Friday, April 9, 2010

Simple Machines

There are six classic simple machines:
  1. Lever
  2. Inclined Plane
  3. Screw
  4. Pulley
  5. Wheel and Axel
  6. Wedge
Now when most of us think about machines we think more about a car than a ramp, but at the heart of both machines is laziness! Machines are things that make work easier - it is easier to carry a load up an inclined plane than it is to lift it straight up.

It was with some trepidation that I chose this topic for our most recent workshop at the library. Generally teaching about simple machines involves history, math and moving large loads - none appropriate for preschoolers!
I settled on two simple machines that the kids would be a bit familiar with: inclined plane and wheel/axle. The inclined planes we used were fabric bolts (thanks to Denise who owns Close to Home Sewing Store in Worcester!) and we used them to roll balls down to play with some ideas. We found many ways to help the balls roll farther. While this is not the actual way that an inclined plane helps make work easier, it was a great way to compare and contrast different inclines.
We used non-standard measures to figure out how far the ball rolled. Below one of my participants is using her shoe to measure distance. This was a lot of fun! One kid used herself as her measure!

Wheels and axles were fun to play with. We first tried rolling plastic eggs and found them wiggly. Then we tried toy cars and that worked really well - they rolled straight down and went really far.
If you liked these ideas, here are some ways to jump in and try some physics with your preschoolers.
Playgrounds are a great place to explore physics. A seesaw is an example of a classic lever. If you can find one that moves freely, can you balance a parent on one side and kids on the other? What happens if you move closer to the center?
Slides offer a great opportunity to play with inclined planes. You can move things up the slide with a jump rope. You can also measure the slides' height and length to compare slides. Can you determine what height and length are the most fun?
Michael Dahl has written a number of books on each one of the simple machines. Check them out!
The pictures today are courtesy of Kristen Graffeo. Check out her blog!


  1. Thanks for this! I am looking for ideas to start teaching my kids about physics, and this helps a lot!

  2. Thanks for the pointer to the Michael Dahl books. They were some of the books we used in our classroom unit on Simple Machines. Learn about all our hands-on activities here: