There are certain things that stick from your childhood as activities that you did with your parents. Making cotton reel cars is one of mine – I remember making them with my Dad and brother; each of us having a different coloured cotton reel and seeing whose could go the furthest. As these week’s theme for #playfulpreschool is transportation I decided it was time that I introduced my kids to these fun and easy-to-make little toys, and learn a little at the same time.

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

The cotton reel cars work on energy, and when I taught Secondary school science we would use them as a great way to explain kinetic to stored to kinetic energy as well as the effects of friction. These concepts are well beyond the preschool age of understanding, however they are great for working on the principle of actions having a reaction. You wind the stick, and the let it go, and the cotton reel moves across the table. But more than that, there is engineering involved: why isn’t it moving very far, how can we make it move further, problem solving, fine-motor skills to thread and the movements to wind the elastic band up.

Materials for cotton reel cars

Cotton Reel
Match Stick or similar (we used a bamboo skewer which I chopped to a suitable size)
Elastic Band
Pencil

Wax Candle

Learning objectives for cotton reel cars

  • To explain actions and reactions
  • Problem Solving
  • Fine Motor Skills

Preparation

Cut a small piece of the candle, and then make a small hole in the middle so that it forms a washer-type ring.

How to make cotton reel cars

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

Thread the elastic band through the centre of cotton reel.

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

Place a small match stick or similar in one end loop.

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

Place a pencil through the other end loop,

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

Wind the pencil tightening the elastic band and let go.

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

When you let go, if your cotton reel doesn’t move, or if it just jumps or spins in the spot, the friction is too much so you need to reduce the friction. I asked T how we could make it go faster, she came up with some wonderful ideas:

Cut the pencil, as it’s holding it back.

Use a bigger elastic band; we haven’t twizzled it enough.

We need to make the cotton reel slippy like ice – lets put it in the freezer.

What excites me is that the last suggestion about “like ice” is really getting close to the reason why – if it was slippery it would have less friction, like ice which is why you slide on it. Yes I know it’s more complicated than that, but with experience, she has learnt about friction without actually knowing or being taught it, and she’s applying that knowledge to a new situation – a real Problem Solving skill.

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

To reduce the friction, I added our candle washer and we watched the cotton reel car go across the paper on the table no problem (and I would have had a picture but it was too fast sorry!)

Try these other easy Science Experiments to do at Home

Chromatography Experiment – Separating Ink

Exploring Plant Structure with Celery

Seeing how roots grow with beans in a jar experiment

Testing Materials – what makes balls bounce

Growing Crystals

Viewing the Constellations – with a show box viewer

Exploring how colours are made (no mess experiment using light)

Sea Turtle Conservation Lessons away from the Beach

Other transportation themed Activities

Sorting Transportation Vehicles by Still Playing School
Make a Truck from Shapes by Powerful Mothering
How Many in One Pound by The Educators’ Spin On It

Cotton Reel Car by Rainy Day Mum

Cotton Reel Car, science, engineering and problem solving with kids

Author
Cerys Parker

Cerys is a marine biologist, environmental educator, high school teacher and mum. Realising that life doesn't have to be put on hold and you don't just have to survive whilst the kids are young she shares ideas to inspire you to LIVE with the kids, with activities to do together, recipes to cook and enjoy and family travel to make memories to last a lifetime.

8 Comments

  1. I have to admit that when I read the title of your post, I was intrigued. I had no idea what a cotton reel was! In the U.S. we call that a spool. That is a fun car project. I know our kids would really enjoy it.

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