Preschool children learn best by engaging in hands-on exploration. By setting up this easily duplicated science center, teachers can provide an opportunity to for their students to learn about the workings of two simple machines: the wheel and the inclined plane. This center incorporates early learning content standards in physical science by demonstrating forces and motion, the nature of energy, and scientific inquiry in regard to making predictions and investigating natural laws acting upon objects.
Setting Up the Science Center
Materials for the center are readily available. A long, cardboard tube, such as a large mailing tube or the tube used in the center of carpet rolls, is placed at an angle with the top end at table height and the bottom end resting on the floor. Small toy cars are placed near the top end, inviting children to send the cars rolling down the incline inside the tube and out onto the floor. A large, triangular wooden block unit is combined with cylindrical blocks to be rolled down its slope. Ball or marble mazes that feature sloping paths for the rolling balls or marbles are great additions to the center. Toys that feature wheels, such as “Wheel-O” and “Roll-O” demonstrate wheels in action, too.
Rolling Activities Require Space and Supervision
Teachers should set up activities involving exploration of rolling movements in an area where there is plenty of space. The little cars shooting out the end of the inclined tube should not interfere with children involved in other activities. Children will occasionally drop the balls and marbles, so teachers should be prepared to help chase these down and return them to their appropriate toy. Marbles should not be used with children younger than three, and even then it is best to use them under a teacher’s supervision, due to the risk of choking if marbles are placed in the mouth.
Large Muscle Extension Activities
A study of the wheel and inclined plane leads naturally to riding toys. Tricycles and wagons provide great fun and plenty of exercise during outdoor play time. If a ramp or hill is available, teachers can set up a riding course that goes up, over, and down, and then encourage discussion about the relative difficulty of riding a tricycle or pulling a wagon uphill and downhill.
Creative Art Extension Activities
Interesting paintings result when children roll toy vehicles through a thin layer of paint and then over a paper surface. Rolling painters create repetitive patterns. Children can drop paint onto paper from teaspoons, then cover the paint with wax paper and roll over it with a rolling pin to spread the paint and create artwork.
Old record player turntables are great for creating spin art. Teachers prepare round paper with center holes ahead of time. Children place these on the turntable and hold markers against the paper as it spins. Marble painting, either by rolling paint-covered marbles over paper placed in a shallow pan or by shaking paint-covered marbles inside a closed cardboard snack container that has paper rolled up and placed inside it, gives beautiful results.
Hands-on Learning Opportunities Foster Comprehension
Preschool children are still developing their abilities for abstract thought and for language comprehension. Exploration of the wheel and the inclined plane through play allows 3 to 5 year olds to construct a more complete understanding of the physical world and how it operates.