Our favorite tower! It has a wide strong base and a tall narrow top.

When it’s too cold to play outside and the kids are going crazy (or driving you crazy) inside, it’s the perfect time for a tower challenge!

In a tower challenge you give kids limited resources and challenge them to build the tallest freestanding tower possible that stays standing for at least 30 seconds. In the process, kids learn some basics of engineering such as keeping a low center of gravity, a wide base, and maximizing the strength of various shapes and building materials. Make teams with friends or siblings and add teamwork into the mix!

If you do one of these tower challenges, please share a photo on the STEMplay Facebook page!

Tower Challenges

Here are a few challenges you may want to attempt:

1 Piece of Paper – build with just 1 piece of 8.5 x 11 inch paper, scissors and 6 inches of tape

Index Card – build with just 1 package of index cards (NO tape! But you can fold or tear)

House of Cards – build with just 1 deck of cards (NO folding or tearing)

Pipe Cleaners – build with just 30 pipe cleaners

Balloons– build with just 30 balloons and tape

Newspaper – build with yesterday’s paper and masking tape. This one is also good to adapt to other challenges, like building a baseball tee or chair you can sit on.

Toothpicks and Jellybeans – build with 1 box of toothpicks and 1 bag of jelly beans (or marshmallows or gummy bears or pieces of apple, cheese and whatever else is handy)

Pool Noodles – build with pieces of pool noodle cut in odd shapes or sliced in rings and connected with uncooked spaghetti noodles or toothpicks

Cups – How high can you build with just cups? Make it even harder by challenging them to build without touching the cups! Use string, rubber bands, straws and other materials to make tools for lifting and placing the cups.

Spaghetti Marshmallow Tower – This is a popular challenge among business leaders for team building in professional organizations. Check out the TED talk for instructions.

What you need to know

Center of Gravity
As long as the center of gravity of any structure is over its base (whatever is holding it up), it won’t fall down. This means you want to start with a wide base so there is lots of wiggle room for the center of gravity. You also want to keep most of the weight of the structure – and therefore its center of gravity – low so that it is easier to keep over the base. This is why the tallest towers have a heavy wide base and a light narrow top.

Strength of Shapes
Flat paper, cards and pipe cleaners are not very strong but if you fold and roll them into tight shapes they can hold a lot more weight. But keep in mind that some shapes are stronger than others. Squares and rectangles are much more susceptible to sliding or shearing forces and can quickly collapse but triangles spread out the forces more evenly and can be combined to make stronger structures.

If you do one of these tower challenges, please share a photo on the STEMplay Facebook page!

Tower Engineering
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