Ninepins, Tops, Atl-atls: The Physics of Colonial Era Tools and Toys

Deborah Jung, Media, Winding Springs Elementary

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This curriculum unit was written for Media Specialists to share some ideas about how to connect objects familiar to people during the colonial and expansion periods of United States history to concepts of physics. The use of realia as an anticipatory set is a common tactic of Media Specialists, but connecting the old tools and toys to modern science is a new trick that librarians might want to try. This unit covers motions and forces as well as Newton’s Laws using tools, toys and games.


The lessons are formatted to accommodate a 20 minute book circulation period. During the first session the subject is introduced. The experiment is performed during the second class. Generally the lesson is summarized using both data and student-drawn inferences in the third. The strategies used in this lesson include the use of multimedia with realia, hands-on activities, observation, discussion, solitary reflection and writing to review science concepts. Because the Media & Information studies curriculum includes interpretation of primary sources, students will be asked to read and interpret images as well as text. They will be asked to summarize information and their own observations in visual formats in order to facilitate reprocessing of that information.


At the beginning of the year, I use atl-atls and hand-spindles as props in covering non-fiction conventions as part of the introduction to the 4th grade social studies textbook during the first six weeks of school. In September, the atl-atl, a class-1 lever, was an amazing technological innovation that increased the throwing range of an aboriginal hunter by extending the rotation radius of the wrist,[i] would be nothing more than a curious bit of realia to pique a child’s interest– an example of a tool used by humans for 10,000 years or so before being superseded by the bow and arrow. Towards the end of the year, these tools reappear along with games to teach science concepts. Physics and Libraries may seem an odd combination, but in reality, Media Specialists often find themselves teaching mini-lessons on a variety of subjects, including the science that tries to explain the workings of the universe.

Classic games such as Marbles, Billiards, Paille-Maille would have been known to the early settlers, but these games can also be used to teach about inertia, motion, momentum and energy. Hoop & dart games played by the Native Americans can be used to demonstrate acceleration and velocity. Ninepins, battledore & shuttlecocks allow students to experience force and sound energy. Tops and even hand-spindles demonstrate inertia, air resistance, and force.[ii] I intend to use classic games and sports, as well as their modern equivalents to spark inquiry into research into Newton’s laws. This curriculum unit will use some toys, tools and games to reinforce physics concepts.

I teach grades K-5 in a more or less fixed schedule that includes a period for checking out books, so the actual direct instruction time is 25 minutes once a week, perhaps less if the students are working on a guided activity. Special Area teachers will see classes only 4-6 times, depending on the length of the term, holidays or other scheduled events. This is important to note, as all Special Area teachers have a curriculum to teach and state standards to follow. In addition to our own curriculum, we are required to cover core content. The amount of time in which to make an impact is limited. Often teaching has to be broken up into two-week lessons, with the first being primarily direct instruction and the second, a lesson that features a quick review and a guided or independent activity. In Grades 3 – 5 classes, the focus is on learning to locate and use information. Media also works closely with grade-level Global Studies, units through which the core curriculum is taught and a global perspective explored.

What I propose are essentially Grade 3-5 lesson sets presented between October 2011 and June 2012 that present some information and activities inspired by the Sports and Physics seminar. In addition to the lessons, there will be topical book displays, posters or prints and realia related to the unit on display in the Library Media Center. Atl-atls, darts, spinning wheels, spindles and game-pieces will come from my personal collection. Toys and Physical Education equipment will be borrowed from the school. Local history museums are a good source for re-enactors can demonstrate the use old tools and toys. They are a source for “curiosity” or “discovery” kits that can be loaned to a school for short periods of time. Suggested resources are included at the end of this curriculum unit.


The Common Core sub-topics that I would like to cover in my unit relate to motion, force and energy. Since Winding Springs is a Global Studies school, the focus of lessons is international. In Media Classes, students would be guided to form essential questions about their units of study, and to research topics related to energy (light, sound, heat, magnetic, electric), motion and force. These units of study will depend heavily on collaborative teaching with home-room teachers.

As a Media Specialist, I provide access to Internet resources, reference and traditional non-fiction print materials, in addition to creating story-time programs and Big6 research lessons that support students’ interests. It is my job as a Media Specialist to find funding, collaborate on instruction, coordinate resource sharing, design lessons and teach research skills using international sports, games and toys to enhance understanding of physics.

My primary inspiration this year will not be literature, but multimedia and realia. Grade 3 will have two sets of lessons that will focus on hands on activities and journaling, learning about Galileo, Newton and Da Vinci and making observations about motion, force, mass and displacement. Grade 4 lessons will use primarily electronic resources such as videos from Discovery Education on forms of Energy as well as some hands on activities. The focus in Grade 5 will be applying knowledge, making observations and predictions as part of designing experiments. A list of materials and an annotated list of resources will be included at the end of this curriculum unit.

Ideal teaching activities would begin with a real-world or simulated problem, or a question that needs to be answered (problem-based Inquiry). The primary method of instruction will be using cooperative play activities that will feature small groups of students working together to learn. I plan to use discussion to allow students to actively learn by talking as well as listening. Informal Questioning will be used as both formative assessment and an ice-breaker. Thinking-Aloud, using “I wonder…” statements, is another strategy that will be used to start discussion. I plan to have students pose their own questions for the Questions & Answers Sticky-note Inquiry Board as well as asking some of my own. I will be integrating technology to enhance the learning experience when possible, through the use of multimedia and the interactive white board.

Active learning includes hands-on activities, observation, discussion, writing and reflecting in daybooks/journals. One of the discoveries I made in implementing the unit, was how critical writing is in assisting the mind to process science; writing provides the necessary contemplative time for the brain to process the idea as well as forces the learner to clarify concepts as they are recorded on paper. Not only are we studying mechanics, the study of motion, but also working on kinematics, how we describe the motion of object and to do that we need to use interactive science notebooks. The use of science notebooks is crucial because these journals allow students to connect their own concrete experience with the science concepts and vocabulary being taught. Creating graphics allow them to actively engage with the subject.[iii] Recording their personal observations and learning to make inferences develops critical thinking. Notebooks are not only records of contemplation and reflection so necessary in interpreting and analyzing information; they serve as an assessment tool for both student and teacher. Since I am serving 16 different homerooms, with different approaches to managing paper, I will be asking students to create foldables, tables and charts, as well as using graph paper so that these visual notes can be clipped into binders or taped into their notebooks.

Visual Literacy

In Media classes, I teach that visual information comes in many forms from simple signs and icons, to photographs, videos, maps, graphs and charts, to complex cutaways, trees and flow-charts. There are simple and analytic diagrams, process diagrams such as timelines and storyboards, diagrams that show relationships and graphs which rank, measure and compare. This is because people are able to understand visual texts often before they can read the written language, as evidenced by the development and use of international signage.[iv]

Visual literacy refers to the ability to read and interpret images, a critical skill for information and creative workers in our global society. Visual “texts” are often an alternative to words, but more importantly, images and words together help learners interpret, retain and synthesize new information as well as communicate more effectively. Images help learners understand abstract ideas and conceptualize solutions. The act of summarizing information in visual form forces the learner to reprocess the information in order to present it.[v] In teaching science, this is particularly important because relationships in science are not necessarily linear, nor are they expressed well solely in text, which is why teachers should use experiential teaching methods.[vi] In this unit, students will be asked to interpret what they observe by the use of simple probing questions, as well as communicate using numbers, language and images.

Background Concepts and Vocabulary

Physical Science in Elementary years is primarily based on the work of Isaac Newton, who pondered the workings of the universe and proposed a set of observations which still guides our thinking today on classical mechanics.[vii] Physics has its own set of vocabulary to describe concepts, which as discussed above, is a necessary part of learning to think and write objectively, scientifically. Also crucial to the understanding of Physics is the ability to express the concepts graphically. This unit is about Forces and Motion and so we must begin with how to describe both concepts linguistically, mathematically and graphically.

Force is simply the interaction of two objects upon each other,[viii] existing only in the moments of interaction. These can be forces of attraction or repulsion. Forces can be those of direct contact and those that work from a distance. Contact forces include: Friction, Air Resistance, Tension, Applied, Spring forces. Forces that work from a distance include: Electrical, Magnetic and Gravity. Force is measured in a standard unit, called a Newton (N), which is the force required to move a kilogram of mass one meter per second or N = 1kg* m/s2. Therefore, Force is equal to the change in momentum per change in time.[ix]

Motion is described in terms of Speed, Velocity and Acceleration. Speed is the distance traveled divided by a unit of time, simply how fast something is traveling. Velocity can be described in terms of distance traveled as well as the measure of displacement. So, the path of travel is the measure of Distance, while net shift of an object from its initial point to another point is Displacement. Distance and Speed are Scalar quantities which only describe the range traveled in numerical terms.

Common examples of speed are meters per second and miles per hour. Velocity, however, is a Vector quantity describes displacement in terms of both Speed and Direction, or more specifically, speed in a direction. Momentum is an example of a vector quantity.[x]

Acceleration is the rate of the change in velocity during an interval of time. Acceleration can be either a change in speed, direction or both. Furthermore, any time there is an acceleration, a net or unbalanced force is present.

Acceleration = Change in velocity/Time interval

The challenge for students is to describe and depict speed, velocity and acceleration as they demonstrate their understanding of Newton’s Laws. In physics, objects are frequently pictured as boxes and forces are depicted as arrows pointing in the direction of the force applied. I would expect students to represent the objects more conventionally, however, by drawing pictures of the objects themselves. The length of the arrow represents size of force, while the orientation of the arrow represents the vector direction. The example below shows that the force being applied to the object to the right is less than the one being applied to the left.

Elementary students will be expected to use the convention of representing force with arrows. Therefore, students will be expected to demonstrate their understanding of forces using these standard symbols in their notes.

Newton’s Laws

As far back as 4 B.C., Aristotle wrote on the subject of motion. He theorized that the most natural state of objects was to be at rest and that all motion was caused by a mover. Natural motion, such as the speed of an object’s fall, was related to the weight of the object as heavy objects fall faster. Aristotle also theorized that speed was affected inversely by the medium through which the object was falling. [xi]

In 1638, Galileo disagreeing with Aristotle stated; “A falling body accelerates uniformly: it picks up equal amounts of speed in equal time intervals, so that, if it falls from rest, it is moving twice as fast after two seconds as it was moving after one second, and moving three times as fast after three seconds as it was after one second. [xii] What Galileo saw was that the rate of an object’s fall accelerates, as an object falls, it increases in velocity; the greater the distance of the drop, the faster the acceleration of the object.

But Galileo noted that all objects resist change in their motion, what he termed “inertia”. Newton expanded upon Galileo’s idea of inertia, writing; “Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion­ in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.”[xiii] So an object is said to be balanced when the forces acting upon it are equal. In a perfect universe the object would be either still forever and ever or moving in a straight path at a constant speed throughout eternity. But we do not live in a perfect universe; other forces are present that act upon us—such as gravity, expressed mathematically below:

Gravity is one of the factors that affect motion and force, which are measured in terms of change of speed and direction. According to Newton, Gravity is a predictable and constant force in our universe. Force is proportional the product of both masses being affected, and inversely proportional to the distance between the two objects.[xiv] Just as apples fall to the Earth, so must the Earth be drawn towards the greater mass of the Sun. The Sun, according to Newton, is equally pulled in the opposite direction towards Earth. Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation can also be expressed mathematically as:

Weight, often confused with mass, is the force of Gravity upon a Mass. Mass is the amount of material that makes up an object and exists independent of location. Mass, therefore can be considered a measure of Inertia because it resists acceleration.

“The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the motive force impressed; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impressed.”[xv]

Forces cause acceleration. Acceleration is equal to the net force applied against the mass of the object divided by the mass, expressed below:

or, more simply,

So, net force is the combined effect of all forces acting upon an object. Newton explained further that:

“— If a force generates a motion, a double force will generate double the motion, a triple force triple the motion, whether that force be impressed altogether and at once, or gradually and successively. And this motion (being always directed the same way with the generating force), if the body moved before, is added to or subtracted from the former motion, according as they directly conspire with or are directly contrary to each other; or obliquely joined, when they are oblique, so as to produce a new motion compounded from the determination of both. “[xvi]

Therefore, if the net force applied to an object unbalances it, the object accelerates, changing speed and/or direction. Simply put, if force is increased, then so is acceleration and if mass increases, then acceleration decreases. But as any teacher who has ever had to monitor a line of students knows, it would be remiss not to consider the idea of reaction, because according to Newton;

“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or, the mutual action

two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts”[xvii]

[i] Davis, Lauri. “Investigating the Physics of the Atlatl.” Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center. (accessed November 11, 2011), 1.

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[iii] Vasquez, Jo Anne, Michael W. Comer, and Frankie Troutman. Developing visual literacy in science, K-8. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press, National Science Teachers Association, 2010, 10.

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[x] Surrow, Bernd, J. David Litster, Peter Dourmashkin, and David E. Pritchard. “Physics 8.01 J. David LitsterLecture Notes: Newton’s Laws of Motion.” MIT Open Course Ware. (accessed October 28, 2011).

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[xvii] Surrow, Bernd, J. David Litster, Peter Dourmashkin, and David E. Pritchard. “Physics 8.01 J. David LitsterLecture Notes: Newton’s Laws of Motion.” MIT Open Course Ware. (accessed October 28, 2011).