Pillow Stacking: A Physics Lesson in Balance

I am always on the lookout for ways to encourage and extend the natural learning that happens through play.  Language acquisition, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, and social development are easily recognized as being developed through play.

But have you ever thought of science skills and concepts as fitting naturally into play?  As children are playing, they are exploring and observing the world around them – that is science.  They are asking questions and making predictions – I wonder what happens if I do this?  They are testing their ideas and drawing conclusions – When I threw the ball, it landed on the dog.  They are repeating their actions to see if the same results will occur.  All of these things are hallmarks of science.

Here’s an example of a science lesson we found while playing with pillows.

It all started with a few pillows at a friend’s house.  Aiden was tossing the pillows around and jumping on top of them.  Then, he started stacking the pillows.  He could only stack a few before they would all come tumbling down.  This provided much enjoyment.  Stack some pillows.  Watch them fall down.  Repeat.  Wear yourself out from stacking and knocking down pillows.  Rest.  Ask Mama to stack pillows.  More pillows, Mama.  Laugh at your success of knocking down the pillow tower.

As we played, I asked questions.  For some of these questions, I was simply modeling my thought processes.  Aiden was observing.  Some of the questions he could answer.

Here are some sample questions:

  • What happens if we put the pillow here?  
  • Will the pillows stay, or will they fall?
  • How many pillows are there?
  • Is the tower balanced?
  • Which way do we need to move the pillow to make it balanced?
  • Let’s alternate colors.  Which pillow should we use next?

Our science lesson was focused on the physics concept of balance (referring to the equal distribution of weight).  Aiden learned the word balance and has been able to apply it to new situations.  On another day, he was stacking some cups.  When the cups fell, he said they were not balanced.  We’re building a foundation for future learning here.

If I hadn’t introduced the word balance, would he still have learned the concepts from our activity?  Yes, he would.  Adding vocabulary when natural and understandable is a bonus.  If adding vocabulary seems forced and out of place, it probably doesn’t add anything to the learning anyway.  For an example of this, you can read about our learning experience with friction and a cardboard tube.  Do you think I introduced the word friction to my 2 year old?

If you don’t have an abundance of pillows to use for stacking, you can replicate this play idea with many other types of materials.  Cups, bowls, blocks, random toys, or anything that can be stacked on top of each other will work well.

What materials do your children use for building?

What are your favorite ways of learning through play?

For more stacking and balancing fun, check out these great posts:




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Trisha About Trisha

Trisha is a stay at home mom to her 3-year old son, Aiden. She writes about their adventures at Inspiration Laboratories, a blog dedicated to encouraging learning through creativity and play. Trisha is an educator with a passion for science literacy. It is never too early to start encouraging science learning (or any kind of learning for that matter). Follow along on Facebook, Twitter as @inspire_labs, Google+, and Pinterest.