I love teaching science and using STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities. I am always trying to come up with new activities that are inexpensive and low prep. We had some extra paper towel and gift wrap rolls that were ready to be recycled that we reused for this STEM activity.
STEM activities are great for teaching problem solving. STEM challenges also teach a growth mindset for when the structure falls down, and it will fall down, but learning that that’s part of the learning and the challenge.
The materials are really simple, and my kids loved building with them! This STEM activity is perfect for home or school.
Paper Structure Challenge Materials
You don’t need a lot of materials for this STEM activity and most of the materials are things that can be used instead of being recycled. You will need:
- Paper Plates
- Empty Paper Towel Rolls (cut in half)
- Small plastic or Toy Figure
Since I did this STEM activity in a classroom, I divided my materials into separate bins for each group of children.
I find that separating each groups materials into clear bins works best with young children. It keeps the materials contained, it is easy to pass out and clean-up is fast and done independently!
If you are doing this at home, you can simply keep all of the materials together.
To start, I put children into groups of 4 and each group was given a bin. In the bin, there were paper plates, paper rolls and a mouse character.
I used a mouse because it was light and it fit with a book we had recently read. You can use any small toy/animal.
Children were then asked to create a structure that the mouse could be set on top of without the structure falling. That’s it! It’s that simple and those were the only instructions I gave.
After the bins are passed out, I let students start building.
When I do STEM activities, I try to not give too many directions. I want children to be able to create and build in an open-ended way with very few restrictions.
Children began building and discussing right away. Many children started by using one paper roll between each plate. This worked for awhile, but these structures usually fell as soon as children tried to put the mouse on top.
It was really interesting watching children work and come up with new strategies when their structure fell. This is one of my favourite things about this STEM activity.
Children learn that whatever they build is going to fall down at some point, and that’s okay. Everyone’s creations will fall. Any group that picks it back up and keeps building is doing it right. We never give up and we learn from our mistakes.
Fairly quickly, groups figured out that they needed to use more than one paper roll between each layer to stabilize it. Once they tried this, the structures really started to get tall!
Adding the animal to the top of the building is a great twist on this building challenge. Children knew that they had to build a structure that was not only tall, but it also had to be strong and sturdy.
Once groups got started and were having some success, I also challenged them to get the mouse as high off the ground as possible!
The mouse is not necessary to use for this STEM activity challenge; however, I find that using a character or story creates purpose for children and it gives a focus.
I never give an example of specifically how to build or instructions of what they should try; however, I did remind them that great scientists and engineers don’t give up!
I told them that their structure will fall down. That’s okay! I remind them to learn from what worked and what caused it to fall down and use that information to build again.
I was so proud of how well they all did with this STEM activity! Students talked about balancing and keeping their structure even. There were great discussions and a lot of learning that happened.
Children created a lot of amazing structures! I am always impressed by what they come up with and create!
When children felt they had created a great structure for their mouse, I then measured the height of their structure, just for fun.
It was a great learning experience and interesting to watch the fact that groups that worked together were consistently the most successful.
Extension STEM Activity
Adding a bit of math into the activity by measuring the height of each groups structure was a fun way to add in some extra learning.
Since this activity was such a hit and the children were keen to keep creating and building, we have done this activity many times. Another idea to add to this STEM activity is to use pieces of flat cardboard instead of the plates.
When I tried this out at home I did not have extra paper plates to give my kids to build with. However, we cut up recycled boxes to make squares and rectangles. This ending up working great!
It allowed my kids to build different, more challenging structures. Use whatever you have available! There are lots of options.
The cardboard is also great for little hands to work with and stabilize structures with. Long pieces of cardboard are also ideal for adding some extra design elements to children’s building.
The long pieces allow kids to create structures that resemble walls and rooms.
The rectangular pieces allow children to not only build up, but also out. Let your kid’s imagination take over!
If you are building with older children, another idea to make it a bit more challenging is to give children different lengths of paper rolls. With different lengths children need to think of different ways to stabilize their structure.
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More Hands-On Teaching Ideas
If you are looking for some more STEM activities and building challenges to try out at home, or in the classroom, some of our favourites are below including a collection of over 45 STEM building challenges you could try out today!