We were interested in learning more about how things work, so we did a small unit about simple machines. After a little reading, we decided to put our knowledge into action by building a Simple Machines Playground.

Simple Machines Playground

In case you’ve forgotten, the simple machines are: pulley, wheel and axle, lever, wedge, inclined plane, and screw (really, a wedge and inclined plane put together if you want to get technical). There are three different kinds of levers and of course compound pulley systems. There’s a lot to build off of (see what I did there) so simple machines are a really great introduction to physics.

Our Simple Machine Playground

My main goals for this unit were for my son to learn the types of machines and be able to recognize them at work in his everyday life. He really enjoyed pointing out the simple machines all around our home.

To introduce the topic, we used the Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Simple Machines book. I really love this series for explaining concepts in a clear way for children. They are an excellent nonfiction resource.

One of my other go-to resources for kids’ nonfiction is DK. We found this interactive book- How Machines Work: Zoo Break to be a perfect extension of what we had learned. The book tells the story of two friends who try to escape their zoo by using a variety of machines. There’s even a page where you try to launch a sloth over a fence. We loved it.

We also got a K’NEX set that had instructions for building a variety of levers and pulleys. This was our first K’NEX set and I see many more in our future.

So it was a natural decision to build out own simple machines playground. We wanted to make something fun to play with that would also have an example of each machine. We talked about it for a few days, brainstorming different ideas. We had the hardest time coming up with the wedge, but eventually decided on the shovel in the sandbox. I think most of the ideas were his. We gathered up materials from around the house and, with some of our K’NEX pieces, constructed the playground.

Wedge - Simple Machine Playground

We also had fun decorating and even the 2 year old helped. She enjoyed playing with it immensely. It made a perfect small world setup for her.

Screw - Simple Machines Playground

As my son gets older, his ideas often outpace his technical abilities. I have to find the balance between letting him learn to do things on his own and having him become too frustrated that his creation doesn’t live up to his imagination.

We work together and talk through problems and solutions. If I’m doing something a certain way, I’ll explain why and show him what to do whether or not I think he understands or could actually do it.

To accompany our study of simple machines, we took a “field trip” to the Maryland Science Center. They have a great physics hall with interactive stations that put ideas into action. The pulley chairs are fantastic. Three different chairs each use a different compound pulley system making them harder or easier to lift.

Maryland Science Center - Pulley chair

This complex machine is made up of many simpler machines. You can twist, crank and turn to make the balls roll through the machine and make sounds along the way. I’d love to get into Rube Goldberg Machines next!Maryland Science Center - Complex machine

My son also enjoyed playing a few online games like this one from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

This was a really enjoyable thing to study. He will still point out different machines that he notices in daily life. I encourage him to look something more complex and break it down into simpler parts. I think that’s a vital skill for creative thinking and problem solving.

How to Learn about Simple Machines by building a playground

Have you taught about machines? What are your favorite resources?

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