How to Bring Science to the Playground
Playgrounds are an excellent place for kids to learn new skills and ideas while having fun at the same time. In addition to imagination, creativity, physical movement and social interactions, playgrounds are the perfect place for kids to explore educational concepts like science.
Gaining knowledge with hands-on experience in an interactive, outdoor setting can help familiarize kids with their environment and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. You can introduce kids to engaging experiments and science playground games that leave them excited to keep exploring and discovering new ways to connect with the world on the playground.
The Importance of Science in Education
Science is an essential part of every kids’ education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s vital for the development of younger kids as it can help them build critical thinking skills and enhance their social and experiential curiosity.
Science experiments are also fun for kids and involve various activities and experiments to keep them engaged and help them use their senses. Through their sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing, they’ll learn how they interact with different elements of the environment.
Many educators believe it’s necessary to introduce kids to science in early education to help them learn problem-solving skills and motivate them to continue to engage in the related skills. For instance, science teaches kids how to think critically, weigh decisions, generate ideas, use evidence and create predictions for experiments.
Many adults may underestimate kids’ learning capacity in their early years. However, incorporating reasoning and conceptual learning concepts through science can help them foster more skills and nurture their understanding. Even infants and toddlers can learn fundamental parts of the scientific process, such as modifying and repeating their methods and analyzing their results.
Here are some additional ways kids can benefit from learning science in early education:
- Creating scientific practices: Using fun elements like sand, water and blocks to teach abstract ideas can make it easier for kids to learn skills that help with scientific reasoning.
- Adjusting to support their learning and curiosity: Adults can structure and adjust kids’ learning experiences by observing and asking them questions to inspire them to investigate new things.
- Learning informally and experimentally: Kids may respond better to learning when they have the chance to do so in an outdoor or community activity that gives them varied opportunities for exploration and discovery.
Giving kids a variety of materials and activities can change their routine and make it more interesting for them to learn. Over time, they may build better concentration skills, ask more questions and improve their overall comprehension and communication skills.
Examples of Scientific Concepts on the Playground
It’s no secret that kids are naturally curious and want to explore new things. However, an interest in science is something you must nurture in them by introducing various concepts in ways they can understand.
Below are some common concepts kids can explore on an outdoor playground. Always be sure to supervise when doing any type of experiment on playground equipment.
Motion and Force
Motion and force affect almost everything in our environment, including ourselves and the objects around us. Applying force to an object can push or pull it in a certain direction.
When playing on a playground, adults can exhibit the use of force by pushing a kid on a swing to show how their force moves them through the air and gives them momentum. Kids can experience this sensation by throwing a ball to each other or rolling it down a slide to see how much force they need to use to get the ball in motion. During this experiment, be sure the slide area is clear and pick up the balls once they roll down the slide to avoid tripping hazards.
Ramps are a great way to teach kids about slopes and gravity. Kids will typically see ramps on a playground meant for wheelchairs and other mobility devices and wonder why it’s easier for people to go down a ramp than it is to go upwards.
You can experiment with slopes on ramps or down a slide by rolling a ball down and then trying to roll it back up. Be sure to keep the ramp area clear and pick up the balls off the ground after each rolling attempt so kids can walk freely. Kids will notice the effects of gravity, motion and force when they try it out themselves.
Levers consist of a fulcrum that stabilizes the difference between effort and load. While this might be a bit challenging for kids to comprehend, the easiest way to show it is through the use of a spring rider or seesaw.
On the playground, these structures are the perfect example of objects rotating on pivots or springs to create force and motion. For example, using a seesaw can show kids how stabilizing and destabilizing each side with their weight can propel them into the air.
Life science is an extremely broad subject to cover, but you can introduce kids to different animals and insects they may see while outside on the playground. From butterflies to birds, being outdoors gives them the perfect opportunity to learn about these various animals and how they live and find food in the environment.
Pendulums are objects attached to a pivot or other fixed point that swing back and forth due to the force of gravity. If you don’t have a grandfather clock in your classroom or at home, you can display the same effect with a belt swing or multi-user swing on the playground.
These will give kids a hands-on experiment as they learn how even small amounts of motion and force can propel a pendulum swing continuously. Kids will have fun on multi-user swings as they learn the pendulum concept in teams.
Like force, gravity is everywhere and affects all things as it constantly works to pull objects toward each other. Humans and objects would float aimlessly in the air without the help of gravity. Young kids might find this challenging to understand because we can’t see gravity, but you can help explain this on a playground.
When kids throw a ball, it eventually comes back down to the ground. When kids start out at the top of a slide, they’ll lower to the ground as gravity — and the slope — takes them downward.
Friction, or resistance, measures how much one object resists another. Writing on a piece of paper or whiteboard is a great example of showing friction in the classroom. On the playground, you can demonstrate this concept through slides. As kids slide down a plastic or metal slide, they’ll see that it’s relatively smooth and effortless.
You can teach them what resistance feels like by having them slide down the same straight slide while sitting on a piece of cardboard. They’ll likely notice how different their experiences were between the two rides. Through this example, kids will learn that less friction makes things glide seamlessly, whereas more friction presents a challenge.
Momentum is another type of energy or force that gives a person or object enough power to increase at a steady speed. Using a swing on a playground is a perfect example of this. As a kid pumps their legs repeatedly, they’ll go faster and higher each time.
They’ll notice once they stop pumping their legs that the swing slows down and stops because it doesn’t have any more momentum. You can also use a spring rider to show this same effort and instruct kids to bounce back and forth or up and down to move the spring rider in their desired direction.
Balance is one of the most important things for kids to learn at a young age because it can help them improve their physical capabilities, hand-eye coordination and spatial and reasoning skills. Kids need balance for almost everything they do in life, so it’s essential to build this skill early on.
To learn balance, kids will have to learn how to distribute their weight properly to stabilize themselves or an object. You can show this on the playground with curved balance beams, dome climbers and seesaws.
Light and shadows are other concepts easily shown on an outdoor playground. You can point out how the sun reflects on different surfaces and where shadows meet under shaded structures. You can also have kids watch their own shadows on a playground and see how dark or light it gets based on the light of the sun or on a cloudy day.
Taking kids outside to an outdoor playground is the best way to introduce them to different weather-related concepts. You can teach them about temperature by demonstrating how on some days they need to wear jackets outside. For younger kids, you can even take them outside when it’s drizzling so they can feel raindrops and become curious about why water is falling from the sky.
For school-age kids, you can have them create a weather chart for a week or month and write down details about the weather outside to see how their environment changes on the playground. Ask them how they feel when they walk outside — does it feel cold, humid or windy? See if they can tell you how the weather impacts their days.
9 Science Playground Activities
Using one or more of the concepts listed above, you can put together some fun, educational games outdoors to help kids learn about science on the playground. Before conducting any of these activities and experiments, it’s important to briefly discuss the steps of the scientific method with your kids or class.
- Identify your question
- Make predictions and come up with a hypothesis
- Gather and collect data
- Analyze the data and make observations
- Draw conclusions
Here are some fun science experiments to try next time you’re on the playground:
1. Measuring Shadows
You can conduct a shadow hunt on the playground and have kids point out shadows created by playground equipment and trees. You can also have kids measure shadows at different times of the day to see how they change according to the sun. Encourage them to create their own shadows using their hands or other small objects like water bottles or rubber balls.
2. Balancing Act
Kids can walk across the balance beam or steady themselves on the wake rider slowly at first and then a bit faster to see how it becomes more challenging. You can even have kids walk across a balance beam with an object in one or both hands and see if they can multi-task as they use their balancing and hand-eye coordination skills.
3. Sliding Race
Kids can get a better understanding of how force and weight influences speed by participating in a race using a playground slide. Create teams for a race using different materials like carpet squares, construction paper, tennis balls or crayons. Have kids gently roll the items down a slide and use a timer to determine which items reach the bottom of the slide the fastest.
As with other playground equipment experiments, make sure kids are standing to the side of the slide to provide a clear area for the objects to roll down, and pick the items up afterward to avoid creating a tripping hazard.
You can use different-sized objects with varying weights to help kids learn the difference between mass and shape and how it affects how fast they travel. Once you complete your experiment, ask them why they think the winning object won the race and see if they can predict which item will win the next round.
4. Scavenger Hunt
Kids will love to go on a scavenger hunt, especially for a prize at the end. You can create an outdoor scavenger hunt around the playground and have each kid identify different colors, shapes, weather elements and other concepts in nature.
For younger kids, see if they can point out these items and ask them questions about how they come to their conclusions. For older kids, you can hand out clipboards with a checklist of things they need to find and ask them to collect evidence in a basket to show you during their hunt. You can ask them to check off a box when they find:
- A source of water
- An animal interacting with the environment
- A natural resource
- A shadow that measures at least 5 inches long
- An example of solid matter
After introducing them to animal life science, you can help them put their knowledge to a visual and sensory test through a variation of hide-and-seek. Hide different items around a playground or in a sandbox, such as toy fossils, plastic eggs and other animal figures or parts. You can conceal some pieces on the playground equipment itself and let kids use their competitive skills to find the most items. When hiding these items, be sure you don’t place them in an area where they could present a tripping hazard.
After they explore the playground and collect these items, you can gather around and assemble the pieces together and investigate what they found. They can use excavator playground equipment structure or shovels to complete this activity.
This game is a great opportunity for kids to ask questions about fossils and the life cycle of animals such as butterflies and caterpillars.
6. Height and Bounce
Using the raised height on your playground equipment, have kids drop different objects and see if they can predict which one will hit the ground first. For example, you can give one kid a sheet of paper and another a small rubber ball. Always make sure the area is clear and that kids stand away at a distance before dropping these items.
After discussing concepts like gravity and air resistance, see if they can correctly determine if the heavier or lighter object will reach the ground before the other. You can alternate with different heights, teams of kids and various objects and see what they learn with each round.
Another fun way to do this drop experiment is to hand each kid two identical pieces of paper and have them crumple one of the pieces into a ball while leaving the other flat. Ask them to drop both pieces from a raised platform, such as on the steps of a playground structure, and see which piece of paper falls faster. Then, you can discuss that even though both pieces of paper are the same object, the flat piece takes longer to hit the ground because it has more air resistance.
7. Wind Direction
Experimenting with wind is a fun way for kids to learn about the weather, especially when introducing them to natural events like hurricanes, tornadoes or thunderstorms.
You can show them about air resistance on a playground by giving them a handful of dry soil in one hand and wet soil in the other. Ask them to extend their arms toward the direction of the wind and see how it affects the material in their hands as the dry soil will blow away and the wet soil will likely stay put.
You can also conduct this experiment without any materials at all. Simply go outside on a windy day and ask kids what direction they think the wind is blowing based on the movement of the trees or swings on the playground. Be sure to include protective eyewear, such as goggles, when dealing with soil during a windy day.
8. Gravity and Momentum Tests
Swings are one of the best resources for many science experiments. You can create a test of momentum by asking kids to take turns on the swings and see how long it takes for the swing to stop moving after a certain number of leg pumps. Ask them if they think five or 10 pumps of their legs will get the swing to move for longer after they stop moving.
9. Sand and Water Play
There are numerous experiments and activities you can do with a bit of water and sand on the playground. Sand and water tables are a great opportunity to introduce concepts like transformation, dilution and buoyancy. You can have kids use materials in their environment to see how water changes different materials.
You can also bring a water bottle or bucket of water to the playground and have them drop various items in it, such as rocks, leaves, twigs and grass, and have them identify which items sink and which items float at the top.
Here are some other experiments you can conduct with sand and water on the playground:
- Examination: Place sand on a paper plate or piece of paper and have kids examine it with a magnifying glass to see the different colors and sizes of grains.
- Footprints: On a patch of sand, leave one section dry and pour water on another section. Then, have a volunteer place their foot on both patches and see which side leaves a better footprint. Ask them what they think and why one of their prints shows up better on one side than the other.
- Bucket shapes: Using two buckets, have kids fill one with dry sand and another with wet sand. Ask them to pack the buckets full and then turn them upside down. See if they can identify what happens as the dry sand falls out instantly while the wet sand crumbles out slower.
If your playground doesn’t have sand or a sandbox, you can replicate these experiments with soil for the same effect.
Ask Our Experts About Playground Ideas Combining Education and Fun
Supporting learning through play is one of the best ways to get kids involved with their education and spark their interest, curiosity and imagination.
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