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Laws of Childhood Motion

January 1, 1999

Ask a 6-year-old to recite Newton’s laws of motion and the best you’re likely to get is theorizing about fig-filled cookies. But let the same kid loose amid swings, slides and seesaws and she’s bound to know what to do. Exhibit planners at Boston’s Museum of Science were counting on that when they put together their newest permanent exhibit, “Science in the Park.”

Science in the Park brings the playground indoors, pairing park toys with more traditional experimental setups that demonstrate the same physical principle. A seesaw, for example, sits next to a giant lever with a 225-kilogram weight hanging from one side of the fulcrum and climbing ropes hanging from the other-the notion of torque springs to life as kids see how much easier it is to lift the weight when they tug the rope farthest from the fulcrum. To demonstrate variation in surface friction, the museum has assembled an assortment of shoes; kids drag the shoes across different surfaces and read a built-in force meter to compare resistance.

By offering kids the chance to play with the equipment, the museum encourages them to be amateur scientists, experimenting with forces and motion to answer such questions as: What makes the fastest swing? Which shoes are best for running? The youngest children, says exhibit planner Susan Sunbury, can “feel the physics” as they run, jump, spin and swing. Slightly older kids can measure their movement or that of models using colorful distance markers and motion-sensor-triggered lights. If they’re ready to “get a little quantitative,” they can try to interpret the computer-generated graphs of force and velocity that are displayed at many of the activity sites.

The exhibit is part of a long-term strategy to transform the museum into an active center of “inquiry learning.” Vice President of Exhibits Larry Bell says he hopes this “science thinking skills approach” will be a model for other museums nationwide.

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