August 1st, 2016

Playground Physics is an iPad app developed by the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) as part of the suite of digital Noticing Tools™. The app is accompanied by an activity guide and professional development workshops designed for middle school teachers.


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0.1 — Getting Started: Introduction to Playground Physics

Playground Physics App

The Playground Physics app is an iPad-based experience that helps students build a bridge between the kinesthetic experience of physical play (e.g., running, jumping, sliding) and abstract physics concepts (motion, force, energy). Students can use the app to record seemingly ordinary activities and play them back to see the physics in their everyday physical play experiences. After entering required calibration information about mass, height and distance, students are invited to trace the path of the object or person on the screen. Now students are ready to investigate their recorded play performance in any or all of the three physics lenses: motion, force and energy.

In the motion lens, students can see how distance, speed and direction changes when the person or object they have recorded moves. In the force lens, students identify force pairs in the performance. In the energy lens, students explore a person or object’s potential and kinetic energy. Each lens has stickers that students can place in the path of motion. The stickers in each lens add special effects to the video, helping students better visualize and notice the science that is taking place in their play performances. Some stickers show a dust trail to indicate speeding up while others show an expanding boom where a push force occurs. Students can share recordings with their teachers via a secure, password-protected website.

Playground Physics Activity Guide

The Playground Physics Activity Guide helps teachers leverage students’ play performances to support their classroom science learning by exploring the concepts of motion, force and energy. The curriculum offers teachers several implementation options for each unit (motion, force and energy). Teachers can choose to follow the curriculum sequence for the unit, which provides options to implement the curriculum through the use of single- and multiple-devices, or teachers can choose to use the guided science investigation provided in the “Getting Started” section. The Playground Physics curriculum maps to the Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core Standards for Mathematics, Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, and the New York State Intermediate Level Science Standards.

Playground Physics Professional Development Activities

The Playground Physics professional development activities focus on physical science topics and explore how to incorporate dynamic, playful activities into science instruction. The activities provide teachers with opportunities to engage in playful learning, experimenting and lesson planning. Teachers explore the concepts of energy, motion and force, and learn how to engage their students in playful, science-rich experiences that support young people in exploring physics in their everyday lives. They learn how to use the Playground Physics lesson plans and app to link their students’ performances on the school playground into science learning.

Playground Physics – Approach and Guiding Principles

As part of a suite of Noticing Tools™ from the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), Playground Physics draws upon NYSCI’s mission to transform science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning. Key to NYSCI’s approach is to allow children the ability to put themselves at the center of the phenomena under investigation. NYSCI believes it is intrinsically motivating to put children in a position to explore and investigate science and mathematics in relationship to their own physical experiences and create and share their work with peers and teachers.

The Sara Lee Schupf Family Center for Play, Science, and Technology Learning (SciPlay), located at NYSCI, seeks to harness the potential of children’s play and playfulness for science learning and teaching across multiple settings. SciPlay subscribes to the idea that children’s natural abilities to engage in play and playfulness fuel and sustain their immediate predisposition to be motivated and engaged in specific activities. SciPlay’s goal is to develop research-based technology, curriculum and professional development activities to turn typical playground activities into powerful educational tools. Playground Physics seeks to infuse play as a mnemonic device into science learning and thus, amplify the learning that takes place during play. Playground Physics is anchored in key cognitive learning principles, which are aimed at engaging a broad cross section of learners who will come to understand that play and playfulness are compelling frames through which to explore and understand the world. Below are the guiding principals that drove the creation and design of the Playground Physics app, activity guide and professional development.

  • Authenticity
    Students are invited to explore their natural physical play in genuine and authentic ways. Children’s spontaneous play performances are used as a basis for learning about physical science. Students are active participants in the teaching and learning process by being physically central in the activities being explored.
  • Playfulness
    Teachers are provided with playful activity structures and interactions, which have the potential to lead to a positive and fun state during the learning process. Playfulness has been found to assist learners in generating novel combinations of thoughts and actions (creativity), or enabling the subsequent production of novel solutions to scientific problems (innovation).
  • Open-Ended and Low-Barrier of Entry
    Activities and tools are open-ended and offer multiple points of entry for diverse learners. They can be used in a variety of ways and can be easily adapted into new learning circumstances and requirements.
  • Content
    Students learn about complex scientific concepts, including motion, energy and force, aligned to national and state standards.
  • Co-Learning Model
    The use of the digital tools and curriculum activities privileges adult-child interactions for co-discovery and co-learning. Teachers and caregivers are supported in facilitating children’s interest-driven interactions and exploration of the environment around them.

Organization of the Playground Physics Activity Guide

The activity guide is focused around three different units which each explore a major concept in physics (motion, force and energy) through a specific type of physical play (e.g., catching a ball, jumping, swinging). Units can be done in any order. Before starting any of the units, teachers should use the Intro Bingo activity to help familiarize their students with the functions of the Playground Physics app. Some lessons do not require the app to complete and are marked so in
the table of contents. Teachers can choose to follow the curriculum sequence for each unit or to use the science investigation to help guide students’ exploration of their individual interests.

Each unit in the Curriculum Sequence starts with a section called “Teacher Background” that includes a review of the content knowledge in that unit for teachers as well as common student misconceptions about the topic. The first lesson in each unit is intended to help teachers formatively assess students’ prior ideas and current understanding of the content. The following lessons in the unit are laid out to lead students through a guided inquiry process starting with
a lesson to help students begin thinking about and reflecting on their own felt experiences. It is important that this lesson is done without the app to help students make connections to prior ideas and begin thinking about the physics phenomena before they explore the data they collect using the app. The unit then moves into an open exploration with the app related to the topic of the unit. The lessons build on one another to lead students through the prerequisite knowledge necessary
to understand the scientific explanations related to the topic of the unit. Optional lessons are provided in each unit that teachers can use to provide their students with additional experience thinking about the content. Students end the unit by reflecting on how their ideas have changed since the initial assessment and by reflecting on the process of doing science.

The Science Investigation is structured to lead students through the process of designing and enacting an experiment using the Playground Physics app. This includes determining variables, writing an experimental question, predicting what will happen in the experiment, recording observations from their experiment using a claim, evidence, and reasoning format, and then reflecting on the experience.

Tips for Taking Students Outside of the Classroom

This app is centered on leveraging students’ play and movement through the world to learn physics content. Many of the lessons in the curriculum involve students filming videos that would be best recorded outside. Taking students outside of the classroom environment can pose a barrier at times to completing science activities. Here are a few tips to help teachers bring students into less controlled environments to complete investigations with the app.

Have Students Prerecord Videos

Many of the lessons require videos that may be filmed outside. If a school is located in an area that has extreme hot or cold weather during certain times of the year, filming all of the videos at once may be helpful. Some teachers have also found it to helpful to have students film videos ahead of time to save time in individual lessons. Lesson 0.3 Fun with Physics Centers lays out activities that can be filmed ahead of time that will cover all of the lessons needed for all of the units.

Suggested Locations

To accurately record the entire frame of motion for some activities, it may be necessary to find
a location that is larger then the classroom. Here are some suggestions for filming inside:

  • Gym.
  • Auditorium.
  • Hallway.
  • Rearrange Classroom.
  • Common Areas Outside.
  • Sports Fields.

Setting Parameters

Just as task and behavioral expectations are set for students inside of the classroom environment, teachers will want to set expectations or parameters for students before heading outside of the classroom. This includes going over the task students need to complete (for example, they need a video of someone jumping), how much time students will have to complete the task, and the areas in which students are allowed to visit to complete the task (students must stay inside of the basketball court, or students cannot go past the water fountain, etc.). Sometimes a map of the area makes this discussion of physical parameters clearer. Teachers will also want to set expectations for student behavior while outside of the classroom. This could include discussions of noise level, on task behavior and conduct.

Managing Time and Pace

Once outside, it is important to manage the pace at which students are working so that all of the required tasks are completed without having to use an additional class period. Giving time reminders while outside can also be helpful so that students realize how much time is left to complete the required tasks.

Establishing Norms for Learning

The Playground Physics app is designed to be student focused, so teachers will want to make sure the students have ownership over the videos they record. Balancing guidance and independence while in a more free-form environment can sometimes be tricky. Sometimes teachers find it helpful to establish that they will be in a specific location and if students have questions they should come to the teacher. Other teachers find rotating between groups while outside to be a better strategy. No matter the types of norms established with the class, teachers will want to make sure they are well thought out and communicated to your students.

Questioning Strategies

Different types of questioning strategies can be useful in different settings and for different purposes. Sometimes teachers ask questions to get at specific answers, while other times questions are used to prompt thinking and sustain student learning. Due to the added management tasks, teachers at times revert to rhetorical questioning when feeling pressure to speed activities along. Being cognizant of the types of questions asked of students while outside can be helpful and can further the inquiry approach of the curriculum.

Assigning Student Groups

In order to film performances students will need to work together in groups of three or four students. Assigning a specific role to students within each group may help to ensure that all students get a chance to work with the app and perform. Teachers may want to have students rotate through the different roles each time they record a new performance. Below are some suggested roles.

Student Roles:

  • Producer: Makes sure the group is collecting the videos needed for the activity. Makes sure cameraperson is following filming guidelines.
  • Cameraperson: Films videos. Makes sure to follow filming guidelines.
  • Actor: Acts in the video.
  • Assistant: Holds the meter stick and trial number. Manages the materials needed for
    the video.

The following sheet can be used to keep track of group assignments. The ID number of the iPad each group uses must be recorded so that students know which iPad contains their videos for the follow-up lessons.

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Apps used
Duration: 20-40 mins
Challenge Level: Introductory
Prep: Easy

Tips & Ideas

Have fun and play!