Science ideas for young children: Stacking cards

Stuck inside on a rainy day? Try stacking cards to learn about science.

Try building a card castle shaped as a triangle. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Try building a card castle shaped as a triangle. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever tried to build a house of cards? What can you learn from this simple experiment? With a simple item that most people have in their house, you can do numerous experiments.

Here are some questions to ask and experiments to try:

  1. What holds up a house of cards? Why don’t they just slip and fall down? Put a card on the palm of your hand and slowly raise your arm until the card starts to slip. The force holding the card in place is called friction. The force causing it to fall is gravity.
  2. What do you predict will build the sturdiest house? Try building card houses with both triangles and squares. After building the houses, test to see which can hold the most weight by stacking coins on them.
  3. Put a card between two cups to make a “bridge.” How much do you predict the bridge will hold? Slowly put coins or other weights on the bridge to test your prediction. Think about the hypothesis that two cards together will hold twice as much weight. Do you predict the hypothesis will be correct? Why or why not? Test it and find out. What if you glued the cards together, would they hold more?
  4. Try bending a card between two heavy cans, like canned vegetables, to make an arch. How well do you predict the arch will support weight? Experiment with weights and then try to explain why things happened the way they did.
  5. If you dusted the cards with baby powder, would it reduce or increase the friction? Sprinkle baby powder on the cards and see how it changes your ability to stack them.
  6. Are larger towers more or less stable? Why? How could you test your ideas?
  7. Are there ways to support your card tower to make it sturdier? How might these techniques relate to real-world buildings?
  8. Can you recreate famous architecture or local building with cards? What additional tools might you need to make that happen?
  9. Does the building surface make a difference? Try building a card house on carpet versus tile versus stacking them on a piece of paper.
  10. Are all decks of cards equally good for building a card house? Does it matter if they are laminated?
  11. Are there other things you could use to build a card house? Try index cards, folded paper, pizza boxes after a pizza party or other ideas.

Enjoy experimenting with your card structures while learning a little about physics and architecture in the process. Michigan State University Extension encourages families, daycares, school activities, 4-H clubs or any group working with young children to conduct these experiments. The focus of these lessons aren’t to simply impart knowledge, but to facilitate the joy of discovery and the exploration of the world around us. This is not designed to “give youth the answers,” but to empower them to ask questions and figure things out on their own. When a young person asks a question, resist the urge to answer it, and instead ask, “What do you think?”

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