Gravity at Conner's School

This year I spent my birthday at Conner's School.  It was similar to my previous visits to Alex's when I showed the kids some  musical instruments. The big difference with Conner's school is visiting parents are expected to stay for the day, help the teachers with the kids and clean up tasks.

The day started with some organized arts and crafts but quickly migrated to free play time.  Free time seemed like a bit of a nightmare to me.  Every kid wanted my attention and was pulling me in a different direction.  Conner had the brilliant idea to play with an enormous wall of wooden blocks.

Together we built a small ramp with a pillar of blocks at the bottom and started rolling toys down the ramp to see if we could knock down the pillar of blocks.  Within a few minutes most of the class was crowded around our ramp taking turns rolling toys down the ramp.

The night before I had just finished reading a great book called  Work Hard Be Nice : How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America which I learned about watching Bill Gates' latest Ted talk.  One of the most successful teaching techniques described in the book is high energy repetition.   Getting the kids to repeat or chant specific phrases in a fun environment is a powerful way to help them learn those concepts.

So there I was gathering an increasing crowd of surprisingly attentive 3 year-olds, and it struck me that this level of prolonged attention probably constituted a teaching opportunity.  So I gave it a try. I asked the kids a simple question.

"What makes the truck go down the ramp?"

I wasn't expecting any answers.  They thought about it for a second and one kid said "The wheels?" but I could tell from their eyes that the window for holding their attention wasn't going to last so I jumped in with "Gravity!!!" 

They made faces at me; the kind of faces you get when you ask a 3 year-old to explain geopolitics.

"Can you say gravity!?!" I asked. They responded with a mixture of mumbled "Gabbery" and "Gabity".  Gravity is apparently not a common household word.

I encouraged "I can't hear you... Say it loud with me... Grrravity!"

"Gravity," they said. They were starting to get it and I saw a few smiles.

"That's it! Say it again. Gravity!"

"GRAVITY!" they chorused.

"What did you say?" I asked, pretending to strain to hear them.

"GRAVITY!!!" they chanted. If the neighbors were napping, those kids woke them.

I picked up a block of wood, "Now watch this!" I said. I held it in the air and dropped it. It crashed into a bunch of other blocks and they laughed. "What makes the block fall to the ground?"

One of the girls got it right away. "Gravity?" she half asked.

I did my best impression of a lotto winner "That's right!!! Gravity!" I picked up and dropped the block again. "So what makes the block fall to the earth?"

"GRAVITY!" they chanted.

"That's right, gravity is the force that pulls things to the earth!" I stated definitively. (For all you physics nuts out there, I appreciate the technical incorrectness of this statement, but I figured it would at least meet their needs for the next 10 years.)  "So who wants to show me how gravity makes a truck roll down the ramp?"

The kids were hooked. They took turns playing with the ramp, trucks, blocks and gravity.  We talked about how gravity made the toys roll down the ramp and how gravity made our pillar fall down. I kept the kids chanting "gravity" every time a toy rolled down a ramp or something fell over. We had a blast for about 30 minutes, straight through to the end of free play.

After we cleaned up the massive pile of blocks it was time for snack.  We had cupcakes and the kids sang me Happy Birthday.  Finally it was time for show-and-tell and I showed the kids my saxophone. As I put it together I showed them how the neck-strap holds the saxophone up and asked them what would happen if I forgot to hook it to the sax.
Conner's School
One girl knew the answer right away, "It would fall down."

"And what makes it fall down?" I asked.

Every single kid in that room responded with excitement. "Gravity!" they all chorused.

I went on with my saxophone demonstration. Conner was my helper. He showed the other kids how to press the keys.  As is typical for Conner his excitement was palpable in all of the surrounding US states.

To finish things up I played the kids a few songs.  At the end they all got up and danced around while I played (at Conner's request) the theme song to Bob the Builder.

Spending my morning with Conner and his class was a really fun way to celebrate my birthday.


It's been more than 2 months since my birthday visit to Conner's school. This post was delayed while I finished up my masters thesis.

In that time I've run into a few of the kids from Conner's class and my curiosity got the best of me. I really wanted to know if the gravity repetition had stuck.  So when I saw the kids after that day I've found ways to test if the kids remembered. Sometimes I drop my keys, other times stuff falls over on its own. (That happens a lot with 3 year-olds.)

And when it does I ask them. "What made that fall down?"  To this day every one of them has responded matter-of-factly: "Gravity."

There's definitely something to the ideas in that Work Hard Be Nice book.