Sunday, February 13, 2011


The ability to work with partners in a cooperative, meaningful way is one of those vital life skills I hope the children of Woodland Park carry away with them into the larger world. Our Pre-K class paired off this week to experiment with catapults.

The idea was to build structures with little plastic specimen cups, then figure out together how and where to position the catapult so as to knock the building down with a golf practice ball. 

We gave no other instruction either about how to operate the catapults, how to build the buildings, nor reminders about things like the need to take turns.

Most of our teams started by positioning their catapults as close as possible to their structures, only to find that the ball sailed over the targets. In most cases they immediately sought to solve the problem by having the second partner take a turn. Slowly, most of them began to get the idea of moving back to find the proper range.

But as they moved back they were confronted with the increasingly complex challenge of taking aim.

It may have appeared to be a bit like a free-for-all to an outsider, but look at these pictures. Everyone is focused. Everyone is fiddling around . . .

. . . talking to each other . . .

. . . speculating and postulating.

While they were all motivated by the catapults themselves, they wound up spending far more time working on building their structures and chasing the balls. When frustration showed up the adults offered guidance, but mostly we let them explore both the physics and their own emotions about working with it, giving them the intellectual and emotional space to be scientists.

There was a momentary rage, for instance, of trying to launch the specimen cups instead of the balls. And some of the guys challenged their friends to launch balls at them.

Not every team was successful in figuring out their range-aim-building-teamwork mix in the time allotted, which is why we'll continue the catapult exploration this week in a more systematic way, hopefully building on what we discovered last week.

Perhaps the biggest frustration was that with 8 boys (and our entire Pre-K class is boys this year) concentrating with their full-bodies on our blue rug (a limitation no adult set for them, but one they all adhered to nevertheless) it happened more than once that a carefully constructed building was accidentally kicked over before the builders got even one attempt to hit it with their catapult's projectile. 

We'll have to move to a bigger space next time. But despite the frustrations, there were no tears. The fights over which balls belonged to which team were short and settled without adult intervention. Turn-taking happened naturally, as a part of their play. In fact, this was their project from start to finish, made possible by the fact that the adults had no agenda other than to give the boys a chance to explore catapults.

All very satisfying to this teacher.

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MOM #1 said...

Looks like great fun. I LOVE to see true science in action. ;-)

Unknown said...

Where did you get your catapults? This is a fantastic lesson. Thank you so much for sharing it!

Teacher Tom said...

@Amy . . . I made the catapults myself from scrap wood.

S. Krajicek said...

It is fantastic! I have been telling all of my colleagues how interesting it would be to be able to teach like you do at the high school level...

As a not-so-handy kinda gal, could you share how you made them? Or maybe a close-up picture so we can see what they look like?

Kate said...

your pre-school sounds so amazing that it makes me want to have another kid, just so i can send him/her to you! (my boys are too big, alas.)

BSK said...


Very cool. I've done similar projects, but with rolling. I give the kids different tubes and troughs and different types and sizes of balls, and they are challenged to complete different tasks. Can they roll a ball to knock down a structure? Can they roll a ball that will hit but NOT knock down the structure? Can they get it to stop within a given area? How far can they get it to go? Which will go fasted? Amazing physics at work! Great stuff.

carol garboden said...

wonderful catapults lesson! So great to see children and teachers experimenting and taking risks. This is the lesson children will remember forever. I am going to share with my staff. Thanks for your great blog. carol garboden murray

knittingmette said...

great idea!...... and now i know why I do not trow away our yogurt cups! ;))

Jean said...

Fantastic! I've experienced similar cooperation and focus with use of ramps and pathways in our block area. Tom, do you have a link or instructions/diagrams for constructing those catapults?

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