Let's Talk About: Ramps and rolling

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Do you remember rolling down grassy hills as a child? Although you may not have known it at the time, you were using the hill as a ramp to make your body twirl quickly and effortlessly. Building and exploring ramps with your child is easy and provides a great opportunity for preschool engineering and problem solving.

Ramps are also called inclined planes and are one of the six simple machines humans use to make their work easier. They are typically flat surfaces with one side higher than the other, and in Pittsburgh, we use them all the time. You might use one to wheel a stroller onto a sidewalk, drive your car onto one of the bridges or even ride an incline car to the top of Mount Washington.

To create your own ramp you’ll need a flat object, such as a book or piece of cardboard. First, lay your flat object down on the floor. Next, prop one end up using a small object such as a square block, so that your flat object is now diagonal. Alternatively, you can prop it against a couch or table. With your ramp built, round up a variety of balls, and start rolling.

As you test your ramp, you can guide your preschooler’s thinking by asking questions. Instead of telling your child that heavy balls roll farther than light ones, you might say, “I noticed the red ball rolled all the way to the wall, but the blue ball didn’t. I wonder why? What do you think is different about them?” Once your child figures out that a steeper ramp will make the balls roll faster, he or she will want to build higher and higher. For extra physics fun, set up a variety of plastic cups at the bottom of your ramp, then see if any of your balls will move them or knock them over.

— By Wendy Brenneman, early childhood coordinator, Carnegie Science Center

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