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engineering encounters

Bringing Engineering Into Play

Using guided play to help kindergarteners engage with pushes and pulls

Science and Children—November/December 2022 (Volume 60, Issue 2)

By Jesse Wilcox, Caitlyn Potter, Sarah Nolting, Sarah Voss, and Elyse Webb

With the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, even our youngest learners are now engaged in engineering tasks. Although engineering could seem difficult for early elementary school students, we believe engineering activities can be a natural fit for young children. When we structure engineering activities to be somewhat open-ended, we provide opportunities for young students to learn about science and engineering concepts through guided play.

Guided play, or what we like to call “play with a purpose,” is child-directed play that incorporates adult learning objectives (Reuter and Leuchter 2020; Weisberg et al. 2016). Students make choices during guided play, but it is not intended to be entirely open-ended. Teachers play a crucial role in structuring the learning environment, carefully choosing concrete activities and effectively providing scaffolds and feedback at key moments. In many ways, guided play relates closely to many principles of teaching science through inquiry.

In the context of engineering activities, guided play can consist of a teacher posing a problem to students related to a particular science or engineering concept and then guiding students as they develop engineering solutions to the problem. In addition to providing opportunities for children to learn about science and engineering concepts through guided play, engineering activities can be used as a foundation to teach students about the Nature of Engineering. Pleasants and Olson (2019) describe the Nature of Engineering as encompassing questions such as “What is engineering?” and “What do engineers do?” We have added to this work by putting forth Nature of Engineering concepts that are appropriate for elementary students (Figure 1). Knowledge of the Nature of Engineering sets the stage for students to develop technological literacy and may influence student interest in engineering.

Figure 1

Nature of Engineering ideas appropriate for elementary students.

• What is engineering?

• What do engineers do?

• In what ways are engineers creative?

• Why do you think engineers collaborate?

• How do you think engineers use models?

• Why do you think engineers don’t always follow the same steps to solve problems?

• Why do you think engineers sometimes change their designs?

• How do you think engineers’ work is affected by money, materials, and time?

• How is engineering different than science? In what ways do science and engineering help each other?

The following activities for kindergarten students involve two guided play-based engineering tasks: designing a pulley and designing a domino path. Throughout the activities, we use scaffolded questions to help students develop an understanding of forces and the Nature of Engineering. These engineering activities connect to kindergarten standard KPS-2-2 as well as Nature of Engineering ideas.

Engineering Activity Using a Pulley

In the first task, students are directed to collaboratively complete an engineering challenge involving a pulley. Students work in groups to create a pulley to raise a cup of rice. While we define the goal of the activity, students have the freedom to explore their own ideas through playing with different approaches. Our purpose behind the engineering task is to help students understand the connections among pulls, weight, and direction and have students think and act like engineers. Throughout the activity, we use guided questions to engage students in thinking about Nature of Engineering ideas, such as engineers are creative and collaborative—attributes that are also required of students as they engage in guided play.

We start the engineering task by asking students about a time when they wanted to pick something up, but it was too heavy for them. Students generally have lots of experiences to share! When students share their experiences, we ask how they were able to get the object lifted if they couldn’t do it by themselves. Students generally comment that they had another person help them lift. We then say, “It’s nice when we can get help from other people, but sometimes we are all by ourselves when we need to lift something that is too heavy or too far away, so we use a tool to help us. The people who design tools or ideas that help us solve problems like that are called engineers.” We tell the students that they are going to be like engineers today and challenge them to create a tool that can raise a cup of rice off their desks without spilling. We tell them to pretend the rice is so heavy they can’t lift it up, so they aren’t allowed to touch it with their hands. Just in case they do spill, we place a tray underneath their workspace to catch the rice. Next, we show students materials that they can use to create their pulleys (Figure 2) and discuss any safety concerns such as scissors use. We emphasize that they can’t lift the cup of rice with their hands, but they have to raise the cup using materials of their choice. Importantly, this problem has multiple solutions, which sets students up to engage effectively in guided play.

Figure 2

Materials list for pulley activity.

• Various types of string, ribbon, and yarn

• Small boxes (e.g., cereal, tissue)

• Two-liter bottles

• Construction paper

• Dowels or pencils

• Pipe cleaners

• Cardboard

• Masking tape

• Paper cups

• Craft sticks

• Rice or other small objects to pick up

• Trays


We recommend ensuring you have enough materials so that each
group could take at least one of these objects.

In groups of two, students discuss ideas and draw pictures of what they could build to solve the challenge for about five minutes. As a differentiation and classroom climate technique, we use flexible grouping to place students into groups based on their readiness and personalities. We walk around and observe conversations and drawings. Next, students gather their materials and begin creating their pulleys. We call on one group at a time to ensure students collect materials in an orderly way. While students are creating their pulleys, we walk around and ask students why they chose specific materials and whether they think their materials are working well. We differentiate when needed by helping students identify possible sources of difficulty within their design and encouraging them to try something new if their materials are not working well. For groups that finish their pulleys quickly, we ask questions about why they think their materials are working well (which could also connect to 2-PS1-2). Once students finish building, we have them walk around to look at and discuss other creations. Students then use the conversations to build a new iteration of their pulleys on day 2.

After students build a second iteration, we scaffold students from the guided play to draw their attention to pulls and mass. We first activate students’ prior knowledge of pulls by referring to a previous pulley activity done in class in which students lifted a container of dominoes. We ask students, “When you added more dominoes to your basket, how did that change how the pull felt?” Students generally remember that the more dominoes they put in their basket, the more difficult it was to pull. We then ask students about the current activity: “What would happen if we put more rice in the cup?” Students respond, “It will be heavier.” We then ask, “How does a heavier cup change how easy it is to pull?” Students recognize that it would be harder to pull the cup up if there were more rice. Next, to scaffold students to understand how their pulleys can help make pulling things easier, we ask, “How did your design make it easier to pull even if the cup was heavier?” Students often say, “Turning the pencil and string makes it easier” and “It pulls over and over.” We then show them pictures of other pulleys, including a fishing rod, blinds, and a truck crane. We then ask, “How are the things in these pictures like what you made?” Students often say, “They all pull” and “They make pulling easier.”

Finally, we connect to the nature of engineering by asking students, “How were you creative?” Students often say, “We tried different things” and “We made pulleys.” We then explicitly connect this to the Nature of Engineering by asking, “Why do you think engineers have to be creative when they design things?” Students often say, “It helps them make things that work.”

Domino Activity

To help students continue to develop an understanding of push forces and the Nature of Engineering, we designed an additional engineering activity that also partially meets kindergarten standard K-PS2-2. To begin the activity, we direct students’ attention to a table with rocks scattered across it. A frog sits on the far edge of the table with a cup taped to the table or a bucket placed on the floor directly beneath it (Figure 3). We pose the following problem to students: “The frog needs to get back into the pond (bucket) and he needs our help, but we can only stand on the other side of the table. Using only dominoes, how can we help the frog get back into the pond?” We have students discuss ideas with a partner before discussing ideas as a class. Students generally come up with the idea to build a path to the frog out of dominoes, so that the dominoes can hit the frog and make him fall into the pond.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Domino activity setup.

Domino activity setup.

Next, students work in table groups to make a drawing of the domino path they plan to construct. Once a group has made a plan, students play with the dominoes and try to get the frog in the pond. While students work, we listen in and guide students if they get stuck. Groups often have a problem with dominoes stopping halfway. Students notice, “Even if we push the first one straight, the others can’t go sideways or they miss the next domino.” After having students communicate the problem to us, we ask them how they might fix it. Students generally decide to line up the dominoes as straight as possible without any big turns so that each domino will push over the next.

Students have a limited amount of dominoes, so a lot of discussion centers on how to use the dominoes effectively. Some groups stand the dominoes up vertically so that they are knocked down one by one. Other groups say that if they “lay the dominoes flat and connect them like a snake, they can push one end to make the frog fall in.” We recognize that these students assume that as long as all of the dominoes are touching one another, they will push in the same direction. We know that this cause/effect relationship (crosscutting concept) is incorrect because it doesn’t account for the direction of the applied force, but we want students to come to that conclusion themselves, so we have them go ahead and try out their ideas even if we know they won’t work well. We ask groups to draw the paths that they test.

Some students figure out a path that works relatively quickly, and other students take more time. To differentiate, we place more rocks in the path as an extra challenge for students who are done early. With students who are having a harder time, we notice we often have to help them think about how far to space apart the dominoes. In our experience, students are excited and want to keep playing with the dominoes regardless of how quickly they complete the task. If students make new paths, they record those on the worksheet as well.

The next day, we have students look at the paper that they recorded their tests on and circle the path that worked best. We then have students come to the carpet to discuss the activity as a whole group. We start by projecting the worksheet on the whiteboard and asking students to share what they found worked the best. Often, a group will share something like, “We had to make sure all the dominoes were lined up so they would fall and hit the next domino.” We ask the other groups if they noticed something similar. Students also notice that they had to make sure the dominoes weren’t too far away or else each domino wouldn’t push the next one hard enough or miss it altogether. Next, we ask students what didn’t work out in their designs. We bring up the idea of laying dominoes end-to-end, flat on the table, and ask, “What happened when you connected the dominoes like a snake?” and then “Why didn’t this work?” Students share the evidence they gained through exploration, noting that when they pushed one end, “the snake would break at the curves” so that the last domino was never touched.

Finally, we turn to the idea of push forces. We ask, “In what ways were the dominoes pushing each other?” Students often say, “They keep pushing each other until they all fall over.” We then focus the conversation on the direction of pushes. We set up an example of the dominoes missing and ask, “What happens if the dominoes aren’t lined up well?” Students notice the push was in the wrong direction and the frog missed the pond or the dominoes missed each other. We connect to the crosscutting concept of cause and effect by having students use their experiences with the dominoes to come to an understanding that the direction of a push affects the motion of an object.

Additional Connections to Nature of Engineering (Day 5)

To continue our discussions on the Nature of Engineering, we start by asking our students, “What is an engineer?” and “What do engineers do?” This helps us recognize our students’ background knowledge and any misconceptions they may have. After our discussion on engineers, we tell our students that we will be reading Rosie Revere Engineer (Beaty 2013), a book about an engineer named Rosie.

Student work on pulley designs

Student work on pulley designs

After reading, we ask students, “How was Rosie a good engineer?” Students share that Rosie didn’t give up, she was creative, and that when one thing didn’t work, she tried something new. To scaffold, we can also guide students to these ideas by asking, “How was Rosie creative?” or “Why was it OK that Rosie’s first design didn’t work?” In addition to helping solidify a student’s Nature of Engineering knowledge, this reading activity allows for a cross-curricular connection through the Common Core Reading Literature Standard 1 (With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text).

Once students have a good understanding of engineers and the Nature of Engineering, we connect to the pulley and domino activities the students have completed. We ask students, “How were you like an engineer during the pulley and domino activities?” Students recognize that like Rosie, they designed something to try and solve a problem. We ask, “Why was it helpful to work in a group?” and “What did you do when your design didn’t work?” Through effective questioning, students are able to connect the story of Rosie and real-life engineers to their in-class experiences.

Assessing the Engineering Activities (Day 6)

A developmentally appropriate way to effectively assess a classroom of kindergarteners’ knowledge on these topics would be through interviewing students one-on-one. However, our suggestion to streamline this process would be to have each student independently record themselves answering questions on a tablet. Previously, we have used the user-friendly app Seesaw to accomplish this during either an allotted science time or even a play-based center time. We suggest prerecording videos asking the following questions:

  • Tell me about your design. How did your design work?
  • How does your design help you push something? How does your design help you pull something?
  • How were you creative when you did the engineering activity? Why do you think engineers have to be creative in their work?

These questions are directly tied to K-PS2-2 and the Nature of Engineering. Having this summative assessment via a video recording can also serve as evidence for a student’s mastery of Common Core Speaking and Listening Standard 6 (Speak audibly, and express thoughts, feelings, and ideas clearly). We often assess these videos using a checklist.


Throughout the two tasks in this article, we used open-ended questions to help students connect their classroom experiences to ideas about forces and the Nature of Engineering. Such teacher questions are necessary to help young students attend to content objectives during guided play (Sliogeris and Almeida 2019). We provided many examples of scaffolded questions and potential student responses in this article, but it is also important to consider teacher responses to student ideas. Blake and Howitt (2012) wrote that the teachers’ role during guided play “includes actively listening to children’s ideas, providing guidance rather than answers, initiating and stimulating talk and modeling how to think things through in a logical sequence” (p. 297). A guided play approach to engineering activities provides children with an opportunity to indulge their curiosity about science and engineering and explore new ideas while also meeting standards.

Jesse Wilcox ( is an assistant professor of biology and science education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Caitlyn Potter is an undergraduate student at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Sarah Nolting is a first-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary in Indianola, Iowa. Sarah Voss is a doctoral student and adjunct professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Elyse Webb is a curriculum facilitator and former Kindergarten teacher at Dallas Center-Grimes Community School District in Grimes, Iowa.


Blake, E., and C. Howitt. 2012. Science in early learning centres: Satisfying curiosity, guided play or lost opportunities? In Issues and challenges in science education research pp. 281–299. Dordrecht: Springer.

Pleasants, J., and J.K. Olson. 2019. What is engineering? Elaborating the nature of engineering for K-12 education. Science Education 103 (1): 145–166.

Reuter, T., and M. Leuchter. 2020. Children’s concepts of gears and their promotion through play. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 58 (1): 69–94.

Sliogeris, M., and S.C. Almeida. 2019. Young children’s development of scientific knowledge through the combination of teacher-guided play and child-guided play. Research in Science Education 49 (6): 1569–1593.

Weisberg, D.S., et al. 2016. Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions in Psychological Science 25 (3): 177–182.

Engineering Interdisciplinary Elementary Kindergarten Grade K

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