Swings, slides and climbing structures are loads of fun. And they offer first hand experiences with pendulums, ramps, and levers, not to mention forces such as gravity and friction. Just paying some attention to how things move provides children with important early experiences in physics. Turn your local play area into a science playground with these simple activities for your first or second grader.
Heat on various surfaces: Especially on a sunny day, different places on the playground feel warmer or cooler. Children learn quickly which surfaces to avoid on a very hot day—they seem to know to avoid metal slides on sunny days—but by checking the surfaces in a more systematic way you and your child can map out the playground and learn something about which materials conduct heat better than others. You can use your hands to determine which surfaces retain heat, and if you have a thermometer—the type of thermometer we use for determining outdoor temperature and available at hardware stores—you can make your findings more precise. To push for more complete findings, return to the playground on a cold but sunny day, or an overcast day; are there differences?
Different materials on slides: As your child ages, she will have accumulated many physical experiences with playground equipment. Now she is capable of more focused investigation, both to test out various materials and to talk about what she thinks. Try using different materials on the slides and ask questions such as “What do you think will happen when you put a tennis ball on the slide? Will it go fast? Travel a long distance? Why do you think so?” or “Will a ping pong ball do the same? Why or why not? How about something in the shape of a rectangle?” All of these investigations provide your child with important experiences with forces.
Balance challenges: Once your child masters a balance beam, challenge him to take on more difficult balancing acts, which you can try as well! Both of you might try walking on the balance beam with a book on your head. How does this feel different from or similar to walking on the beam without a book? Or what if you try to balance something on the palm of your hand or your index finger, such as a pencil, ruler or a broom? What do you have to keep in mind about weight and movement as you try to keep the object from falling over?