We have just started a science unit on force & motion so this morning I put a box containing a Newton's cradle on the back table. Before long, one of my students pointed at it from across the room and said, "What is that new town box thing?"
I looked confused while all the heads were now turned staring at this new, interesting box on the table. I cocked my head and looked from the student to the box and back at the student again.
"Hmmmmm...well it's called Newton's cradle and we'll find out later," I teased them. "Right now we need to get started on math workshop before you go to gym."
Obligingly, the students listened while I explained the objectives for math and explained the game they would play and soon they were off in their math groups, busily working. I did notice a few students look over at the box and a couple picked it up and turned it around to read the box and looked more closely. Nobody tried to open it.
I like putting something new out every so often and then just sitting back and waiting for the kids to notice it and try and figure it out. Newton's cradle is something I set out this time every year as it definitely piques the students' curiosity and can teach them a lot about energy, forces, and motion.
At lunch time, I motioned for the student who noticed the Newton's cradle first to come over to the back table. I slid the box over towards him.
"Wanna open it?" I asked. He smiled a big smile.
"Really? I can open it?" he said and I could hear the excitement in his voice.
"Yup. Open away," I said.
He carefully opened the box and took out the cradle, packed in styrofoam to keep the balls from getting tangled in shipment. He looked over at me, unsure of what it was. He gently removed the styromfoam and tugged on each of the five balls to release them on their wire. They clanged together, but he was being extra careful to not break anything.
"Like this?" he asked once all of the balls hung suspended from the frame.
"Perfect!" I declared.
"Now what?" he said. "What do they do?"
"Why don't you find out?" I nudged him.
I watched as he pulled one of the balls out and released it. I don't think it did what he expected and he screeched with delight. He continued, asking his wonders out loud as he pulled two balls, three balls, and experimented with different heights.
Naturally, by this time we had drawn a crowd of inquisitive little ones who wanted to get their hands on this new, fun toy. Several called out things for the boy to try.
"Pull one back from each end and see what happens," suggested one. As he complied, several laughed and clapped as they saw the result.
"Wow!" exclaimed one. "This is so awesome!"
I'm sure you can imagine at this point that every single one of the kids in the classroom wanted to get their hands on the Newton's cradle and try some things out. When the recess bell rang, at least seven remained waiting their turn for a chance to experiment.
After recess, I told them that the Newton's cradle would be available until the end of the year. I told them I had only one rule. That if they tried something and the wires became tangled to please stop and let me know so I could fix it. I told them that last year, when I had a sub one day, the Newton's cradle had gotten so tangled up that I had to throw it away. I told them I hoped they would respect my rule of stopping if it became tangled. They all nodded vigorously in agreement.
"I want you to think about what this has to do with science when you are playing with it," I instructed them. "What can you learn from it?"
Sometimes the unexpected and new can create a powerful force for learning.