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"Playing In Physics" With Traditional Cultural Toys


Kris Skrutvold

Skyview High School


"Playing In Physics"

One of the more difficult aspects of teaching physics is helping students develop an appreciation for physics applications. Students often end up memorizing equations and methods, and mindlessly performing the required labs. Any connection between these assignments and the"real world" rarely goes beyond the classroom walls, and often dies after the exam is given. The activities described in this article are designed to promote interest and better problem-solving strategies in physics by changing the lab environment. I developed playing in physics activities for our introductory algebra-based physics course, but the IB and AP students in upper-level sections enjoy them as well.

Changing the learning environment to something a little more stimulating than a classroom lab is not new to physics. In recent years, there have been a number of articles discussing physics experiments that can be performed at an amusement park (some friends of mine back in Minnesota are responsible for these activities that are now published). An end-of-the-year excursion to an amusement park can reinforce concepts learned in class and is certainly fun. The following "Traditional Toy" activities are more practical and easier to implement into the lab schedule. Many of the experiments can also be done in a typical lab environment or as an extension of existing labs that you do. However, I find that students really enjoy being part of the experiment; for example, going home and asking their parents or grandparents what types of toys they played with when they were young. It's a method of bringing the ideas and concepts of physics into the home. It's more fun to play with toys than to watch someone demonstrate the concepts of the toys!

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative problem-solving can also be made more clearly in the activity of play. This distinction seems to be misunderstood by most students and is often poorly explained in textbooks. Fundamentally, in an active Physics classroom, all students can relate to their culture or family roots, and one substantial means to do that is through some traditional physical object such as the "Traditional Cultural Toy."

Hands-on Cultural Toys

Every culture seems to have toys that reflect its way of life, "miniature cast-iron knights on horseback entertained children in medieval Europe, as they do today in Prague, and child's play during the French Revolution included little guillotines that beheaded aristocratic dolls. In this century, the culture of television images and other mass media is reflected in the reign of the Barbie doll, superhero action figures and Nintendo.

But in many parts of the world, it is the toy pieced together from the things available that made for a child's enjoyment that turns out to be a symbol--albeit an ironic one--of their cultural heritage and life. Far from the craftsman that spawned them, a great collection of such toys from every part of the world can be found in the homes of your students.

With imagination, ingenuity and skill, a toymaker in Haiti transforms a plastic bottle into a helicopter, armed with ballpoint pens for rockets. In Mexico, a boy uses flattened and folded bottle caps to make miniature sets of tables and chairs. Other toys, as on the streets of Shanghai, are made of wire coat hangers and telephone wire, bits of metal cans and bicycle chains. The universality in these toys, as in physics, is evidence of an increasingly global village, as if there are no longer cultural or geographical boundaries."

It is the richness of physics of Traditional Cultural Toys and of elementary everyday phenomena that make me so enthusiastic in promoting the investigational work called "Playing in Physics." The physics of toys is not a new idea, but the "Playing In Physics" activity is a new spin on an old idea for doing laboratory work. Lab experiences based on the physics of toys can set the stage of students to use their understanding of their heritage and the basic ideas of physics through a fun and enjoyable context.

What about Toys?

As Physics teachers we can easily see toys as an aid to education, but in different cultures, they see toys and games differently, they are seen as being closely related to village life. In rural areas where children join in the task of making a living, both children and adults take part in and make their own play objects. It is also documented that many toys are closely related to religious, social and economic features of life.

Research states that; Toys and games are related through cultural rules and meaning to the wider scheme of their culture and belief in society.

Toys and games act as a form of communication between generations and can communicate stories, rules, rites, fears and hopes. For example; toys can have different meanings in different cultures

The Whistle

- in Portugal it is a Musical Instrument

- in Italy it is an aid in Hunting to attract birds

- in Mali it is a symbol of Authority e.g. Policeman

- in Taiwan it is a means to keep the Ghosts away during Ghost month


- in Malaysia kite flying is competitive

- in Japan kite flying is decorative

- in Europe kite flying is seen as a skill

- in Taiwan kite flying is seen as part of religious/cultural celebrations

Children invest their own cultural significance to toys and games, thus developing their own attitudes, values and beliefs. Actually, in many parts of the world children have traditionally made their own toys. A successful toy must delight and interest children. These toys are also educating, as they teach the children patience and perseverance, to think, to create new ideas, thus broadening their minds and thereby making other studies easier, all of which is accomplished while the child is innocently at play.

Everyone likes to play. In play we try our strengths and skills, we tempt others to play with us, and play can be competitive or co-operative, but it always requires negotiation. Play also tends to reflect the economic and social conditions of the time and can reflect the values and attitudes of the resident culture.

"Play comes first - toys merely follow"


It is with this attitude that "Playing In Physics" was developed. The assignment activity is designed to allow the students individually to design a laboratory experience that will use a Traditional Cultural Toy. The students are given approximately three class periods to complete the lab design project, at which time they will present their investigation, design, experiment, and results to the class.

"Playing In Physics" With Traditional Toys

The project has five parts:

1. Selecting a toy - ask your parents or grandparents for ideas!

2. Library research on the scientific principles behind the toy

3. Preparing a written lab you have designed including the following aspects:


There is an art to communicating scientific ideas and findings. Besides being prepared in a concise, neat, grammatically correct and organized manner, a lab you design must contain certain specific information. The goal is to communicate what you want the experimenter to set out to do, why they set out to do it, and how they should do it, what they found out and what conclusions they reached. A Designed lab SHOULD NOT BE WORDY--it should be concise and to the point. But be sure that all the required information is included. The audience for your lab design consists of your fellow physics and advanced physics students. Samples of formal labs and lab references / sources are available for your examination. The following is a possible outline of your laboratory design.



This should be at the top of the first page and should include the title of the experiment, a place for the experimenters name, the names of the students with whom they worked, the date when they carried out the experiment and your instructor's name. (A separate title page is unnecessary.)

b) ABSTRACT (Purpose and Introduction)


In no more than 75 words, you should give a brief description of what you intend to have accomplished in the experiment and what results you want the experimenter to present in the body of a report. The purpose of an abstract is to allow a reader to know at a glance what the report is expecting of him/her. The abstract may include some of the theory behind the experiment, some elements of the objectives and of the experimental procedures, but should be concisely written. The abstract should be separated from the main body of the report. For most experiments a simple statement of purpose will suffice.



While a scientific laboratory should always contain a description of the procedure, these are generally described in the reference lab manuals; these could be modified to fit your Toy or some parts may be and pasted into your Designed lab if appropriate. You will need to add or modify the procedure section if you modified them in some way or you made some noteworthy attempts to increase accuracy. A labeled DIAGRAM of the experimental setup is frequently useful to help the reader understand your procedure.



All data should normally be collected together in one section. You will want data to be displayed in clearly labeled tables. Units and uncertainties should be included. The importance of organization and neatness cannot be overemphasized. Someone reading your designed lab should not have to search to find your data table, or to understand what they mean. If a data table is not included it should be made clear that the experimenter may or may not need to include this in his report.



You should include a section for analysis and results in you lab design. Any manipulations of the data and any results should be placed in this section. This includes any calculation, graphical analysis or uncertainty analysis. You should specify that the experimenter will be expected to include propagation of uncertainties, in their reports. Sample calculations should be included for the major calculations carried out. The experimenter should know that they; (Do not include samples of routine statistical calculations.) A sample calculation should give the formula used, the data substitution with the units and uncertainties, and the final result with units and uncertainties. If any algebraic manipulations are necessary, they should be carried out as much as possible before substituting the data. Graphs should be drawn carefully on graph paper or be computer generated. If possible, they should be in the appropriate location in the report. Uncertainty (error) bars should be included, and, when possible, calculations of the slope and / or intercept should be shown on or below the graph, with a clear indication of which coordinates were used in the calculations. Finally, all results along with their uncertainties should be clearly labeled and displayed neatly (in tabular form when appropriate.) All of these things can be done in a spreadsheet program such as Excel on the computer. Students who hand in their labs via computer must use Excel, MSWord or compatible program to record, manipulate and graph data. The spreadsheet may be embedded within the word-processed report; properly done it will include all the formulas used so the algebraic manipulations need not be shown elsewhere. They may be asked to E-mail reports to the instructors on the Local TAS Physics network.



ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS AND DISCUSSIONS: In general, specific questions should be asked to guide the experimenter to a discussion of their results. In this section, they should be sure to comment on the following even if these questions are not specifically asked:

a) If the experiment was designed to test a theory, do the results agree with the theoretical predictions?

b) If the experiment was designed to measure a physical quantity, does your result agree with previous results?

c) If the answer to (a) or (b) is no, can you explain why? Whenever possible this should be answered quantitatively. You should look for additional sources of uncertainty or error in your data, describe them and estimate their sizes if possible. Then you should calculate and/or describe what effects these would have on your final results. Do these sources of uncertainty or error explain the discrepancies in your results?

d) Did the experiment fulfill the stated purpose?

e) Was the experiment worthwhile? Did it help to elucidate the physical principles?

f) Can you suggest any ways to improve the experiment so that it would better fulfill the purpose? Once again, a good report should include all of the above, and should be neat and CONCISE.

Students will receive a printed lab book outlining most of the above for each experiment. You may also obtain computer files with some of the experiments. In either case, you will be expected to cut and paste together a laboratory report for each experiment. Maximum credit for the written report will be awarded when the entire report in one computer document using Microsoft Word and Excel. AP students will be required to submit most reports as a computer file.


1. Organization / Neatness/ Time

___ on time (maximum 50% if late)

___ follow directions / format / organized / neatness

___ title / date / partners names

___ abstract / objective

___ procedure

___ diagram of setup when appropriate

___ Physical description of the toy

2. Data/Uncertainties

___ complete data charts - that are easy to read

___ accuracy - reads instruments to fractions of smallest scale

___ units for data/results

___ uncertainties / significant figures or formatted numbers in spreadsheet

*___ special techniques evident (to maximize accuracy)

3. Analysis/Results

___ Table/(spreadsheet) chart of results

___ sample calculations / accurate with units and significant figures or spreadsheet formulas

*___ uncertainties propagated to results - not just % error

___ graphs (titles/labels/curve/size/graph paper/error bars (computer graphs

easily do all these except the error bars)

___ points visible/slopes/intercept, etc.)

4. Questions/conclusions

*___ interpretation of results (including graphs)

___ sources of error and amounts (indicated)

___ suggestions for improvement

___ at least two photocopied articles that pertain directly to the

principle(s) upon which the toy operates

5. Overall Impression

*___ beyond minimum requirements

___ too wordy

___ concise, to the point


4. Demonstration of the toy and scientific principles behind it to the class:

Operation and explanation of the toy behavior is a very important part. You must show that you have used observational skills. Made up a hypothesis, predicting the behavior, making quantitative observations, controlling different variables and your own experimenting. You should also include ideas about how to improve the toy.

5. Answering questions from the class and the teacher

I have found that doing these types of activities with familiar objects helps students see the connection between physics and the "real world". The students will enjoy performing them and intuitive understanding of the concepts seems to deepen.


Miller, Julius Sumner. 1974. Physics and Fun Demonstrations, 2nd Edition Central Scientific Company, Chicago Illinois. Book No. 58225

Turner, Raymond C. 1998. Physics and Toys: Fun for Everyone. APS News Online. July 1998 Edition

KidSource Online. 1998. The Toy Manufacturers of America Guide to Toys and Play.

MacGowan, Ian. 1998. Possible Toy Curriculum Activities.

Physics References and Sources Available for Student Use

1. Miller, College Physics 5th Edition, Harcourt Brace

2. Giancoli, Physics 4th Edition, Prentice Hall

3. PSSC, Physics 7th Edition, Kendall Hunt

4. Betts, J., Elements of Applied Physics, Reston

5. Heath, Fundamentals of Physics, DC Heath

6. Marion, J., Essential Physics in the World Around Us, Wiley

7. Miller, F., Concepts of Physics, Harcourt Brace

8. Hewitt, P., Conceptual Physics 6th Edition, Addison Wesley

9. Wilson, Applied Physics, Saunders College

10. Giancoli, D., The Ideas of Physics, 2nd Edition, Harcourt Brace

11. Betts, Physics for Technology, Reston

12. Bueche, Principles of Physics, McGraw Hill

13. Williams et al, Modern Physics, Holt, Rinehart & Winston

14. Beiser, Basic Concepts of Physics, Addison Wesley

15. Betts, Elements of Applied Physics, Reston

16. Halliday & Resnick, Fundamentals of Physics, Wiley

17. Mulligan, Introductory College Physics, McGraw Hill

18. Murphy & Smoot, Physics:Principles and Problems, Merrill

19. O'Hanian, Physics, Norton

20. O'Dwyer, College Physics, Wadsworth

21. Serway, Physics for Scientists and Engineers, Saunders College

22. Serway & Faughn, College Physics, Saunders College

23. Shortly & Williams, Elements of Physics, Prentice Hall

24. Tipler, Physics, Worth

25. Wilson, Physics Concepts and Applications, Heath

26. Richard Olenick, The Mechanical Universe, Cambridge Univ.

27. Cutnell & Johnson, Physics, Wiley

28. Kirkpatrick & Wheeler, Physics: A World View, Harcourt Brace

29. Zafiratos, Physics, Wiley

30. Biagliano & Ferrigno, Technical Physics, Kent

31. Blatt, Principles of Physics, Allyn & Bacon

32. Blum & Roller, Physics Vol I & II, Holden Day

33. Krane, Modern Physics, Wiley

34. Hewitt & Epstein, Thinking Physics, Addison Wesley

35. Martin & Spronk, PhysicAL , LeBel

36. Neff, Physics: Principles and Meanings, Glencoe

37. French, Newtonian Physics, Norton

38. Abel, R., Realm of the Universe, Saunders College

39. Skrutvold, K., Physics:Real-World Connections, ISP

40. Skrutvold, K., For a Long Place in a Short Time, ISP

41. Skrutvold, K., Be an Einstein...Ask Why?, ISP

42. Skrutvold, K., Kids Teaching Kids, ISP


Physics Laboratory Texts/Sources

1. Portis & Young, Berkeley Physics Lab, McGraw Hill

2. MacPherson & Jones, The Interpretation of Graphs in Physics, Hutch

3. Williams, Tinklein & Metcalfe, Laboratory Experiments in Physics, Holt,

Rinehart & Winston

4. Lloyd, Physics Lab Manual, Wiley

5. Bernard & Epp, Lab Experiments in College Physics, Saunders

6. PSSC, Physics Labs, Kendall

7. Blair, Laboratory Experiments for Physics, Burgess International

8. Skrutvold, K., ISP Physics Lab Manual, ISP



If you would like any information on these or other collaborative programs please use the following e-mail address: send mail to

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© 1997 K. Skrutvold, Personal. All rights reserved.