Teaching kids about physics: Activities in the car

Looking for a fun way to teach your kids about science? Here’s a great idea for teaching young children about physics that can be done while going from one place to another in your car.

The natural world offers us lots of ways we can teach our kids about science – including this idea from Michigan State University Extension for educating children about physics. This can be done within a family, in a day-care setting, as part of school activities, as a 4-H club or with any group working with young children.

Physics concepts are sometimes difficult for adults to grasp. They can be difficult for kids to understand as well. By using supplies such as a small box, a small ball and a helium balloon, children can watch physics at work while traveling in a vehicle.

Start by having the child hold a small box in their lap with a small ball in it (like a ping-pong ball). Ask the child to make some predictions as to what will happen to the ball as the car moves. Don't correct them if they are not right; try to ask more questions and have them test things out.

Questions to consider asking:

  1. Which way will the ball move when you move forward?
  2. What will happen when you stop suddenly?
  3. Will the ball ever stay still when the car is moving? If so, when?
  4. What will happen if you turn left? How about if you turn right?
  5. Does it matter if you go fast or slow?
  6. What happens if you speed up or slow down?
  7. Why are these things happening?

To help kids understand this experiment, here are a few concepts to explain:

Acceleration: Acceleration is changing speed. If you are driving on the highway with the cruise control on, you are NOT accelerating. You have a constant velocity or speed. When you start going faster to pass someone, you are accelerating.

Inertia: Objects will stay still unless something helps them to move. When you move forward with your car, the ball is "trying" to stay in the same spot, even though the car is moving around it. Objects that are moving at a particular speed will keep moving at that speed unless something helps them to slow down or speed up. This is part of Newton's First Law of Motion, but kids don't need or care to know that.

To further expand on this experience, try this next exercise. Start by attaching a helium balloon to a stationary object in your car, like a seat. Ask your children the same set of questions identified above. Next, have a balloon filled with regular air (just blow it up with your own lungs) and attach it to the ceiling. Ask the kids to guess whether it will act like the ball or like the helium balloon. Experiment and watch what happens. Ask the kids to explain why the helium balloon acts different from the "regular" balloon.

If you are a really brave educator, you can do a similar experiment with water in a pail, and predict and observe how it will slosh around while you drive.

Have fun experimenting!

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