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I'm doing a series of STEM story times for a local city program and thought I'd share the activities. Most require items that are easy to find around the house.

Because this is story time, we read children's books at the beginning and end of the half hour session. This time I offered a choice of a few books and the children first picked Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry.

Little Blue Truck is a work of fiction, but it is quite easy to tie in STEM activities about physics, including an activity to explore friction. HMH Books also has some great Little Blue truck party and activity ideas to download

 

STEM Activity Station 1. Exploring Friction

Gather:

  • Toy cars and trucks
  • Sandpaper
  • Wax paper
  • Inside of a padded envelope or bubble wrap
  • Play dough (home made or commercial)

Encourage the participants to roll the toys over different surfaces. Explain that the play dough is like the mud in the story that the trucks get stuck in. Discuss why the play dough traps the wheels.

Note:  If the play dough dries on the toys, scrub them with a bottle brush. It made clean up easier.

Making home made play dough is so much fun. All that you need is flour, water, oil, salt, and cream of tartar, which is a white powder often found in the spice/baking section of most grocery stores. Kneading the warm dough is an experience not to be missed. Here's one example of how to do it:

 

STEM Activity Station 2. Painting with Cars (also exploring friction)

Gather:

  • Toy cars and trucks
  • Paper plates
  • Paper
  • Washable tempera paint
  • Butcher paper or newspapers to cover work surface (optional)
  • Paint brushes (optional)

This activity would work well outside.

Encourage the children to roll the cars and trucks on the paper to see how much "push" is required to move them. Then roll the wheels in paint and try again. Does it feel different?

Note:  Some children preferred to dab the paint on the wheels with paintbrushes rather than roll the toys through the paint.

STEM Activity Station 3. What Objects Roll Down a Ramp?

Gather:

  • Wood blocks or foam core to form a ramp
  • Objects such as pine cones, blocks, balls, cylinders, etc.

Encourage the participants to test the ability of various objects to roll dow a ramp. Adjust the steepness or length of the ramp and try again.

Thank you to Prekinders for the original idea.

STEM Activity Station 4. Car Race (testing gravity)

Gather:

  • Cardboard or foam core for a ramp
  • Toy cars of different sizes and shapes
  • Low table or chair to prop the ramp on
  • Painters tape

Use the tape to create a "race track" and to fix the ramp to the table. Older children might want to quantify their results using a stopwatch.

Cardboard tube, such as those used for wrapping paper, also  make great ramps.

STEM Activity Station 5. Pull-back Cars (energy)

Gather:

  • Cars that pull back then go when released (inexpensive versions may be found at party stores).

If children are used to pushing a toy car to make it go, then a pull back car seems to break the rules. Explain the spring mechanism inside stores energy when the car is pulled back (potential energy). When released, the stored energy is converted to kinetic energy and the car rolls forward.

The cars could also be used to test acceleration, what happens if you increase the mass (add weights to the car), and also explore friction by testing them on different surfaces (bare floor versus carpet, for example).

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Conclusion/wrap up

We ended by reading Freight Train by Donald Crews. It introduces color concepts and also some terminology about trains, for example words like "caboose" and "cattle car." Simple, but with gorgeous artwork.

You can find more children's books about cars and trucks in our growing list at Science Books for Kids.

And check our Pinterest board for many more activity ideas.

Anyone in your family interested in cars and physics? Even if you don’t realize it, working with the first thing can teach you a lot about the second. Today we’re going to look at Newton’s Three Laws of Dynamics using toy cars.

Gather

  • A few blocks or books
  • A few toy cars that roll
  • A small action figure or doll, or a smaller block or penny that can ride on the car
  • Piece of cardboard big enough to use as a ramp (older children can use wood)
  • Marbles
  • Plastic eggs

1.    Newton’s first law states that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion, unless acted on by an external force.

To test the object at rest part, place a small block or action figure/doll on a car (even a penny will work). Push the car, taking care not to push the object resting on it. Usually the block or doll will “stay put” by falling off, or at least falling back, while the car rolls away.

Now roll the car with the block or doll riding on it towards a barrier, such as a book or larger block. When the car hits the barrier, what happens to the rider? Does it fly forward? The rider is trying to remain in motion even after the car stops.

A child may wonder why, if an object does indeed remain in motion, does the car eventually stop rolling? Think of some other forces acting one the car that we might not see. How would you test this?

2.    Force equals mass times acceleration F=ma

Toy cars and ramps

Raise a piece of cardboard on books, blocks or a piece of furniture. Roll cars of different sizes and weights down the ramp, or add weights to cars of the same size (you can tape on pennies). Do bigger cars go farther and/or faster?

Now push the cars rather than simply letting them roll. See any difference?

Older children can actually calculate the force by weighing the cars and timing them.

3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Most children are more than willing to crash their toys cars into each other to test this theory.

You can save wear and tear on the vehicles by creating demolition derby vehicles out of the bottom of a plastic egg and a marble. You can decorate the egg with a sharpie marker. Place a marble under the egg and roll it away. See what happens if you add smaller, larger or more marbles under the egg. What happens when two plastic egg racers crash?

plastic egg marble car

Edit:

NASCAR Physics for the Older Set
The Science of Speed is a series of 13 videos at http://science360.gov/ that relate physics to what you see on a NASCAR race track. Just click on the circles under the “Science of Speed:” text to navigate through the videos. Topics include drafting, tire pressure, and friction and heat. Note: there are car crashes.

Thanks to Karen of Leaping From The Box for contributing the NASCAR link. If you are a NASCAR fan, try her racing blog.

For more info:

Teaching Physics with Toys: Activities for Grades K-9 by Beverley A. P. Taylor, James Poth, Dwight J. Portman

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