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  • Writer's pictureAmy Wung Tsao

Simple Machines

Updated: Jan 20

A Note from Amy

I woke up on Nov 8 and was scrolling mindlessly in bed when I learned that it was National STEM/STEAM Day! Did you know that was a thing? Because I did not! Seems like the kind of thing I should know, huh? We're all learning together, you and I!

Speaking of holidays, here’s a cozy idea for any leftover holiday desserts that may appear in your house in the coming months.

My kids love to throw an inexpensive tablecloth on the table, light a candle, plate up some treats and read Shel Silverstein poems. Brave Writer conceived “Poetry Tea Time” as an invitation to slow down and enjoy the rhymes, riddles, and rhythms of poetry. But you could absolutely read aloud one of the picture books I recommend below. Or put on a podcast for kids and give yourself a break. I will always advocate for breaks!


"Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth." ~ Archimedes

Illustration of Archimedes lifting the Earth on a lever.
Credit: Mechanic’s Magazine (cover of bound Volume II, Knight & Lacey, London, 1824)

Simple machines can feel kind of magical. Add a lever or a few pulleys, and you can suddenly lift something you couldn't before. Of course, you can't really move the whole Earth with a lever, but still. Magic!

There are six classic simple machines: ramp, lever, wheel-and-axle, pulley, screw, and wedge. Even if they don’t have moving parts, they do work by manipulating forces in some way.

Simple machines are a perfect intro to engineering, and it builds on what your kids are already learning about forces and motion. Here are some resources I recommend. ((I am not paid to mention any of these resources; there are no affiliate links.)


Science Max (YouTube)

S1 E9 Simple Machines

I know, I recommended Science Max last month too, but this whole series is seriously so good! He shows how simple machines give you super lifting powers, plus a fun side story giving wheels to a caveman, and a clever demonstration with pulleys that I’ve never seen anywhere else!

SciShow Kids (YouTube)

Solving Problems with Simple Machines!

This is another solid YouTube STEM series aimed at kids 5-10yrs old. The engaging hosts, plus animation and puppets, keep the science practical and fun. Most videos are 5-10 minutes long, but this compilation video is 14 minutes long.

Magic School Bus Rides Again (YouTube or Netflix)

S2 E7 “The Good, The Bad, and the Gnocchi”

The updated Magic School Bus Rides Again series is a favorite with my kids. In this episode, Ms. Frizzle shrinks down the kids for a race up a pasta mountain! Fun pasta shapes make different simple machines, and Ralphie’s dog Noodles makes a comedic mess. You can purchase the episode on YouTube or stream it on Netflix.


By Robert Wells

Cover of "How Do You Lift a Lion?"

“Did you ever try to lift a lion? ...Did you ever try to pull a panda on a pallet? ...Did you ever try to deliver a big basket of bananas to a baboon birthday party?”

Full of silly situations (a pyramid of pandas!), this book explains real science in simple ways.

By Ann Tompert, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

Cover of "Just a Little Bit."

This sweet picture book is about a community working together to help out a friend, and the science of balancing a see-saw (i.e. lever). Plus I can never get over Elephant’s tiny propeller hat!

By Shana Keller, illustrated by David C. Gardner

This gorgeously illustrated picture book biography features mathematician Benjamin Banneker, who built his own amazing striking clock by studying the gears (i.e. wheel & axles!) in a pocket watch. The backmatter touches on the time of slavery in America, when Banneker was born free in Maryland but had limited access to education.


Go to the Playground

Smiling girl in a white and pink outfit on a slide.
Credit: Paris Lopez, Unsplash

Your regular neighborhood playground is probably full of simple machines! Slides are just ramps, anything that spins is basically a wheel-and-axle, and see-saws are really levers.

Some questions to spark curiosity in your kids - Why do you go faster on a steeper slide? On a spinning merry-go-round, do you move faster if you sit on the edge or in the middle? How do you balance a see-saw?

Turn a Spoon into a Catapult (Lever)

I'm betting you have a spoon in your house. You can make a lever out of a spoon, just like the Science Max video. Balance a marshmallow (or something else small) on the handle, then push down on the bowl of the spoon to launch the marshmallow. Notice where the bowl of the spoon touches the table, that’s the lever's fulcrum!

Add a toilet paper roll and a rubber band to your spoon for a more advanced catapult! Try moving the toilet paper roll (the fulcrum) higher or lower on the spoon handle. If you move the fulcrum closer to the side you’re pushing on, it will feel a little harder to push but should launch your projectile farther. And adding a target to hit makes this science experiment into a game!

In the game “Roll to the Rescue”, pet hamsters use simple machines like ramps, pulleys, and gears to collect stickers and navigate a maze. And in “Power Painters”, the hamsters use gears to make art! My 4yr old and 6yr old especially loved these mini games, available on the PBS Kids website or on the PBS Kids Games app.


Whew, that was a lot of ways to introduce simple machines! Did you find something to try out with the kids in your life?

Have fun lighting sparks of curiosity!

Until next month,

Amy Wung Tsao

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