The concepts of potential and kinetic energy are two well studied concepts in physics. Children, often learn about them in elementary school grades. However, transforming these abstract concepts into concrete ideas can be challenging. So, I thought I would take an engineering activity that children love to do and combine it with science. I am talking about a marble run! Who doesn’t love a marble run?

Kinetic energy is the energy of a moving object. Here is an excerpt from Encyclopedia Britannica that explains it so well.

“Kinetic energy, form of energy that an object or a particle has by reason of its motion. If work, which transfers energy, is done on an object by applying a net force, the object speeds up and thereby gains kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is a property of a moving object or particle and depends not only on its motion but also on its mass. The kind of motion may be translation (or motion along a path from one place to another), rotation about an axis, vibration, or any combination of motions.”

Lets use that explanation and put into action. Gather materials. 

  • toilet paper rolls
  • tape
  • scissors
  • any recyclables

Step 2: Set Engineering Parameters

Most children need some building parameters to be successful. These are the parameters I suggest:

  • The marble run should be at least 3 feet long
  • The starting point is a table or any surface with height
  • The end point is the floor (use tape to mark the spot)
  • The marble has to roll and cannot just drop

Step 3: Give Space and Time to Build

Allow your child the space and time to build the marble run. If your child insists in having your help-do so in a passive way. For example, ask them ” What can I hold?  or What do you want me to do? Try to resist the urge to tell your child how to do it and most importantly how to solve problems.

Step 4: Enjoy Your Child’s Creation

This is my daughter’s marble run. Simple but it allowed me to talk about energy and the engineering design process.

Step 5: Science Talk

Once the marble run is ready, prompt your child to test. Just like working engineers, the marble run may not work well the first time.  Encourage your child to identify the problem and then redesign the marble run. Do as many iterations of this engineering process as your child can manage. Then, whether the marble run works or not do the talk, the science talk it is.

Add the chillaxscience! Explain to your child the words kinetic and potential energy. Share that potential energy is the energy that is stored in an object that can be transformed to do work. Kinetic energy on the other hand, is the opposite. Is the energy that is used to take the marble down the run.

Write the words using small pieces of paper. Ask your child to place these words on the places she/he thinks the energy is present.  

Here is ours with the labels.


Finally, any chillaxscience activity should be accompanied with books. Here are my recommendations. Click on the book images to go to my Amazon store, at no additional cost to you. I am also recommending two types of commercial marble runs to add to the fun. Click on those images to go to my store too.

Your child will love this book!

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