The Physics of Twisting for Kids

The Physics of Twisting for Kids

Inside: Dynamic and creative activities for hands-on exploration of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion. Twisting soda can, cats, and a couple of twisting challenges. Physics has never been as much fun.


Like most Russian girls, I once dreamed of a career as a professional gymnast. I was born hyper-flexible (and even now in my 40s I can still do splits, backbends, and some jumps) and when I was young my parents were offered a place in a government-funded gymnastics school. That kind of school is probably not what you would normally envision. Trainees were not allowed to leave the school from Monday through Friday. The training schedule was grueling and the academic learning took time only in the time left after the training sessions were done. My parents declined the offer.  


An important thing to know about sports is that a great athlete is not just a strong person with good coordination and body/mind control.  A great athlete is usually someone who understands physics and can use that knowledge to his advantage. There are many different aspects of physics that can be covered using gymnastics – energy, force, and friction – but today I want to concentrate on twisting.  




The Physics of Twisting for Kids: Newton's Third Law of Motion. The physics of twisting is taught in college-level mechanic courses, but as Albert Einstein said, if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. In preparation for Olympics, I thought it would be fun to do a couple of hands-on activities that demonstrate the concept of twisting to my little kids in a simple way.


Newton’s Third Law of Motion

In order to understand twisting, one has to start with Newton’s 3rd law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The harder a gymnast pushes against the beam, the higher is her lift into the air. Any time you want an upward movement, you have to start with a downward push. The “down” and “up” are two equal forces working in opposite directions.  


Newton's Third Law of Motion says that for every action there is equal and opposite reaction. When you kick a ball, ball reacts on your foot.

The concept of “equal” was hard for my kids to grasp at first. When I told them that by kicking a ball they are exerting a force on a ball that is called action. They agreed. But when I told them that the ball is exerting an equal force on their foot called reaction, they vehemently disagreed.  

How can it be true?!  The ball is doing no such thing!  Mom is wrong!

If the ball didn’t exert the force on your foot, you wouldn’t even feel it when you kicked the ball. You can feel the force of the ball when you feel compression on your foot at the moment of kicking.  


The physics of twisting is taught in college-level mechanic courses, but as Albert Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.  


In preparation for the Olympics, I thought it would be fun to do a couple of hands-on activities that demonstrate the concept of twisting to my little kids in a simple way. We started by watching the twisting of a falling cat.  (No cat was hurt during this experiment). Second, we used the power of water to twist a can of soda. And finally, we watched women’s gymnastics from the last Olympics and used our bodies to practice twisting (tip: it’s a great gross motor activity for kids who like to move).  


Do Falling Cats Defy The Laws of Physics?  

Until the camera was invented scientists had a hard time explaining how cats manage to land on their feet without defying the laws of physics. (If you are curious, here is the first-ever cat video made in 1894). How can cats possibly manage to turn in the air, with the absence of force giving it an initial rotation?  Newton’s 3rd law of motion specifically states that there must be two equal forces working in opposite directions and the only forces working on a falling cat are gravity and friction. How can a cat use these forces to turn?  


cat_falling photo credit
Photo credit: University College Cork, Ireland

Physicists analyzed falling cats and discovered that all falling cats perform the same nifty trick. As they fall, (1) they bend in the middle to create two different axes of rotation: that is, the front half of their body rotates about a different axis than the rear half.  (2) They turn in the front legs while leaving the back legs extended. The result is that the front and back of their bodies start rotating in opposite directions creating their own rotational force.  


In short, by rotating sections of its body in opposite directions, cats manage to move their body as a whole. (It also helps that cats do not have a collar bone and can turn their heads 180 degrees to look down as they fall).   


To help my kids understand the concept of axis and how the rotation happens I made them a toilet paper roll cat. The body consists of two rolls so that I could bend “the cat” in the middle and rotate the front and the rear parts in opposite directions. I put some stripes on the back of our cat to make the rotation more evident. If you don’t like the idea of your cat being so unnaturally long just cut one paper roll in half and use that.  


The Physics of Twisting Cat can be demonstrated with two Toilet Paper Rolls


Twisting Soda Can Experiment

In this experiment we made a soda can twist by filling it with water and strategically placing holes along the bottom of it to harness the gravitational force. The created rotational force surprised and fascinated my kids to no end. It’s a great outside experiment for summer and deserves its own post (coming up this week).  


Twisting Soda Can Experiment


Hands-on Twisting Fun for Kids

Did you ever wonder why gymnasts do cartwheel before going into a backflip? A cartwheel is a twisting force that tends to cause rotation! Ask kids what are some other things that help us twist our bodies? How about the position of our hands?  Ask kids to spin in one place while keeping hands straight down by their bodies. Now ask them to spin while spreading hands to the side? Which position of their hands creates better spinning? Hands out or hands down?


Spinning Girl l


Look at this video of a gymnast performing her vault routine in slow motion. Doesn’t she seem to defy all the rules of physics by staying in the air so incredibly long with no apparent force to hold her there? More time in the air means more time to complete somersaults. And how does she get more time in the air? By jumping down as hard as possible to spring high into the air.


The kids really enjoyed watching this long video.  here are many nice slow-motion sequences.  


After watching gymnasts perform, we decided to create a series of twisting challenges by changing different variables to see if we can produce better twisting without any special equipment.  


Remember how the upward movement is created by downward push? We decided to vary how hard we jump on a pillow to see if it will change how much we can twist.  


(Safety note: make sure the kids are jumping on a soft surface like grass or carpet and the carpet is securely attached to the floor. Make sure the pillow is not covered with slippery material like silk).  


The Physics of Twisting Challenge for little Kids

Challenge 1:

  1. Stand on one end of your working space with a pillow about a foot or two in front of you.  
  2. Start running and  jump on the pillow with some force.
  3. Immediately jump off the other end trying to twist the body 180 degrees in the air.  
  4. Now see, if you can perform a 360 degrees rotation.
  5. Try this a couple of times.  


My kids just couldn’t get enough of this experiment.


Challenge 2:

  1. Stand in front of a pillow.
  2. Jump on the pillow and immediately jump off trying to twist the body 180 degrees. Then 360 degrees. 
  3. Try this a couple of times.


Which position of the pillow allowed for better twists?  


Now try varying the position of arms: swinging arms, extended straight overhead, straight out to the sides, glued to the body, etc. Would jumping on one leg allow for better twists? Or maybe try shoes and no shoes?  


Would you like a whole month of Olympic-related activities, crafts, books and more to try with your kids? Click here for inspiration from the best kid bloggers from around the world.  And for extra fun, try an Olympics Challenge for Kids that you can print off kcedventures blog.


Olympic Challenge


What are you favorite Olympic sports? What are your kids’ favorite Olympic-related activities?  


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17 Responses

  1. This could become a nonfiction science picture book for children! Excellent information for parents, too. Thank you! I had no idea how cats jumped or their heads could look straight down.

  2. You are so creative my friend. Your kids are so blessed to have you as their mother and teacher. Physics can be hard to understand but you explained it so well.

    1. Thank you, Irina, for your kind words!

  3. Although the result that we see is beautiful, Russian school of gymnastics breaks those kids. They grow up champions but they pay a very high price.

    1. I totally agree!

  4. This is such a great post! Love all the different ways you help them learn.

  5. This is very interesting! Wow, I am going to show this to my kiddos. They will be fascinated.

  6. Awesome post! I am a former cheerleader and reading your post took me back to the tumbling and stunting portion of cheer and the motion of twisting that was involved. What a great way to present a lesson in twisting!

  7. The science behind all of this is so fascinating! Cats always amaze me with how they always manage to land on their feet no matter what.

  8. I love watching gymnastics as well! I am always impressed with what they can do.

  9. Love this post because I loved the info about cats (I’m a total kitty person), and I also am ALL about the Olympics and gymnastics! So cool to hear more about how you explained this to your kids and the lesson!
    Karen |

  10. This is so fun. As a Physics/Bio major I love anything that teaches kids how science applies to everything we do!

  11. Wow! So informative! Physics can be so much fun when kids can see it in real life — love all the hands-on examples & activities you used. Thanks for joining the Kid Olympics this year!

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