For me a great learning activity is one that is hands-on, engaging and requires thinking outside of the box as well problem solving. A STEM challenge for kids is a great way to do all of these things. The STEM activity below was a huge hit with my kids! It only requires a few simple materials and can be prepared in minutes.
One of the best things about STEM activities is that the learning happens in the process of working through and solving the challenge. It is not the end result that is the focus. Every child can have a different solution and they can all still be right.
STEM activities encourage children to preserver and never give up when faced with a challenge. These activities focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math skills. These subject areas are becoming more of a focus in many schools as the benefits and learning that come from STEM activities are endless.
Another great thing about this STEM challenge is that it can be done at home, or in the classroom. Children can work in small groups or independently, depending how much wall space you have for children to work.
The activity is ideal for school aged children from 5-12. Older children will create more complex, detailed ramps and younger children will work through trial and error to find a solution that works.
I have done dozens of STEM activities over the years with my own children and at school in my classroom and I am always impressed by all of the different strategies children come up with to solve each challenge. You’ll likely have an idea in your mind of how to solve the challenge, but children will amaze you with what they can come up with.
STEM Challenge for Kids Materials
One of the great things about this STEM challenge for kids is that materials are all inexpensive and in many cases things that you may already have at home. You will need:
- Play Dough
- Tongue Depressors (Popsicle sticks are too thin to work)
- Start and Finish Label (Writing on tape works well)
- Small Ball (Ping pong ball works well)
These are the materials that work best for the challenge. However, if you only have popsicle sticks and a small marble, you could use these for the challenge. They should work in the same way.
When I first set up this STEM activity, I used a large board. I wanted to be able to move the board with the sticks and dough around if needed. However, any wall will work well. Just be careful with the play dough that you use that it doesn’t mark your walls. Try a test area first. I ended up using the back side of cupboards for kids to build on and it was perfect!
Each child or group of children, will need one ball, a handful of tongue depressors (20-30 should be plenty) and a few small containers of play dough.
Set up only takes a few minutes. Print the “Start” and “Finish” labels and stick the “Start” at the top left of the wall and the “Finish” at the bottom right.
These locations for the labels are just a suggestions, you can move them around to wherever you want. They are placed opposite each other on the wall so that the ball cannot simply be dropped into the cup.
Place the cup, or tape the cup, below the “Finish” label. Give groups their supplies and you are ready to go!
Once you have all of your supplies ready for each group you are ready to tell children what the challenge is!
Challenge children to create a ramp that the ball can travel down from the “Start” label past the “Finish” label into the cup. The ball cannot fall off the sticks and must land in the cup. You can only use play dough and tongue depressors. Finally, the ball must do the run and land in the cup three times in a row to count as a success.
Adding the requirement of the ball doing the run successfully three times is important. The ball will likely land in the cup by luck a few times as children build.
Adding the detail of it needing to happen three times in a row is important to make sure that the design is done in such a way that the challenge has been completed successfully.
Doing the STEM Challenge for Kids
Once children have the supplies to do the activity, tell them the challenge and then have them start building.
I always avoid giving any suggestions or tips on how to complete the challenge. There are many things that won’t work right away when kids are building. The play dough may not stick perfectly. The ball will fall off the tongue depressors and it will roll too fast or too far. This is all part of the challenge.
The tongue depressors will come unstuck and fall as they build. However, this will lead to them learning to smear the play dough to get it to stick better or adding more.
If they add too much, the weight of the dough will make the sticks fall. So kids will experiment to find the right amount of dough to make it stick, without weighing it down.
STEM activities are a great way for children to experience small mistakes and learn from them. When something doesn’t work when building, they learn to try a different way.
It is very unlikely for any child to build a perfect ramp on their first try. This is all part of the process and the experience.
Make sure to give enough time for children to really get into the activity. At least half an hour will give kids a good start.
STEM Activity Results
It was really interesting to see how different each of the kids ramps were. Some were complicated and used all of the materials. Others only used a few sticks, but angled their ramp carefully to land in the cup.
One child found that their ramp worked to get the ball into the cup, but the speed was too much and it always bounced out of the cup. It was interesting to see them work through this issue and find a solution.
Their final solution was very smart and creative. They put play dough in the bottom of the cup to cushion the hit of the ball and prevent it from bouncing out.
All of the ramps were different and equally interesting. It was great to watch the kids create and test their ramp after each building change. If something didn’t work, they worked though what they needed to change. They were thinking like scientists, architects and engineers!
Many children found the the ping pong ball rolled off the sides of the tongue depressors because it was not thick enough. Some children problem solved and stuck another tongue depressor on top of the first one, but off center so that it made the whole ramp wider.
STEM activities for kids do not need to be expensive. They are a great, hands-on opportunity for kids to use simple, common materials to create something great.
Add to Your STEM Challenge for Kids
If you have older children doing the STEM challenge, or simply want to add to the difficulty, below are a few ideas that you could add to your activity.
Use stickers, or tape to make a few marks on the wall between the “Start” and “Finish” labels. These marks show places that the ball must roll past on its way to the finish cup. This makes it harder for players to create a straight line or simple design.
You can also limit the number and amount of play dough and tongue depressors given. Builders would have to be careful and deliberate with every part of their ramp so that they don’t run out of materials before completing their ramp.
Alternatively, you can make the challenge a bit easier by providing tape for groups to use if they feel they need to. Some types of play dough don’t work as well as others and having a back up with tape is a good idea.
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