Want an awesome activity that will encourage kids to problem solve and build? Use stacking cups and popsicle sticks! This STEM challenge is fun and engaging for kids of all ages. It is a great activity to promote fine motor skills and coordination.
I am fascinated by, and learn so much by watching children problem solve especially during STEM challenges (Science Technology Engineering and Math). I am always very proud of the kids I work with when they are working on a STEM challenge and something doesn’t work, and I hear the words “That’s okay, we can do it again better”. This is music to my ears.
For this STEM challenge all you need are cups, large popsicle sticks and a plastic character. If you don’t have popsicle sticks, you can also cut cardboard into long rectangles and use in place of popsicle sticks. (It works really well!) I used large popsicle sticks, or tongue depressors, but use what you have on hand.
Throughout our STEM activities, the children and I talk about thinking like an engineer, never giving up and learning from their mistakes. I really feel like most of my students now approach these challenges with this attitude; which in many ways is more important than the actual challenge.
Today our STEM challenge involved building a tower as tall as possible to ‘reach to the sky’. Children were given the materials that they were allowed to use and encouraged to use as many of the materials as they could.
For this STEM challenge kids were paired up and given a stack of approximately 15-20 cups, roughly 20 large popsicle sticks and a little plastic character to build the tower for.
You don’t need to include the small plastic character if you don’t have one. However, it was interesting to watch how dedicated my students were in creating a tower for their character. It gave them a focus and a purpose for creating. The character also ensured that the towers were strong and stable enough to hold the figure.
Children needed to build a tower as tall as possible and then set their character on top. As long as the character does not fall off, we call it a success. Can you create one higher?
I encouraged groups to use all of the materials that they were given. Some groups built their tower vertically, other groups liked the idea of a longer tower or building and built a long tower. I loved seeing their visions and buildings.
Since the goal was to build a tall tower, once groups felt that they were ready and had built as tall as they could, we measured their creations. The tallest tower that was created was 9 cups high.
In all 4 classes that I did this STEM challenge with, the first 15 minutes for almost every group was spent just stacking the cups. This is an important step for young kids. Children need this time to explore and experiment with their materials. They are testing out what works with the cups and sticks. Once they felt comfortable with their materials, then they really began to build.
After experimenting with the materials, groups then began using the popsicle sticks to help stabilize the levels. It was interesting to watch group after group come to this solution.
Kids worked for the whole period, happily building and rebuilding their towers. Every group’s tower fell at some point and then they built it again. This is an important part of the challenge and an important skill for children to learn.
We ended up with quite a collection of towers. Some were tall, whereas other groups build out instead of up, but their creations were typically stronger. This is a really simple STEM challenge that you can do at home or at school.
I love seeing the progress and strategies students use the more they are exposed to STEM challenges. The activities create great problem solvers and children that persist when presented with a challenge. It is very rewarding to watch – both as a parent and teacher.
Once children have built a tower with these materials there are lots of other activities you can do with them. You can get the cups and sticks out time and time again.
You can challenge children to build with only a specific number of cups and/or sticks. This would require them to do some counting to get the right number of cups and sticks before building.
Another idea that requires some math is to use a ruler to measure and compare tower heights. How many centimeters/inches is the tallest tower? What is the difference between the tallest and shortest tower?
If you have children that love to design as they build, encourage them to build a tower or house with a doorway at the front. It is amazing what children can come up with! This is also a great opportunity for children to talk about and describe their creation. There are often details that we, as adults, don’t see, but children have put thought and creativity into. It is always interesting to hear children explain and tell about what they build.
Another idea is to challenge children to see what the fewest number of cups/sticks they can build a tower with is. What building strategies can they use to use minimal cups and sticks, but still have their tower strong and not fall over?
Finally, can you build a tower that is longer than you?
More STEM Challenges and Activities for Kids
For another STEM building challenge with simple materials, but lots of fun, all you need are paper towel rolls and paper plates. Click the link below for activity details.
Try out an escape room at home! With over 40, simple, DIY ideas, check the link below.
Looking for some more learning activities to do at home? These choice boards offer children options as they guide their learning. Fun, engaging, and all activities can be done at home with minimal materials.