Inside: It’s an easy and fun project to get kids to think like engineers. This engineering challenge was designed to go along with the reading of The Cat in the Hat, but can be used with other Dr. Seuss books about balancing like Ten Apples Up on Top.
An improbable balancing act is a common theme running through many Dr. Seuss books. Remember The Cat In The Hat?
“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!
I can hop up and down on the ball!
But that is not all!
Oh, no. That is not all…”
Since we love finishing story time with hands-on activities, I created this engineering challenge to go along with the reading of The Cat in the Hat.
This activity is proof that science education doesn’t have to be expensive. Grab simple everyday objects from around the house and challenge the kids to balance them like the clever cat in the book.
Engineering Challenge #1: Balancing Everyday Objects
What you need
A bag filled with toys. My kids intentionally picked the ones mentioned in the story: books, a boat, a bottle of milk (it was actually Oberweis bottle of half-and-half), a fan, a ball, a toy cake, a fish, and 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, depending on their frame of mind, more ambitious).
Engineering Challenge #2: Balancing a Cat on a Ball
What you need
- Balls (we used beach ball, rhino ball, and a bouncy playground ball)
- Cats (we used a variety of cats: a talking/purring orange cat full of batteries with awkward legs, a LEGO DUPLO cat, and even a very heavy bronze cat with a long and skinny body).
- 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 you can think of to balance the cat on the ball. Duck tape? Playdough? Blocks? Books?
You might want to hint to kids that the job involves two tasks. First, they need to stabilize their ball, and THEN they need to balance their cat.
For stabilizing the ball, we had good results with blocks, tape, and a baby rattle. Beach ball was easy to stabilize by placing it into a toy cooking pot and then piling up blocks to prevent it from rolling to the sides. See the photos below.
DUPLO cat is, of course, very light, so it was easy to just tape it to the top of the ball. Even though the cat leaned to the side, it stayed put.
Our biggest balancing achievement was balancing a bronze cat on top of a small ball (we tried a couple) with the use of three ropes pinned down by books (Shakespeare DOES COME IN HANDY, FOLKS 🙂 ). The trick was to pull each rope to just the right degree of tension to achieve the necessary balance. And the ball rested on top of a baby rattle shaped like a donut, which helped a lot.
We discussed why a heavy and tall cat is hard to balance on top of a small light ball.
Why do things topple over?
Ask your child to stand up straight and lean to the side (stand close so that 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. The center of gravity is the average location of 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 over.
The lower your center of gravity (sitting as opposed to standing), the more you can lean without tipping over. Tightrope walkers understand the center of gravity very well. That’s why they can balance in a seemingly impossible way.
The purpose of this project is to think and to problem solve. When do you reach the point when things topple over, and why?
This might be a good time to pull up photographs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Ask kids why the tower 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, try not to say, “Wait, that won’t work!” Confession: 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.
(Related pdf: 101 Alternatives to saying “Good Job”)
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 their structures. 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. Mistakes are a thrill when you think like a scientist!
It’s an easy and fun project to get kids to think like engineers!
What is your favorite Dr. Seuss book?
The Cat in the Hat
Engineering Challenge Cards
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