Teaching children about science with football

Practicing for football? Watching a game? Use it as a chance to talk about science!

The sport of football provides an opportunity for youth to learn about science. Photo credit: ANR Communications | MSU Extension
The sport of football provides an opportunity for youth to learn about science. Photo credit: ANR Communications | MSU Extension

As the days start to cool, many thoughts turn to football. Whether watching a college or professional game on television, enjoying a game in the stands, or playing and practicing with your friends and family in the backyard, the sport can also be a way to engage in science. Here are some quick experiments to try and questions to ask youth – remember to let children try to come up with the answers!

  1. Why is a football shaped differently when most balls are spheres? There isn’t a clear historical answer on this, however, children puzzling over the question can engage their minds. The technical name for a football’s shape is a prolate spheroid, but most kids (and adults) won’t know that.
  2. Is a football easier to catch? Break the group up in pairs and have half play catch with a football and half play catch a round ball. Pass the ball 20 times and record the results of drops and catches. Is there a pattern?
  3. Is a football easier to throw? Using the two groups, compare throwing a football and a round ball over different distances. Can one be thrown further than the other?
  4. Does the pointy shape of the football make it more aerodynamic? Put a fan in front of both a football and a round ball. Does the air flow differently over one ball versus the other?
  5. How does a football’s shape affect the way it bounces? Some people argue the shape of the football causes it to bounce unpredictably, allowing for a more exciting game. Have a child throw both a football and a round ball and notice where each ball lands after the first bounce, marking each with different colored poker chips. Are there patterns with either ball and how it bounces?
  6. Why is a football kicked into the air rather than straight across? If you are watching a game, notice how players kick the ball up into an arc in the air, rather than across like a soccer ball. What determines when the ball starts coming back down? Does a ball with longer “hang-time” necessarily make it farther down the field?
  7. What the spiral throw more desirable? Many football players try to make a perfect spiral football throw. Why is that? Is it more accurate? Does it go farther? Experiment and find out. Change up how you hold the ball and how you place your feet. Does this change your throw?

Michigan State University Extension recognizes there are many opportunities for science education that occur in the natural world, including this one with football. This lesson can be conducted by any group working with children, including families, day-cares, schools or 4-H clubs. Enjoy experimenting with a football and have fun on game day. You can learn even if you (or your team) doesn’t win!

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