Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Inclined Planes

I don't know if it is the downhill skier in me or my former math-teacher self that makes such a big deal about young children experimenting with inclined planes. It might just be that I am amazed and inspired by all the ways children play with slides. Children climb up and they slide down, they use sand and rocks and water to create avalanches and waterfalls, they test their toys on the slides. Given the opportunity, young children learn all sorts of relationships (math) and phenomenon (physics) unique to slides.
Free Body Diagram from simple.wikipedia.org

I used to love our trips to the Children's Museum in Missoula, Montana for all the different ramps that were there. They had a classic plastic slide for babies, another one for big kids, and a "tree house" that was just a long series of ramps to toddle up and down. Since crawling babies didn't often choose to actually ride the slide down, the slide set aside for them was often used first as a ramp for rolling balls. As the babies grew into toddlers it seemed that the next use of the slide was to try to climb up. Finally, after doing experiments for months on end and building their core strength, a brave toddler might climb the stairs to the top of the slide and venture down...on their feet. "Ha!" the physical comedy-lover in me chuckled with a smile, which was always followed by "Gotcha."

What is truly amazing to me is that the slide doesn't seem to lose its appeal. As Mikey grows and matures, so too does his slide play. And with some media-support his imagination, tinkering and learning can soar.

Tablet Game

My husband found "Amazing Alex" when he was reading Wired. It was listed as a great app for a "future engineer." The premise is that "Alex" has to clean up his room. The reality of playing is that there are balls that drop and have to roll over stars to collect points and end up in a basket, box or other container. To play, your preschool engineer will have to drag and drop shelves to be inclined plans that support the bouncing/rolling balls. For any child who has experimented with slides, this will be easy and fun. There is a "Classroom" where he or she will learn the basic principles of how the game works (pictured on right) and the levels progress at a pace that is fast for a three year old but about right for a three year old and his mama, ahem.

The mind-boggling fun comes when more and more objects can be introduced to the "obstacle course." There are variations on the size and weight of the balls, balloons float and can be popped with scissors, buttons can be pushed on remotes to start a toy monster truck or helicopter, springs with punching gloves can be set to give a much needed "ka-pow!" Really...your mind will spin.

One of my favorite things about Amazing Alex is that your child can create his or her own level and publish it for others to try! Indeed, in this day and age, creating technology is an important skill for our children to learn.

Here are links to buy the apps or download the free version:
Amazing Alex for iPhone
Amazing Alex Free for iPhone
Amazing Alex HD for iPad
Amazing Alex HD Free for iPad

Make Your Own
For rainy day fun, try making your own ball course. I used a giant piece of cardboard, duct tape, and random pipe-like or shelf-like materials that I found around the house (for example, plastic cups, paper towel rolls). Choose golf ball or ping pong ball to roll down.

Not into DIY?
OK, so you don't want to make your own? There are all sorts of places to find inclined planes for experimentation. The local park is a great place to start. Take your preschool engineer and a bag of balls. Or find your local Children's Museum. The one in Phoenix has an entire room of ramps and balls...some ramps are fixtures, others are meant to be built.

If you need something for a grandparent to buy for your little engineer, consider the Battat's B. Whacky Ball or Melissa and Doug's Pound and Roll. There are also little car ones like Maxim's. And don't forget the classic - Marble Run! There is something for every age!

Curious George
What preschool engineer post would be complete without a nod to Curious George? But seriously! That monkey does some awesome preschool engineering. In "Hundley's Great Escape" George and Gnocchi and Hundley are stuck in a basement and have to build a series of ramps from the floor to a window at the top of the room. Watch, enjoy, and try to remember what your algebra teacher taught you about rise over run.


  1. Great app! Thanks for the suggestion.

    We just got a marble run set that is a great mix of diy and off-the-shelf - q-ba-maze - like legos with marbles. I'm not sure who has more fun with it - the toddler or the parents :)
    - Danielle

    1. Glad you like it! Thanks for the suggestion for q-b-maze. We will definitely be checking it out.