What’s the best way to get kindergartners thinking about material engineers and what they do? One strategy that’s worked for me came in the form of a fable: The Three Little Pigs. After an introductory discussion of materials and material qualities (i.e. a spoon is made of metal; and metal is hard, shiny, and heavy), my class of kindergartners watched a version of the story. I recommend Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies version; the kids loved the song and dance, and luckily, they didn’t notice the portrait of dear ol’ dad, pictured towards the end as sausage links.
Prior to watching, I asked students to think about the material each of the three little pigs chose to use for their house. I also wanted them to think about the qualities of each, prompting them with questions: Is straw light or heavy? Is wood shiny? Are bricks soft? We giggled our way through the eight minute cartoon, and though kids were begging to see it again, I turned our lights back on and our technology off so that I could see if kindergartners had been thinking about materials and their properties. They were eager and overjoyed to answer my questions: when I asked if someone could tell me what straw was like, hands shot up all over the room, some of them begging to be picked to answer; when I asked about wood and brick, I got the same lively response.
Then came our fun and frightening design challenge: I broke the class up into four teams, each at their own table, and I told them that each team would get a different material and that they would have a few minutes of building time before the big, bad wolf (aka me) came around the room, huffing and puffing, trying to blow their houses down. I didn’t have any straw on hand, so one team was given cotton balls and loads of plush stuffing. The other teams received either scrap paper, popsicle sticks, or wooden blocks. The “easiest,” and most prized building material, were the wooden blocks–kindergartners all recognized that they were the closest to brick of what had been provided. All the other teams struggled, but everyone got wide-eyed with excitement when I called time on their building session and crept from table to table, blowing down all of their structures, even some of those made of the heavier wood blocks.
Kids switched tables and were given an opportunity to try their hand with each of the four materials. Each time, I gave them a little more than five minutes to build, and each time, I came around as the wolf, huffing and puffing, blowing houses down, given students of this age a way to think about the engineered structures that make up a part of the world we live in.
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