An improbable balancing act is a common theme running through many Dr. Seuss books, from The Cat In The Hat to Ten Apples Up On Top. Remember? “With a cup and a cake on the top of my hat! I can hold up two books! I can hold up the fish! And a little toy ship! And some milk on a dish! And look! I can hop up and down on the ball! But that is not all! Oh, no. That is not all…” Since we love hands-on activities, we jumped at the chance to create an engineering challenge based on the Dr. Seuss book The Cat in the Hat. Contrary to what many people think, science projects do not require expensive things. Grab simple everyday objects from around the house and challenge the kids to balance them like that Cat in the Hat.
What you need
A bag filled with toys. My kids picked the ones mentioned in a story – books, a boat, a bottle of milk (or half-and-half), a fan, a ball, a toy cake, a fish, a cup, …
What to do
Invite your budding engineers to build a structure using objects they pull out of the bag. Extend the play by introducing craft sticks and sticky tape to make building easier (or more difficult).
What you need
- A ball
- A cat
- And everything else around the house that might help the project
- (Optional) Take the challenge to the next level by taking a trip to Home Depot together. Leisurely walk along the aisles and look for things that might help balance the cat on the ball.
What to do
Use anything and everything you can think of to balance the cat on the ball. Tape? Playdough? Blocks? Books?
You might want to hint to kids that the job involves two tasks: stabilizing a ball + balancing a cat. For stabilizing the ball we had good luck with blocks, tape and a baby rattle. Our biggest balancing achievement was balancing a bronze cat on top of a small red ball with the use of three ropes pinned down by books. The trick was to pull each rope to just the right degree to achieve the necessary balance.
Why do things topple over?
Ask your child to stand up straight and lean to the side (stand close, so you can catch him/her). Very soon your child will reach a point where he/she is about to topple over. Do the same thing sitting down. Can he/she lean farther without toppling over when sitting?
Gravity is the force that makes things go down. Center of gravity is the average location of the weight. If the center of gravity is in balance, so is the object. If the center of gravity is off balance, then the object will topple. The lower your center of gravity (sitting as opposed to standing) the more you can lean without tipping over. Tight rope walkers understand the center of gravity very well. That’s why they can balance in seemingly impossible ways.
The purpose of this project is to think and problem solve. When do you reach the point when things topple over? It might be a good time to pull up photographs of the leaning tower of Pisa. Ask kids why the leaning tower of Pisa is not falling. Scientists say that as long the vertical line extending through the center of gravity passes through its base, the tower will not collapse. But if the tower keeps leaning, it might topple over one day.
As you watch your kids experiment and pile things up, do not say, “Wait, that won’t work.” I had to bite my tongue more than once and remind myself that kids learn best by experimenting and making mistakes.
Things to say during this project
It’s interesting the way you made…
Oh, I see, you put a smaller object on top of the larger one.
I’m curious about your construction. Tell me more…
Did you notice how this object balances that other one (on the other side)?
I like how you put two things on both ends. It’s called symmetry.
I really like how you used this flat object here. It adds stability.
How did you figure that out?
You are working really hard.
Do not start this project close to dinner! I knew my kids would love this, but I didn’t expect them to keep at it for hours. They kept finding new ways to balance and more things around the house to add to the structure. They were very excited when they could balance something completely impossible like a bottle on top of a beach ball. There were cheers all around when the structures toppled over and everything crashed to the ground. It’s an easy and fun project to get kids to think like engineers!
What is your favorite Dr. Seuss book?