Simple Machines | Lever

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This is the first in a series of posts looking at Simple Machines (Lever, Wedge, Inclined Plane, Pulley, Wheel and Axle, Screw). Becoming more aware of the Levers, and other Simple Machines, that exist in your early learning setting will make you more confident supporting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) play and answering children’s questions about how many everyday items work.

A Simple Machine is a mechanical device used to modify motion and force in order to perform work.1

What’s A Lever?

A lever, according to, “is simply a plank or ridged beam that is free to rotate on a pivot. It is perfect for lifting or moving heavy things. It is a very useful simple machine, and you can find them everywhere. Good examples of levers include the seesaw, crowbar, fishing-line, oars, wheelbarrows and the garden shovel.”2

Here’s some lever terminology:

  • The Bar or Beam is the long part that rests on the Fulcrum.
  • The Fulcrum is the support point on which a lever pivots.
  • The force applied to a lever is referred to as Effort or Input.
  • The result of Effort or Input is referred to as Load or Output.

This labeled photo of one of our Mini Launchers should clarify things.

A Class one Lever

When a child presses down (Effort) on the raised end of the Beam, it pivots on the Fulcrum and the Load is lifted up in the air. With a large enough burst of effort, the load is not only lifted, it soars across the room.

Types Of Levers

The Mini Launcher is a Class One Lever. This is the most common lever configuration. In a Class One Lever, the Fulcrum is located between the Effort and Load.

There are two other configurations. In a Class Two Lever, the Load is between the Fulcrum and Effort. A wheelbarrow is a Class Two Lever.

A Class Two Lever

In a Class Three Lever, the Effort is located between the Load and the Fulcrum. A shovel is a Class Three Lever.

A Class Three Lever (Photo by Kristen Peterson)

Compound Machines

It’s important to note that many common tools are composed of multiple simple machines. These are known as Compound Machines (Simple Machine + Simple Machine = Compound Machine). For example:

  • A shovel consists of a lever (the handle) and a wedge (the blade).
  • A pair of scissors consists of two Class One Levers and a couple wedges (the blades).
  • A wheelbarrow is made up of levers, incline planes, screws, and a wheel and axle.

Examples Of Levers

Children encounter levers every day. Here are some examples of the levers they may interact with:

Lever Learning

Levers are ripe with opportunities to play with concepts like mass, motion, and force, explore cause and effect relationships, improve physical strength and coordination, hone social skills, and more. Plus, levers are fun:


As you can see, levers are everywhere and children interact with them on a daily basis. That said, there are probably changes you could make to your play environment that would increase children’s opportunities to engage and learn with this simple machine. I’d love to hear your thoughts and see photos of levers in action in your early learning setting in the comments.

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Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.