as it bounces around the obstacles inside.

Continue to add pens until the ball can no longer fall through the box and becomes stuck. Brainstorm with your child to figure out how to get the ball from the top to the bottom.

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