How to Teach Physics in the Elementary Years

Teaching Physics in the Elementary Grades

Expand your homeschool science curriculum and learn how to teach physics at the elementary level!

Teaching Physics

Physics, my dear, isn’t just for high school and college. This pure science (more on that later) can be amazingly fun and enjoyable, not to mention an educationally rich addition to your elementary curriculum. And it’s way easier than you might think!

Physics is, “[t]he branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy,” or stuff and how it moves. And children are actually very knowledgeable on this topic already. We have seen this since the day our toddlers discovered the joy of dropping things on the floor from their highchair.

Physics is a pure science, which is a science based on deductions from demonstrated truths. Think chemistry, biology, astrophysics, even math. The other category of sciences is applied science in which pure sciences are put to practical applications. Think engineering, coding, and information technology. Because applied sciences are derived from pure sciences, it is my personal preference to teach pure sciences first – physics being my absolute favorite! Here’s how to teach physics so that your children will love it!

How to Teach Physics – Begin Methodically

The best way to begin any course of scientific study is by teaching children how to “do science.” The scientific method – the process by which scientists have gained knowledge of our natural world since the 17th century – is, in my humble opinion, the most important bit of science information you can teach. With these steps, your child can craft experiments, find answers to their questions, and reject faulty hypotheses with confidence in any field of natural science.

So here are the steps:

  1. Question – Start with something you want to learn more about. Children are great at this! It all begins by asking a question. Why does it do that? What would happen if . . . ?
  2. Research – Gather as much information about the topic as possible. What do you already know about it? What can you readily find out?
  3. Hypothesize – Make an educated guess about the answer to your question based on what you know so far.
  4. Experiment – The fun part! Design an experiment to test your hypothesis.
  5. Observe – Carefully and neutrally observe the results of your experiment and record the data.
  6. Analyze – Look at the information you gathered. Does it support your hypothesis or not? Does it fully answer your question, or does it lead to more questions?
  7. Conclusion / Question (again) – Summarize what you learned. If your question wasn’t answered (or if you now have new questions) repeat the process. This is how science works!

An example of what this looks like in elementary physics would be proposing the question, “Do objects of different weights fall at different speeds?” and then following the steps above.

The scientific method provides practice in critical thinking, careful observation and documentation, and reasoned analysis.

How to Teach Physics Through Movement

Now that you’ve reviewed how to do science, it’s time to dig into some real physics.

Newton’s Laws of Motion

You don’t have to invest in a fancy curriculum or physics set to do this. You can give your kids (and yourself) a fantastic introduction to the fundamentals of physics by playing around with Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. All you need is the internet and a bunch of items you probably already have around your house.

Here they are in their most basic forms:

Law #1: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.

Law #2: When a constant force acts on a massive body, it causes it to accelerate, i.e., to change its velocity, at a constant rate.

Law #3: For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

A quick Google, Pinterest, or YouTube search will give you a variety of very cool (and easy) experiments to illustrate these three Laws and spark scientific creativity. Marbles, balls, bikes, and toy cars become scientific apparatus.

These Laws are so much fun because they are so relatable to children. Every kid knows what happens when they ride their bike fast and then slam on the brakes or ride in the car when it makes a turn. Now, they will understand why and how those forces apply to the entire universe!

The Importance of Words When Teaching Physics

In the elementary years when you’re exploring any knowledge-based subject (science, history, and the like), one of your main goals should be to just familiarize your child with the vocabulary. Notice I didn’t say master the vocabulary, but just create those necessary “hooks” in their mind on which they will later “hang” the knowledge they accumulate over time.

For physics, just a few of the more frequently encountered words are:

  • force
  • mass
  • weight
  • volume
  • density
  • buoyancy
  • speed
  • velocity
  • acceleration
  • gravity
  • load
  • effort
  • work
  • friction

When you come across one of them, take the opportunity to look it up. Be sure to look up the scientific definitionWork, for example, has a very different scientific definition than the one we typically use. You can have your child copy the definition, draw a picture of what it means, or just talk about it together. But the important part is that you’re exploring these concepts and attaching something tangible (a cause and effect that they are observing with real-life objects) to labels (the words that explain what they’re seeing).

Don’t push for them to remember all the definitions. That’s not the point. Your child may not remember the definitions of mass and weight right away. But when they encounter them later on, they will likely remember that they’ve heard of them before and that there is a difference between them.

Other Great Physics Topics to Explore

I think Newton’s Laws are such a great place to start because they are already so familiar and accessible to children — the perfect mix of taking things they know and adding new knowledge to it. But, of course, there are many other fascinating physics adventures to go on. Here are a few more ideas to get you started:

  • Density and buoyancy – What makes something float? Why can some heavy things float while lighter things sink?
  • Simple machines – How do things like ramps, levers, and pulleys help us do things? How many of these machines can you find around the house? (Hint: It’s surprising! Did you know a doorknob is a wheel and axle and a screw is a wedge and an inclined plane?)
  • Aerodynamics – How does air create friction and resistance? What effects does this have on objects that fall or move through the atmosphere?
  • Energy and waves – How does sound travel? How does amplification work?
  • Magnetism – How do magnets work? Why do they have “poles”? Why is the Earth a giant magnet?
  • Electricity – Why does electricity start with atoms? Which materials are conductors and which are not? How are electricity and magnetism related?
  • Relativity – The pièce de résistance of physics! If you have never dug into Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the concept of spacetime, what would happen if you fell into a black hole or the fascinating properties of the speed of light, this is an amazing educational journey to go on with your child. Because so much of this topic is theoretical or simply not observable in home conditions, it is better suited to children in the upper elementary years who have already had an introduction to gravity, light, and the like. There are some amazing YouTube videos that explain these mind-blowing concepts with simple examples. For example, search for “Einstein train thought experiment.”

I enthusiastically encourage you to jump into physics with your young children, even if you have never really explored the topic yourself. There is so much here for discovery and discussion. And, of all the sciences, I think it is the easiest to teach really well with no curriculum. Again, the internet and household objects will take you far. This is an opportunity for homeschooling at its finest–learning and exploring together with your children.

Vida Mercer

About the author

Vida is a second-generation homeschooler, writer, editor, and homeschool consultant. She founded Mercer Homeschooling, which works to redefine how people think of education and help families craft a personal homeschooling philosophy and style that meets their unique needs.

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