Science lesson by Max Millard
Written for New College of California, fall 2006

Ia. Learning objectives and outcomes

- Students will learn how to make different objects spin.

- Students will examine the properties of objects when they spin.

- Students will learn to make a spinning toy called a buzz saw.

Ib. Language objectives

- Vocabulary: spin, rotate, balance, top (2 meanings), upside down, coat hanger, knibbling.

- Students will learn to follow instruction to make and use their own toy.

II. Standards addressed (kindergarten)

Science Standard 1a. Students know objects can be described in terms of the materials they are made of (e.g., clay, cloth, paper) and their physical properties.

Listening and Speaking Standard 1.1. Understand and follow one- and two-step oral directions.

Science Standard 4. Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigation.

Science Standard 4a. Observe common objects by using the five senses.

Science Standard 4b. Describe the properties of common objects.

III. Background/rationale

For thousands of years, kids have loved spinning toys. The appeal of a simple object like a top lies in its multifunctional nature. It appears to be alive, it is cheap to buy or make, it requires little space to operate, and it packs a lot of drama and fun into a small package. It can also be a valuable tool for learning about physics, motion, and the law of gravity.

IV. Process

A. Into

The oldest spinning tops discovered were made of clay in Iraq in 3500 B.C. Yo-yos were made in Greece around 400-500 B.C. The top was invented independently in many different countries with no connection to each other. A top represents universal appeal, cultural diversity and a global family.

There are many kinds of spinning toys, most of which cost less than $1, and some of which can be made from everyday materials. When I did this lesson, I brought in a bag of different spinning toys and asked the children what they were and what they did. I asked for their predictions about which ones would spin best.

After discussing each spinning toy beforehand, I demonstrated how it worked, and called on kids in the class (the ones who were sitting quietly) to try the toys themselves. Among the toys shown were: mechanical top (which is cranked), Japanese hand top (which turns upside down when spun properly), gyroscope (in which the inside spins instead of the outside), yo-yo, and wire coat hanger, which I bent into a diamond shape, then balanced a penny on the point of the wire and spun it around without mishap. This game is called knibbling.

B. Through

We talked about what happens when things spin. I brought pictures of things besides toys that spin, and asked the class to identify them and to say what the spinning did. For example, bicycles carry people and don't fall down. Clothes driers shake water loose. Blenders cut things into small pieces. Drills cut holes. Helicopters and airplanes fly through the air. Amusement park rides give people a spin! I made a list of the items and wrote them on a whiteboard, even though most kids couldn't read them.

Finally, I demonstrated a buzz saw, a toy made from a button and a piece of string about 3 feet long. You pass the string between two holes of the button, then tie the ends of the string together, so that you have a loop of string with a button in the middle. I showed the kids how to wind the button by twirling the string like a jump rope, then pulling on both ends of the string so that the button winds and unwinds, making a buzzing sound. I learned to make this toy in the early 1960s in Maine.

I found a whole jar full of large buttons at the Salvation Army for a couple of dollars, so I was able to make a buzz saw for each child ahead of time. I handed them out and let them practice. The trick is to get the rhythm just right, so that you know when to pull and when to relax, and the button keeps spinning.

Then I collected my buzz saws, which I keep stored in individual baggies so that the strings don't get tangled together. Next, I handed each child a piece of string and a button, and instructed them how to pass the string through the button holes and to try the ends of the string together. This was difficult for most kids, but Stanley got it quickly and went around the room to help others. I ended up making the loops for many of the kids, but at least they saw the process. Finally, everyone had a new buzz saw, and most kids were able to spin them properly. We buzzed them all together and the room sounded like it was full of bees. The kids were thrilled that I let them take their buzz saws home.

C. Beyond

V. Assessment and Teacher Reflection

When the buzz was over and the toys were put away, I reviewed the list of machines that exhibit spinning. I read each word in turn, then asked the children to draw pictures of the items and show what part spins. For airplanes and helicopters, they made propellers. For bicycles, they pointed out the wheels. I asked them to draw pictures of their favorite spinning items, and some of the kids drew tops.

VI. Materials

Japanese hand-spun top
mechanical cranked top
coat hanger and penny
pictures of spinning machines
for each child:
1 buzz saw in a baggie
1 piece of string
1 small baggie
(attached: picture of large buzz saw toy from Internet)