Materials Science 101

I tried a making a new rule in my program last week about paper airplanes. We already had the standard rules in place, of course. It always surprises me how necessary it is to explicitly state that it is not okay to throw airplanes at people’s face or into places where they might possibly catch fire, but there you have it. Kids will try anything and everything you don’t specifically forbid them from doing, which is why my new rule turned out to be a poor one.

The rule was simply this: if you make a paper airplane at program, you write your name on it and put it in the “hangar,” a paper pocket taped to one of the carts, to be saved for the next time you feel like playing with paper airplanes. Once it has been demolished, of course, I let them make a new one, but as one kid termed it, I wanted these planes to be severely “battle damaged” before they hit the recycling bin. I came up with this rule in reaction to the fact that six kids would go through about three airplanes a piece every single morning, throwing tons of perfectly flight-worthy crafts away. The waste of paper was making me crazy, and the rule has helped some of the kids who care only about having something to throw that I won’t chastise them for throwing.

The problem with the rule, however, is that kids are still scientists. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it never ceases to fill me with wonder when I watch them at their busy-ness and realize that they’re running through a fairly loose application of the scientific method in order to know the world better. By taking away their ability to make endless numbers of planes, I had essentially given their lab an enormous funding cut. It’s a lesson in real life, I suppose, and it may help them to get more creative and careful about  their methodology, but I’m not sure if I should expect six-year-old boys to learn those lessons just yet.

My morning kids are mostly boys and mostly at the stage where their fine motor skills don’t include folding neat, sharp creases into paper, so one thing I have quickly learned to be astonishingly good at is folding planes for them (a skill, I might add, that I was taught by one of my older afternoon kids). It is universally agreed in the plane factory: Ms. Melissa’s planes always fly the best. So as I was sitting with the kids and folding planes this morning, I overheard one of the second graders talking to the kindergarteners who was happily scribbling all of his plane with crayon.

“That will make it heavier,” the older student explained. “The more crayon it has, the worse it will fly. Colored pencil is better.”

I had never in my life paused to consider the relative weights of crayon and colored pencil when applied to paper, but once I did, the truth was obvious. Of course crayon is heavier, but it had never before mattered. As I watched them fly their planes, however, I saw exactly what my second grader had noticed. The kindergartener’s plane didn’t fly nearly as well. And did you know that marker is no good either? It’s light enough, maybe lighter than colored pencil, but it wets computer paper enough to warp it, also damaging the smooth flight potential of the light craft.

There is more engineering and materials science wrapped up in a paper plane than I ever stopped to think about, and the only way my kids will get the benefit of that fact is if I let them play. This might mean I find the hangar a bit over crowded from time to time, but I find myself wondering if it’s such a bad way for a tree to die.

P.S. This links to the paper airplane I make for the kids, or one that’s at least very close to it. I am a big supporter of rediscovering your own inner scientist.

P.P.S Teachers looking to turn this into a science project for kids: More variety can be gotten from the project by providing different types of paper (wax, construction, tinfoil, tissue) and pigments (watercolor, tempera paints, chalk, ink stamps).

2 thoughts on “Materials Science 101

  1. I personally think you should let them use all the paper they want to, then teach them creative ways to recycle their planes; hey, a little paper goes a long way… at least when they are making planes they aren’t fighting right?


  2. You have quite a mind. I never gave any thought to all that is implied in the making of planes. Good for the smart kid who realized the crayons made the plane slower.


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