Physics in Preschool?
Teaching STEM with Ramps and Pathways
Two preschoolers, Alex and Micah, are playing with ramps in the unit block center. When they first started investigating the ramps, they would place several ramp segments end-to-end, creating very long ramps. Today, they have decided that they want their ramp pathway to include a corner. Micah places two ramp pieces at right angles to each other, the first one propped on a block. They are surprised when the marble continues rolling in the same direction, rather than following the right-angle path that they have created. In an attempt to stop the marble from rolling off the ramp, Alex places a block at the end of the first ramp. When the marble hits the block, it stops and then changes directions, thus turning the corner. Success! Micah decides to make the marble go faster by adding more blocks under the first ramp. This time, when the marble hits the block, it knocks it over. Micah and Alex continue to experiment with the height of the ramp and the blocks at the end of the first ramp for the next 20 minutes.
Alex and Micah’s experience with the ramps is a perfect example of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The children are intently engaged with science (the physics involved in creating a stable structure and moving objects in various ways), technology (using a structure that will allow them to move marbles in interesting ways), engineering (designing their structures to achieve the results they want), and mathematics (reasoning about number, space, shapes, and patterns).
Young children are budding physical scientists. They are intensely curious about the world and want to figure out how it works. They are also budding engineers. They invent, design, and solve problems. Most of all, they love to be active and make something interesting happen. In the National Research Council’s book Taking Science to School, the authors summarize decades of research demonstrating that young children’s ability to think scientifically is vastly underestimated. One reason for this is that early childhood educators do not know how to capitalize on children’s innate curiosity about the world and their vast ability to investigate topics that intrigue them.
Investigations into physical science and engineering provide them with opportunities to actively explore and control physical phenomena. For example, when they pour water from one container to another, they begin to understand the nature of fluids and how they behave differently from other substances. When they construct pinwheels, parachutes, and paper airplanes, they investigate how air can be used as a force to move things. And, when they build block structures that include ramps and cause marbles to move on the ramps in interesting ways (such as turning corners, rolling up hills, jumping over gaps, flying through the air and landing in a container, knocking down targets, etc.), they begin to construct a practical understanding of the laws of physics.
Classroom activities such as these engage children in actively exploring their environments, making sense of them, and using what they learn to design things. Although to a casual observer, these experiences may look like mere child’s play, to a knowledgeable early childhood educator, they are rich learning experiences. Children are learning how to engage in important scientific and engineering practices, such as how to ask questions and pursue the answers, identify and solve an engineering problem, plan and carry out an investigation, make close observations, construct explanations based on evidence, and communicate their conclusions with others. They are also engaging with important science concepts, such as cause and effect (when I make the ramp higher, the marble rolls faster), patterns (when I alternate the direction of the blocks, the base of the ramp is more stable), systems ( when I move one segment of the ramp, it affects the entire structure), and energy (the heavier marble will knock down a block at the end of the ramp, but a lighter marble just bounces off).
When children are allowed to freely explore and investigate the movement of objects on ramps, they invest a great deal of mental energy designing and building more and more complex ramp systems. Contrary to common wisdom, young children do not necessarily have short attention spans. They only have short attention spans for activities that they do not find engaging. But ramps are highly engaging, and children often spend long periods of time working on their structures. Ramps also allow children with limited communication to engage actively in the curriculum. Because using the ramps does not necessarily require spoken language, dual-language learners, children with language delays, and children with limited or no spoken language can engage with the ramps as equals alongside their peers. In fact, ramps play can help to facilitate communication, because children are highly motivated to share what they have done with their classmates.
Although several early childhood supply houses make ramps that are available for purchase, the material to make ramps can also be purchased at a building supply store. Called cove molding, these lengths of wood are 1 3/4” wide. They are flat on one side and slightly concave on the other side. The concave side keeps the marble from rolling off the ramp, and the flat side allows children to prop them on blocks easily.
Factors to Consider in Implementing Ramps and Pathways:
1. Start with unit blocks.
In order to build ramp structures, children first need to build with blocks. Children need familiarity with the blocks—the ways they fit together, balance, slide around, and fall down—and they need experience with the open-endedness of blocks—the fact that they can control what they build, without adult guidance or input. When children have become comfortable building with blocks, then consider adding ramps to the block center.
2. Start with identical marbles.
When children are introduced to ramps with only one type of marble, they can focus their attention on how the ramps operate and begin to notice the relationships between the height and length of the ramps and the ways the marbles move. This is one way teachers can help children make sense of the ramps, by controlling variables such as the size, weight, and shape of the objects that are used. This is not to say that children should not have experiences with other objects—marbles and other spheres of various sizes, weights, and materials as well as objects of different shapes—but those experiences can wait until children have become familiar with how the ramps work. In classrooms where children still mouth objects, marbles that are too large to pass through a choke tube can be used.
3. Be patient and allow children to figure out how to use the ramps on their own.
Even children as young as three years can, with time, figure out that if you prop up one end of a ramp, the marble will roll down. It may take them several days, but they will get there. And in a group of children, it only takes one child to figure it out, and the others will quickly follow.
4. Resist the urge to solve children’s problems for them.
When children are allowed to solve ramp problems on their own, they develop not only knowledge about the ramps and how they work, but also confidence in their own abilities to grapple with difficult problems and work out their own solutions. For example, when children first begin to use the ramps, they often use only one piece of cove molding, and roll marbles down that ramp over and over. Eventually, they have the idea to use more than one piece. This creates a problem: how to join the two pieces so that the marble continues to travel down the ramp. Invariably, children will do one of two things in joining the two pieces. They might place the ramps in line with each other, but with a gap between them, so that when the marble rolls down the first ramp, it lands in the gap and stops. Or they might place the second ramp on top of the first, so that when the marble reaches the end of the first ramp, it hits the butt end of the second ramp and stops. Either way, the solution to the problem is obvious to adults. However, solving the problem for them will not help them to understand why they encountered the problem in the first place or why the solution works. If you want children to understand what is happening with the ramps, allow them to solve problems themselves, as they arise.
5. Allow adequate time for children to explore the ramps.
Adequate time refers both to the time during the day that ramps are available to children, but also the time across weeks, months, and even years. Genuine investigations take time—time for repeating the same thing over and over, time for trying something new, time for focusing on aesthetics, and sometimes time just for thinking. Once you have brought ramps into the block center, leave them there. Children’s interest in playing with the ramps may wax and wane over the course of the year, but the children will continue to come back to the ramps with new ideas, over and over.
In addition to enriching children’s block play and addressing important STEM concepts and skills, ramps play also promotes positive approaches to learning. When engaged in exploration and investigation of ramps, children demonstrate focused attention, persistence, problem solving, curiosity, inventiveness, and creativity—all key 21st century skills that will serve children well throughout their lives. Not all children will grow up to become scientists, engineers, or mathematicians, but all children will grow up to be adults who will use science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in their daily lives. Experiences with materials such as ramps and blocks will equip them to be scientifically literate citizens of the 21st century.
To learn more about ramps and pathways, go to www.rampsandpathways.org.
is Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Northern Iowa, where she teaches in the division of early childhood education. Dr. Zan served as the Principal Investigator of the ramps and pathways project (Ramps and Pathways: A Constructivist Approach to Teaching Physical Science) funded by the National Science Foundation. Co-author (with the late Rheta DeVries) of Moral Classrooms, Moral Children and Developing Constructivist Early Childhood Curriculum, she conducts workshops and professional development on early childhood STEM education across the country and internationally.