(This DIY project first appeared in my book Do It Yourself Early Learning. If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can buy all wood Mini Launchers at Explorations Early Learning Toys–save 10% with the code SAVE10)
Ever wanted to see children launch balls of tinfoil, wooden blocks, small rocks, or Barbie heads across the room but just didn’t know how to make it happen? Well, we’ve got the answer for you right here: Mini Launchers. They offer all the excitement of a medieval siege without any of the real-world death and destruction.
We have seen children two-years-old and younger send things flying with Mini Launchers. Kids three and up can pretty much handle all the work involved in building one.
Wood or Hardboard. You need a piece approximately 1.5 inches wide, 7 inches long, and 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. If you don’t have the tools to easily cut material to this dimension, you can use our Mini Hardboard Blocks, they are what we use when we include make-and-take projects at our Play Events.
1/2 inch PVC pipe coupling. You can grab these in the plumbing department of your local home improvement center or order them online. A pack of ten costs about $6.
Tape. Any tape will work. I generally prefer duct tape. For this project, I really like the fun and fancy variations of Duck brand Ducklings tape. If this stuff was around when I originally wrote up this project for the book, I didn’t know about it. It’s pretty, but it’s narrow width also makes it perfect for this project. You can find it in most big household stores.
Stuff to Launch. Balls of aluminum are my go-to suggestion if you’re launching inside and/or around lots of busy little people. They fly well, they don’t hurt if you get hit by them, and they cost next to nothing.
We’re going to assume you’ve got your piece of wood cut to size. If not, do that–and be sure to sand of any rough edges. Now, just tape the coupling about 1/3 from one edge of the board. Two layers of tape is a good idea. If you’re using regular duct tape, rip it into 1 inch wide strips. The fancy Ducklings tape is already the perfect width for this project.
To launch, place your payload on the lower end of the launcher, press down quickly on the other end of the board, and watch your payload fly. The harder and faster you press the farther and faster it will launch.
Here’s a pro tip if you’re launching foil balls: flatten one side a bit by pressing it against a flat surface. This will allow it to sit on the launcher without rolling off.
After a bunch of launching there’s a good chance the tape will loosen up. The easiest fix is to add another layer of tape. In my experience you can do this half a dozen times before you need to rip off all the tape and start from scratch.
I’m hesitant to include this section because too often adults try to turn Variations into Lessons. In my experience, it’s best to let the kids discover these variations on their own. We adults can best support these discoveries by creating an environment full of interesting materials where kids are able to lead their own play. Use what follows for ideas on what materials to make available, but please don’t force kids to do any of this stuff as an ‘Activity’ that’ll suck all the fun out of it.
The experience is the most important thing here. The Doing is what matters. It’s about the process. Focus on enjoying the process and don’t get too hung up fretting about learning.
If you need to justify playing with Mini Launchers to a parent, coworker, or administrator, you can explain that while children are giggling and making tinfoil balls fly across the room they are learning about motion, potential energy, and other physical science laws. They are also learning about cause and effect relationships, honing their hand-eye coordination and visual tracking skills. In addition to all that, if they have to wait their turn or deal with other little humans while playing they are practicing self regulation and building self control. And all of that just scratches the surface of the learning potential that comes from playing with these simple machines.
If you make your own Mini Launchers, I’d love to see the finished products and what you launched. You can share in the comments and photos in the comments.
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