My son was given a set of square magnetic blocks for his second birthday. They are one of the best gifts he has ever received. He has so much fun stacking them, making towers, and knocking the towers down. I love this toy for him too because he is learning great STEM skills while playing with the magnetic blocks.
Building towers is teaching him about structural engineering and physics. Knocking the tower down is teaching him about force and gravity. Building the tower in different shapes is teaching him basic geometry.
For a long time we only built square towers. They seemed the most simple, stable and straight forward for all of us. But since my son is now a pro at building square towers we have been trying new shapes.
First we tried a triangle. This was exciting because he found he could build this tower much taller than the square tower because it uses one less block per level. His triangle towers are usually taller than he is when he’s finished!
We have now also built pentagon and star-shaped towers. The star tower is still very challenging for my son because he cannot build the base himself because it includes five points and five inward facing angles, which can all easily get pushed together and messed up. When the magnetic blocks forming the point accidentally get stuck together while we’re setting up the base, my son will get very upset. So, try the star at your own risk (this shape probably will work best with older children age 3-4+).
I’m going to write the activity procedure in scientific experiment format. This format and explanation is for you. The toddlers will not understand the concepts yet, but as their teachers we should understand the concepts we are trying to teach them.
My son is 2.5 and I am focusing on making sure he knows all the shapes we are building and can tell me the difference between each shape (triangles have three sides, squares have four equal sides, pentagons have five sides, and the star has five points). I’m also starting to introduce the concept of gravity to explain why all the blocks fall to the ground when he knocks the tower down. He may not really understand gravity yet, but it will become part of his vocabulary and more familiar to him over time.
So let’s get started learning geometry and physics while building towers!
We are going to build towers in four different shapes (square, triangle, pentagon, and star) using magnetic blocks. Then we are going to experiment with knocking the towers down using hands and balls of different sizes.
We need to understand the math and physics concepts that are being used while building and knocking down towers.
To build a tower you need a strong base (foundation). A strong base will enable you to build a tall and stable tower. If you build the tower tall enough, the base will eventually not be able to support the blocks at the top of the tower and it will fall to ground. The wider and stronger the base, the taller you can build the tower. For example, a triangle tower has a smaller base (made up of three blocks) than a pentagon tower base (made up of five blocks), so the triangle tower will fall down easier.
If the tower doesn’t fall on its own the kids can experiment with knocking it down themselves. They can push it with their hands or throw balls at it. In this experiment we use a heavy ball and a light ball. The heavy ball will knock down the tower easiest because it has a greatest force. Force is what causes the change in the motion of an object and is defined by mass times acceleration. The heavier ball has a greater mass than the light ball, so when the heavy ball is thrown at the same speed as the lighter ball, it will create a greater force to knock down the tower.
Throwing the ball at the top vs. the bottom of the tower will also have an effect on knocking it down. Throwing the ball at the top may only knock off a few blocks at the top, whereas throwing it at the bottom will likely knock the whole tower down. When you take away the support at the bottom the tower can no longer stand and will fall down.
The blocks falling to the ground is a result of gravity. Gravity is defined in physics as the natural force that causes things to fall towards the earth. Gravity is good, it keeps us from floating away.
Geometry is a subject in mathematics that is focuses on shapes, lines, sizes, angles and relative positions. In today’s project we’re going to focus on creating shapes. We are going to create a triangle (a polygon with three sides and three angles), a square (a polygon with four equal sides and four right angles), a pentagon (a polygon with five sides and five angles), and a star (a polygon with five points and five internal angles).
- A set of stacking blocks. I used magnetic square blocks, but any type of similar stacking blocks will work.
- A heavy ball
- A light ball
Safety is extremely important and taken very seriously in science and engineering. Lab safety education usually begins in middle school when you learn about proper safety attire and handling of equipment in chemistry class, and then becomes more rigorous in the professional environment. In the engineering profession, sometimes following proper safety procedures is the difference between going home to your family at the end of a work day and a deadly accident.
I’m committed to including safety in every kids STEM activity featured on my site – no matter how simple and safe the experiment seems. This will help give the children an early awareness of safety that will hopefully lead to a life-long commitment to following safe practices both at home and in the workplace.
This activity has a few small hazards to be aware of:
- Magnets are extremely dangerous to children if swallowed. If you’re using the magnetic blocks make sure they are not damaged or broken in any way that could allow the child to ingest the magnets.
- Fingers can get pinched when the magnetic blocks are being stacked flat on top of each other. My son has gotten his fingers pinched a few times. It doesn’t hurt him – more it scares him a bit, so to avoid getting pinched he stacks quickly and carefully, holding the edges of the blocks to help keep his fingers from getting trapped and pinched underneath the block.
- Make sure you have a clear and open space with nothing breakable nearby. You will need enough room to build and knock down towers and throw balls.
1. To start, assemble the blocks and balls in a large open space (like your living room or play room floor).
2. Review the shapes you are going to be building with your toddler to make sure they know each shape before you get started.
3. Begin with building a square base. You can build the base yourself or have your child do it if they are able to. For awhile my son could not build the base on his own using our magnetic blocks, so I would build the base and then he would build up the tower from there. Non-magnetic stacking blocks is probably easier for younger toddlers (1.5-2 years old) who want to build themselves.
4. Have the toddler stack the magnetic blocks vertically on top of each block in the base to create a second level, repeat until you run out of blocks or the tower falls over.
5. If the tower didn’t fall over on its own, the toddler can knock down the tower using their hands, a heavy ball and a light ball.
a. First, ask the toddler to knock down the tower with their hands.
b. Build the same square tower again and knock it down with the heavy ball. Ask the toddler if it was harder or easier than knocking it down with their hands?
c. Repeat the step 5b above with the light ball. Was it harder or easier to knock down the tower using the light ball than with the heavy ball?
6. Next, build a triangle tower. This tower will be much taller than the square tower was by the time you run out of blocks because it has one less side than the square, so it uses less blocks per level.
7. Repeat knocking the triangle tower down using hands, the heavy ball and the light ball.
Note: Our triangle tower usually falls down on its own without my son knocking it down because it is so much taller than the other towers and has a smaller base. This is ok, and gives you the opportunity to explain to the child about gravity and that it is falling over because the height of the tower was greater than what the small base could support. Let’s face it, they probably won’t understand this and will likely have a tantrum because the tower fell before they could knock it down, but that’s toddler life, lol!
8. Next build a pentagon tower. This tower will be shorter than the square tower because it has one more side, so will use one more block per level.
9. Knock down the pentagon using hands, the heavy ball and the light ball. The pentagon will be harder to knock down than the square or triangle because it has a larger, and therefore more stable, base.
10. If you think your child is ready you can build a star tower. This one is tricky to build with the magnetic blocks but can be fun to try… 🙂
By the end of this experiment you should have had lots of excitement and laughter with your child, and probably also a couple of tantrums due to towers falling on their own or not falling when a ball was thrown at it. That’s ok! The toddlers are still learning! They’re learning that sometimes gravity will work without any forces needed to help the tower fall. They’re learning that sometimes you need greater force to knock things down.
The main thing to remember is to not take this too seriously. We’re teaching toddlers…they aren’t able to understand most science and math concepts yet. This is meant to be a fun and organized play activity and not a formal learning lesson with any expectations. Have fun building and knocking down with them! They might not want to do all the shapes in one play time. Just go with the flow and adjust the activity to your child’s readiness and comfort level.
I hope you enjoy this activity. It’s one of me and my son’s favorite activities to do together almost everyday. 🙂
Let me know in the comments if you tried the experiment and how your child liked it. Also, let me know if you tried building the towers in any shapes other than the four I suggested in this post and how it worked out.