Forces are all around us. They stop us falling through the floor, they make sure that we can walk around, and they keep the Earth circling the Sun.
But we can’t see them. Forces are invisible. As teachers we need to think of ways to make these invisible forces visible to the children we work with. The Institute of Physics talks about putting on “forces spectacles”, and that is a useful metaphor for our role. By using concrete examples we enable children to ‘see’ the forces around them.
In Key Stage 1 we can start by exploring forces through pushes and pulls. Children can use plasticine to make models and then describe what forces they are applying. A great story that we could use is that of The Three Little Pigs. This Teachers TV programme shows how it could be done. The teacher uses the ‘huff and the puff’ of the wolf to illustrate pushes, but also asks the children to make models of the wolf and helps them to talk about what they are doing in terms of pushes and pulls, pinches and twists.
At KS2 we can start to bring in the idea of forces causing a change in motion. Pushing and pulling toys are a great context for this. As children get older we can then begin to talk about a force causing a change in motion.
Many of the forces that the children have been using up to this point are quite easy to ‘see’. Pushes and pulls are obvious. However, friction is a different matter, and children struggle to recognise the role of friction in everyday life. One fun activity that we can do to help them ‘see’ friction, is a ‘jelly race’. First of all the children pick up some little cubes of jelly out of a bowl using chopsticks. They can time how fast they can do this, which gives some practice in taking measurements for SC1.
Next, the jelly cubes are put back in the bowl and some vegetable oil is added. Now the children try and pick up the little cubes of jelly again, and this time it is much harder. This activity also helps to address the misconception that friction is only present when an object is moving. There is friction between the chopsticks and the jelly, even when the jelly isn’t moving. When the jelly has oil on it there is very little frictional force, and it’s hard to keep hold of it (with or without chopsticks!). By comparing this with picking the jelly up we can help children ‘see’ the frictional forces – and what happens when they are not there.
These activities, and others like them, will help you, and your pupils, put on Forces spectacles to see the forces at work around us.
I will be running an optional workshop on forces at the Primary Science Annual Conference 2013 in York in July. I’d be delighted to hear your stories and thoughts on teaching forces to our KS1 and KS 2 pupils.
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