Toys as tools to teach science

DEMONSTRATIONS

Toys as tools to teach science

Toys play a large part in the early development of children. From the domestic point of view, it is possible that, in a family with kids, the festive seasons provide the greatest impetus to the giving and receiving of toys. This is by no means a new phenomenon. The commercial production of toys is in the league of big business. There are many popular toys available in the marketplace based on science.

Archaeological finds have indicated that toy-making existed over 4,000 years ago, and many of the toys used at that time are still being used today in some form. A yo-yo is a classical antiquity toy that was known to ancient Greece around 450 BC. It is a mechanical device for the conversion of energy — a toy flywheel. A yo-yo, in general, consists of a body of rotational symmetry, with a slender axle, which is allowed to roll on a flexible string.

Hidden science

Spinning tops are ancient toys, found across many of the world’s cultures, which lays bare a profound physical principle — the conservation of angular momentum. The behaviour of any spinning top is mainly due to the effect of gravity. Flying discs in one form or another have been around since the last couple of centuries. A spinning disc behaves like a gyroscope and its aerodynamics still baffles us. Boomerang is an ancient curved wooden club which can be thrown so as to return to the thrower.

Almost everyone likes to play with toys and such a desire continues throughout an individual’s life. Psychologists inform us that playing with toys is not just a filling in of an empty period, or just a relaxation or leisure activity, but it is an important learning experience. Playing with toys is also seen as a means of working off aggression; as a means of learning basic skills; as a means of informing social behaviour; as well as commonly accepted means of relaxation.

Michael Faraday used toys in his ‘royal’ lectures. Faraday had used a toy to illustrate the concepts of his lecture in 1859-60. He delivered a lecture that included the concepts of centre of gravity and equilibrium. Faraday demonstrated this through a balancing lady toy. He was perfectly sure, without looking inside the toy, that there was some arrangement by which the centre of gravity was at the lowest point, when the image was standing upright, and he was also certain when he was tilting it over, that he was lifting up the centre of gravity and raising it from the earth. He finally explained that all this was effected by putting a piece of lead inside the lower part of the toy, and making the base of larger curvature, wherein lay the secret.

Many of us have essentially the same discussion with the ‘weeble’ toy. Most students seem to know that ‘weebles wobble, but they do not fall down’. In education circles around the world, there is a great cross-fertilisation than in many other spheres of life in learning through toys. It is probably true that in all curriculum development projects at the primary and early secondary levels of education, the learning done through the child-centred approach is the uppermost one.

The classroom at school is the main formal channel through which children learn about the worlds of science. When children play with toys, they are actually exploring the world, but on a manageable scale. Playing with toys is a mechanism by which children practise new skills and internalise new ideas. Children learn what things are and how they work by playing with toys in a direct experience. However, a good toy should be safe and foster exploration.

Sowing seeds of questioning

Teachers can build on childrens’ play by providing engaging toys. Indeed, science toys lead to the question: why does it act like this? In other words, science toys help kids become interested in science, while also being a source of entertainment. They can plant the seeds for future scientific exploration and even a career in the sciences. Thus, toys are one of the better material resources required in the classroom, with rapidly changing scientific ideas.

By introducing science toys in the classroom, children get enjoyable experiences in science learning. So, there is a need to develop science learning activities for informal learning settings outdoors and indoors, in which science toys become very handy. In addition to being very educational, the right toy based on science can mesmerise children for hours, as they learn how it works and figure out the nuances of its operations. It is wise to make use of toys as the basis for experiments.

While playing with toys is considered a paradigm of child-centered activity, the teacher plays a key role in organising the play environment to help children think about certain ideas. The most interesting and engaging science toys are usually based on the principles of physics. For science teachers, they are great for science classroom demonstrations. By doing experiments that involve children’s favourite toys, they can learn a lot about science.

The use of physics-based toys in teaching needs to become common. Simple wooden blocks might be a good starting point for a child to begin to understand causal relationships and basic principles of science. Children do not know about gravity, but they learn by playing with toys as they let go of a rattle and notice that it falls to the floor. When a child bangs on a drum, s/he learns s/he can create a sound and through play s/he learns the important concept of cause and effect.

The commercial version of Impact Ball apparatus is an example of momentum conservation. It shows a combination of mass and velocity coming in, equals the combination of mass and velocity going out. Such physics toys allow one to see first-hand the different principles of physics in action and thus make science learning very fun. They are an easy and inexpensive way to visualise certain concepts which would otherwise be difficult to grasp.

Using toys to teach fundamental principles of science can be especially effective since toys build on and extend cognitive as well as creative abilities. For teachers and students alike, toys can provide motivational and experiential links between science concepts and everyday experiences.

If Michael Faraday could use toys in his “Royal” lectures, the we should have no hesitation in using them in our everyday classes.

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