Inside: This classic catapult combines active learning with loads of fun, and it’s made with just 3 things: popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and a spoon.
If you’ve been around small children for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed that signature look of restless excitement they get from time to time… when their eyes shine with curiosity and their youthful energy of “there might be something more out there for me” urges them ahead to explore what’s in the back of your pots’ drawer or behind the books in the bookcase.
It’s the same energy that suddenly propels your toddler to start toddling in the opposite direction, away from you to some target in the distance that’s caught their eye. Or to inspire your nine-year-old to collect all the toilet paper from around the house to build a snow fort just in case the roof of the house comes off in the storm…
All true stories 🙂
It’s up to you to decide what you want to do with that. You can say, what do you think you’re doing!? You can also say, Can I join you?
Stepping into their world with childlike curiosity and wonder might seem time/energy-consuming, but it has some potent perks for us as adults! It stimulates our brains, creates a meaningful connection, and makes our days more fun.
So today, I invite you to:
- Ask your child, what are you working on? And plop down on the floor next to her or him to get a better look.
- Say, that took a lot of imagination! Tell me more about it! And actively listen.
- Build a classic catapult and let them win by scoring the most points. Yes, you have to 🙂 (Scroll down for our scoring download).
The History of Catapults
Human beings have been building catapults for a very long time. In fact, the first documented use of catapults goes back to 399 BC.
The Ancient Greeks used them in siege warfare, as did the Romans and the Chinese. The French used them in England during the famous Siege of Dover and pirates during the golden age of piracy. Grenade catapults were used in World War I, and today catapults are used to launch airplanes from aircraft carriers. That particular use is very interesting to watch.
The grossest use of catapults we read about was when the bodies of those who died from the infectious disease were hurled over the city wall to infect the residing residents. The first use of biological warfare!
Why did catapults endure through the centuries? Scroll down to The Science section at the end of the post to find out!
How to Build a Really Good Catapult
What you need
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6 jumbo popsicle sticks (see note in step 1)
Ammo (crumpled paper, pom poms, or marshmallows)
What to do
Take 5 popsicle sticks, line them up on top of each other, and secure them with a rubber band on one side.
Note: there is nothing magic about the number 5; you can use 6 or 4 popsicle sticks. The idea is to make a sturdy base and a nice slope (the fulcrum) for the arm (that propels the payload).
Slide the last stick between the bottom stick and the rest of the stack. If you have extra sticks, you can use an additional stick here for extra stability.
And secure the second side.
Place a plastic spoon on top of the single stick (from step 2).
And attach them with the last rubber band.
4. Fire and Score
Pom poms and crumpled paper (like leftover gift wrap) make excellent projectiles. It’s way, WAY, way more fun to play for points! I made you a little video to show how we score it.
Feeling extra crafty today?
We think painting the popsicle sticks is a super fun activity all in itself!
The Science of Catapults
Why did catapults endure through the centuries?
Because they were very effective in getting the job done – hurling a projectile a great distance!
The design of catapults changed and improved in step with technological advancements, but the main idea stayed the same – it uses stored energy. To take our catapult as an example, it works because the potential energy stored in a stretched rubber band is converted to kinetic energy as it snaps back to its original shape.
But where does that potential energy come from? Isn’t it true that energy can’t be created!? As we talked about in our Yoda experiment, energy can’t be created or destroyed, but it can be transferred. To pull the catapult arm back, thus stretching the rubber band (aka elastic potential energy), you use the chemical energy of your body.
And where does the chemical energy of your body come from? From the yummy and nutritious food you eat.
Below are the science sheets that go well with this activity; you can download them for FREE from our library of resources at any time. Just enter your email here, and the automated service will send you the links.
Do you need a more comprehensive look at the scientific method, experiment design, and scientific questions? Download the FREE STEM pack below!
Do you want to learn more about the forms of energy, energy transfer, and potential Vs kinetic energy? If not, go to our Yoda experiment. In that post, we discussed these topics with examples.
How to Keep Track of the Points
Do you want to turn your catapult project into a fun and exciting competition?
Download this scoring sheet to keep track of your progress. We like to designate two lines on the floor as point zones. If the shot doesn’t reach the first line (closest to the player), it’s 0 points. If the shot lands between the first and second line, it’s 1 point. And if the shot goes beyond the second line, it’s 2 points.
Add all the points for each round and write them down on your scoring card next to the name of the player. Easy-peasy, right?
Download it from our library of resources. To get the access link, enter your email here.