After my son was finished playing with his Snowball Alphabetic Loose Parts Sensory Bin, I had all these styrofoam balls left over and wanted to use them somehow. We hadn’t done any 3D art or building lately, and so the idea of this indoor snowball structures activity was born!
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When I am teaching grade 5 (here in Ontario), as part of the Science curriculum, my students investigate how different forces can impact different structures such as bridges and towers.
I always enjoy teaching this unit because it is so hands-on and the kids get to build all kinds of fun structures using different materials and then (the best part) investigate how well they withstand different forces like high winds, weight, compression etc.
When I came up with this structure-building activity for my 3 year old son, Onetime, I kept these more advanced lessons in the back of my mind. And so, what for him was a fun hour and a half playing with styrofoam balls and toothpicks, for me – was a lot of LEARNING potential!
- a variety of styrofoam balls of different sizes
- a standard package of toothpicks (coloured ones are fun too!)
- a styrofoam base – we used a short, fat cylinder used for floral arranging, but I’ve also seen cubes and rectangular prisms of floral foam too
Introducing the Snowball Structures Activity
With my son, all I had to do was show him how he could stick a toothpick into a ball and then attach another one on to the other end of the stick. That was all it took and he was off!
I was amazed at what Onetime created within minutes of starting! He had a really neat arc of balls going and was figuring out that in order for the arc to not collapse, he had to make the balls smaller and smaller as he went to balance the weight.
At one point, he figured out he had to have counter-weights to keep the base heavier to allow him to build more “outcroppings” on top.
In grade 5, it often takes a few building challenges and demonstrations for the students to understand how strong a triangle frame is as compared to a square when constructing.
A square frame can be compressed into a diamond shape, while a triangle distributes the forces equally on all 3 sides and cannot easily be pushed out of shape.
I love the photo below because you can see the look of deep contemplation on my son’s face. This was not just building (although that part was frenetic and exciting!), it was THINKING!
If your child is older, they might get a kick out of adding in some extra challenges like:
- What’s the tallest structure you can make with these materials?
- Can you use these materials to build a bridge across a gap? (like between two tables)
- Can you build a bridge across a gap that supports the weight of 1 book? 2 books? 3 books? etc.
- Can your tower or bridge or structure withstand high winds? (use a blow dryer or fan!) or a tsunami (try it out in the bath!)
And – if your child just wants to build too – that’s okay! My son created a “snowball machine.” He had names and functions for all the buttons, levers, and different parts. It was pretty cool to see what came out of his imagination.
I find the best thing I can often say when my son appears to be done his constructing is, “Tell me about it!” You’ll be amazed at what they create…and LEARN!
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