Airplanes, like kites and other flying objects, are of great interest to elementary children. Like the Wright brothers and countless other aviation pioneers, children seem to enjoy the process of designing, making, and modifying airplanes. The following activities introduce a few basic laws of physics and bring out the " inventor" in everyone as families experiment and test their own airplane models.
First, parents and children need to research—either at the library or using the Internet—what makes a plane fly and a bit of history about airplanes. This is a great time to discuss both technology and nature, as the topic of flight in birds and insects may be raised.
A visit to the airport can also be a special experience for parents and children to learn about different kinds of airplanes. Visiting a museum’s aviation section is another pleasurable activity for families and one providing information about the history, structure, and use of airplanes, past, present, and future. In addition, you can visit a hobby store to see "model airplanes."
After these investigative activities, children and parents can make their own glider, an airplane with no engine. Did you know the Wright brothers used gliders to experiment on and practice flying while designing the first airplanes? And, not only did they research what other inventors were doing, they also observed birds in flight to help them with the design of the airplane wings.
Science learning can happen with the simplest of materials. You will only need a 8½ × 11-inch piece of paper to examine flight. After mastering the basic paper plane, encourage experimentation with different sizes and weights of paper and have available glue, paper clips (as small weights), and other materials for the children to use to enhance their airplanes. Most will want to decorate and adorn their inventions with individual designs.
Going outdoors to fly the gliders (paper airplanes) will give the children firsthand experience of what works and what does not work well with their paper aircrafts. Encourage the children to fly the planes into the wind and experiment in other ways and then to change, adapt, and reassemble their designs until the plane flies. You can also time your flight attempts with a watch or measure the distances traveled with a tape measure. The three aerodynamic forces that affect the flight of a glider—lift, drag, and weight—can be examined here and compared with the forces acting on a real airplane.
Making a paper plane is a simple but special adventure for parents and their children. (See below.)
Beginner’s Guide to Aerodynamics
Wright Brothers’ Invention Process
Build a Better Airplane!
A sheet of 8½" x 11" paper
Paper clips, tape, glue, and other miscellaneous supplies for plane-building
Crayons or markers to decorate planes (optional)
Tape measure (optional)
About one hour
1. Build a basic paper airplane:
2. Now design two different paper planes. Try experimenting with different parts from the supplies you have collected. Decorate your plane if you wish.
3. Which plane do you think will fly the longest? Go fly your planes outside. Have a family member time the "flights" and record your results below. Or, if you have a tape measure, you can measure how far each plane travels.
Find out more about flight and paper planes at:
Beginner’s Guide to Aerodynamics
Brain Pop: Transportation