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Feature Article

Ramp It Up!

Preschoolers investigate force and motion with a digital journal.

Science and Children—March 2019

By Ashley Lewis Presser, Ximena Dominguez, Marion Goldstein, Regan Vidiksis, and Danae Kamdar

Preschoolers investigate force and motion with a digital journal.

On a cold February morning, four children remain on the circle time rug to do a ramp-building activity with support from their teacher. They are excited to use a new app designed to help young children conduct force and motion investigations. The children come together to watch a video of the ramp they created out of long, flexible tubes the day before. Today they created an even longer ramp. One child sets a ball at the top of the ramp while the teacher shows another child how to record video. The group attentively watches the ball roll halfway down the ramp before it gets stuck. “Why do you think the ball stopped here?” the teacher asks. “That part was down and this part was up,” one child says, pointing to parts of the ramp. Another child suggests, “We could put another box there,” pointing below a section where the ramp dips. The group plays back the video in slow motion and agrees they need to steepen the center part of the ramp with the box and try again. This time the ball rolls past the midpoint before it rolls over the edge of the ramp where it curves. The children view the new slow-motion video and the group brainstorms ways to fix the ramp so the ball will keep rolling along the pathway. As the activity progresses, the teacher asks what, why, and how questions to foster reflection and help children investigate further.

Investigating real-world phenomena in a playful, exploratory setting, such as the one described above, is a natural process for young children. Teachers can capitalize on children’s curiosity to foster their understanding of science ideas and their engagement in science practices, such as predicting, experimenting, observing, comparing, and contrasting. Force and motion investigations like these allow preschoolers to practice experimentation while developing the ability to make predictions and reflect on their observations. Engaging in science practices allows children to develop conceptual understanding of science phenomena and learn how science works (NGSS Lead States 2013) as well as learn other important STEM domains (e.g., mathematics).

Many preschool classrooms provide young children with opportunities to build and use ramps, yet systematic investigations with ramps can be challenging because rolling objects often move quickly, making it hard for children to closely observe motion and reflect on findings. Moreover, children may need support to link what they observe during investigations to variables they can change and test systematically.

Figure 1

Digital tools can support teachers’ and children’s engagement in science investigations. A digital journal allows children to capture and record observations via video and photographs, include built-in supports that model scientific thinking and talk, and provide feedback to foster conceptual understanding. To address the needs of young learners, digital tools must minimize the amount of text, given that young children are usually pre-readers, and must be designed to spur fun, playful, and socially rich investigations. Technology should serve as a tool that helps children learn, rather than as something that simply delivers information.

Digital tools, such as the digital journal described in this article, can allow children to closely observe, document, review, and make sense of phenomena that occur slowly (e.g., plant growth) or, in the case of ramp investigations, phenomena that occur quickly. For example, the use of a slow-motion video playback feature allows children to watch how objects move down ramps and use that information to improve their designs. Such features, when used in conjunction with audio narrations that prompt children to predict, observe, document, and review results, can promote active learning and encourage science discourse. In particular, the digital journal scaffolds investigations in which children examine how objects move down ramps. These investigations involve measuring how far those objects travel and the height of the ramp. Children can then record this data as they compare how objects travel down a steep ramp measure and record how far objects travel when they give the object a big or little push.

To implement the set of activities described in this article, teachers need: (1) access to at least one iPad tablet (although 3–4 per class is optimal) and the digital apps (free download;; (2) various materials for creating ramps (i.e., blocks, cardboard), objects to roll down the ramps (i.e., marbles, toy cars), and materials to create textured surfaces (i.e., cardboard, bubble wrap, sandpaper); and (3) the digital Teacher Guide (free download from WGBH at that contains detailed suggestions for implementing activities, snapshots of implementation in real classrooms, context-specific teacher supports, and information about each activity’s core concepts, learning goals, and vocabulary. Each activity description in the Teacher Guide suggests group size; for example, some activities are recommended as whole-class activities, while others are recommended as pair or small-group activities (i.e., ratio of one teacher for 3–5 children). Before beginning these activities, the teacher ensured that the materials did not present a choking or tripping hazard.

Fostering Science Learning With Digital Journals

The digital journal (Table 1) was designed to enable children to digitally capture their investigations and hands-on activities in ways that encourage learning by focusing on science (1) core ideas, (2) practices, and (3) discourse. Science core ideas revolve around NGSS-aligned disciplinary core ideas and capitalize on children’s curiosity about everyday phenomena. Science practices are promoted by providing opportunities to act like scientists by engaging in investigations, using observation skills to carry out those investigations, and comparing the findings of these investigations. Science discourse refers to discussions that help children reflect on, debate, and revise their ideas. Discourse is naturally woven into children’s content learning and engagement in practices as preschoolers use science vocabulary to talk with peers and teachers about what they see and think. Specifically, vocabulary in the lessons includes practice vocabulary (e.g., observe, compare, predict), vocabulary relating to the core ideas (e.g., push, pull, gravity), and the use of descriptive words (e.g., faster, slower). This science vocabulary is naturally embedded within the activities, and teachers are provided with suggestions for integrating and fostering its use. Modeling and scaffolding provided by the teacher and digital activities are crucial.

Digital journal features.

During science investigations we observed in the course of our federally funded research to develop and test a set of activities for preschool science, the Ramps Journal was used to foster learning by capitalizing on the technology’s capacity to capture and review video recordings of objects rolling down steep and gentle ramps. In small groups, children and their teachers made use of the journal as they conducted investigations using hands-on materials while other children engaged in activities of their choosing at various learning centers throughout the room or working with assistant teachers. The children predicted how far they thought the objects would travel on the steep and gentle ramps, then compared which went farther, and recorded it in the journal before trying another object or ramp height.

During one lesson, the question driving the investigation was how identical objects would move down two ramps that differed only in their incline. To begin, the teacher selected the “Steep & Gentle Ramps” investigation in the app, which prompted children to take a picture of the objects they intended to roll down the ramps with the teacher’s assistance (marbles; Table 1, A). The app then showed the image of these objects situated at the top of two ramps with different inclines (one steep, one gentle; Table 1, B). Next, the app prompted children to predict which ramp would allow the identical marbles to move farther down the ramp’s pathway. With the help of their teacher, children used sticky note paper to mark their prediction on the floor. The teacher then helped the children touch the screen to select from the two ramps, and a star appeared on the screen next to the selected ramp to show which ramp the children predicted would move the marble farther (Table 1, C).

To begin the investigation, the app prompted the children with verbal instructions (“Ready, set, go!”) before one child released the marble on the first ramp while another child video-recorded the marble moving down the ramp, with teachers providing assistance as needed (Table 1, D). To document the distance that the marble traveled, the children dragged the picture of the marble on the screen to the approximate location along the pathway. This provided a way for children to record their measurement of the distance traveled and also helped the teacher to ensure that children completed this task accurately (Table 1, E). After repeating these steps with the second ramp, children watched the videos of the investigation (teachers should not share the video of these investigations with others outside the classroom to protect children’s privacy), recorded the location of each ball on the screen’s pathway, and the teacher led a discussion about the results of the investigation (i.e. “Which marble went farther?”). Finally, the audio narration prompted children to review the results of past investigations by reviewing their videos (Table 1, F) and the chart (illustrated with stars next to the ramp that made the object move the farthest; Table 1, G) in order to help children identify patterns and discuss ideas about how objects move on steep versus gentle ramps.

Using similar embedded supports, the journal also helped children explore how friction caused by different textures affected movement. For example, children and their teachers opened the “Smooth & Rough Ramps” feature of Nico & Nor Ramps Journal, and the app prompted them to photograph the objects (i.e., plastic spoons) they chose as the moving objects for the investigation (Table 1, A). Then, using different surface materials (i.e., felt, coarse sandpaper, bubble wrap, non-slip rug liners, and aluminum foil), children and their teachers taped materials to one ramp and kept the other one bare. The children, prompted by the app, selected the ramp they predicted would make the object move farther down the ramp’s pathway by touching a button on the screen near the desired ramp that said “This one” (Table 1, B). Once the star appeared on the screen next to the ramp they predicted (Table 1, C), they took turns video recording as the objects moved down the two ramps (Table 1, D). Then, the children dragged the picture of the object on the screen to the relative stopping locations to document the results of the investigation (Table 1, E). After completing these steps for both ramps, the children engaged in discussion of findings with their teacher.

The teacher asked, “Which spoon slid farther, the one that came down the smooth ramp or the one that came down the rough ramp?” They then reviewed the “Results” page that included results from their prior texture investigations (Table 1, F), and re-watched videos as they discussed their findings (Table 1, G). In one class, the teacher used a box lid with sandpaper on one side and felt on the other side and children described the sandpaper as “bumpy” and “kinda spiky," and the felt as “soft” and “like a blanket.” They tested which side of the cardboard allowed the marbles to travel faster, and came to the conclusion that the felt was best.

Engaging in Science Practices

The NGSS framework highlights that science is learned best when children learn how to experiment and think like scientists, which ultimately leads to deeper and richer understandings of science ideas. Although the NGSS do not specifically address preschool science, our research suggests young children can engage and benefit from engaging in science practices. To illustrate this, we provide examples of ways children engaged in science practices and highlight the supports that children needed from teachers and the digital tools.

Observe and Describe

As they engaged in investigations, preschoolers observed the features of ramps and objects and how these features affected objects’ movement. Each investigation included relevant vocabulary that the teacher explicitly introduced and/or used throughout, providing children with opportunities to use the vocabulary themselves when describing what they thought and what they saw. The video-recording feature in the journal provided a helpful way to review quickly occurring activities and helped children document their observations. Most often, children observed and described using their sense of sight but sometimes used touch and sound. Children engaged in close observations during independent play (sometimes offering unsolicited descriptions of what they observed) but more frequently in response to teacher questioning. For example, we observed children as they placed a marble in a sump pump hose, which is heavily striated. As the marble rolled inside of it, the teacher asked, “How does the marble sound?” A child said, “Like a snake.” The teacher probed further by asking, “How does a snake sound?” to which the child responded, “Sshhhhhh.” The teacher then asked if the sound differed when they make a steep ramp compared with when they made a gentle ramp using the hose, and they discovered together that the marble sounded louder when traveling down the steeper ramp.


Teachers promoted this practice by eliciting children’s predictions before sending objects down ramps, and returning to those predictions to review and discuss their accuracy after investigations. For example, a teacher asked children to predict what would happen if she were to place a marble at the bottom of a ramp. A child responded, “It won’t roll.” When she placed it at the top of the ramp, the teacher asked, “What’s going to happen if I put the marble on this ramp?,” to which the child said, “It’s going to roll down.” The teacher released it and replied, “Look, you were right. You made a good prediction!”

Prompting preschool children to review and discuss the accuracy of predictions required teacher scaffolding that the journal was designed to help facilitate. For example, we observed a small group of children use the journal to review their prediction (the steeper ramp would make the marble go farther, or a big push would make a car go farther than a little push), analyze their data (check the distance the object moved by measuring and comparing the distance traveled on each ramp), and then watch a slow-motion video of their investigation. Afterward, the teacher asked, “Was your prediction correct?” and a child replied, “Yes, this went farther.” Continuing the dialogue, the teacher asked, “Why do you think that is?,” and the child said “Because this one is so high.”


To engage fully in this practice, the young children we observed needed support to carry out the various steps of an investigation (to predict, observe, document, compare results, interpret) and to maintain focus on the particular question motivating it. For example, as children set up their “Rough and Gentle Ramp” investigation, the teacher said, “Let’s make a prediction. Which one do you think will go faster?” The teacher and the children then observed the distance each object traveled and compared those distances. After the investigation was conducted, she said, “Observe and see if we’re right. Which one was faster?” After dragging the objects to document how far they went, the children were prompted by the journal and teacher to compare the results.


Using digital journals can provide multiple opportunities to formatively assess children’s science knowledge and engagement in practices, particularly by using these activities in conjunction with discussion questions to probe children’s understanding. Specifically, discussion questions (Table 2, p. XX) embedded in activities suggest ways to encourage young children to describe scientific phenomena and elicit their understanding (or misunderstandings) of what is happening and why. Summative assessment also can be achieved by conducting the activities with children individually to determine how well preschoolers understand vocabulary, disciplinary core ideas, and science practices. Teachers can show children two ramps that differ on an important feature (i.e., slope, texture) and ask a variety of questions, like which ramp they think will allow an object to move farther and why, and how they could answer this question (i.e., “How could you check to see if your prediction is correct?”). Teachers could also observe how children conduct their investigations and through the child’s actions, explanations, and use of vocabulary determine the extent to which they engage in science inquiry and how well they understand core ideas (i.e., the influence of the ramp and object features on the distance an object travels). Online (see NSTA Connection), we offer a scoring rubric that teachers can use when assessing children in this manner.


Digital journals can encourage authentic scientific investigations that foster scientific discovery and genuine immersion in science practices. Hands-on materials have long been used to engage children with science, yet the use of digital tools to support the investigatory process, provide a way to record each investigation for later review, and facilitate child-friendly displays of data to encourage discussions of findings, is an innovative approach that can enhance science hands-on investigations and deepen learning.

Physical Science Technology Early Childhood Elementary Preschool

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