news & tips
A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching
The Joy of Toys
Every teacher should have a box of toys on their desk. Mine has an old top, a yo yo, a few home made spinning things, some great silly putty, a Koosh Ball, a pair of happy/sad balls and an odd assortment of other junk. Kids spend an amazing amount of time waiting to see a teacher at their desk. So, my toy box is open for business. It is amazing to watch the thinking that goes on around toys. It is amazing that a junior or senior in high school can reconnect with the kid inside of them with a simple ball of putty or a top. The good part is that there is quite a bit of science in there.
So, this day I will spend a little time giving you hints for Santa and one toy you might want to have in your teaching bag of tricks.
Tops are one of the cheapest and best toys for teaching the concept of balanced forces. If you have not spun a simple top in a while grab one and watch it work it’s scientific magic. If you give the kids a few cheap tops and ask them to modify the top to make it spin longer they have to put on the scientific thinking caps and get to work.
There is actually a spinning top and yo yo museum:
To have students build their own tops take a peek at this web site:
There is a pretty good Institute for Inquiry investigation on spinning things at:
In class if you are teaching about the center of gravity tops can be a great visual tool. They also can also be used as an analogy for balance in life, reactions, the rotating Earth, or just about anything else that spins. I used tops one year to get kids to think about measuring speed.
The easiest top in my box of toys is a pen barrel glued to an old CD. It takes a bit to get it balanced but it makes an excellent recycled science project for younger kids. The idea is spelled out at this web site:
For the students in your class that have trouble writing good observation in lab reports hand out a top and ask them to make 5 observations in 3 minutes and write them down. If you have the entire class do this the observations are pretty insightful and will give you a little diagnostic data regarding what each student will pay attention to…the micro or the macro view (small details or the big system picture).
One of my student teachers once assigned each student an element (one of the first 30 elements) and instructed them to make a top that illustrated some aspect of that elements chemical or physical character. The projects were diverse. Some used photos of items made with that element on the spinning top, others made their tops with the correct number of protons and neutrons glued to the top of the disk and one group had the electron orbitals for the element Lithium incorporated into the top itself. This idea will work for any group of science ideas. For animals, assign a species or phylum or order and ask the students to incorporate some aspect of that group into their design or artwork. For the rock cycle, ask the students to make a top that has the stages of the rock cycle on the face of the top. The applications are endless and the toy is simple.