In a house of 3 boys (4 if you include my husband), you can guess that Star Wars is pretty big in our house. Any given day you can hear my middle son saying “Shoon shoon!”, his sound for a light saber. And once my oldest gets home from school, the sounds get even louder as they both fight against the Dark Side. So for Christmas it came to no surprise when my oldest asked for EVERYTHING Star Wars. On Christmas day, he was elated to open his Star Wars Lego sets, and wanted to start working on them immediately. But when he opened his present from his aunt, he exploded with excitement! It was a Hot Wheels toy where he could control the Millennium Falcon, and send evil TIE Fighters off to their demise.
At first I had no idea what this toy did. But one look at it and of course my husband knew what it was all about. He quickly put it together, and showed my son what it could do.
When the toy turns on, the three TIE fighters move around in a circle. It is the job of the Millennium Falcon to hit the TIE fighters and send them off to destruction!
As I watched him play with his toy, I realized he was also learning about circular motion. Each time the Millennium Falcon hit a TIE Fighter, he watched as the TIE Fighter continued to move in a straight line. I had to point this out to my son! It was a perfect time to introduce him to tangential movement and circular motion (also known as centripetal motion). I asked him to stop the toy for a second so I could point something out to him.
How we taught our son about Circular Motion
Me: I want you to notice something when you make the Millennium Falcon hit one of the TIE Fighters. See if the TIE Fight continues to move in a circle, or if it does something else.
He turned his toy back on. As soon as he sent a TIE Fighter flying off he look at me and his dad and said “IT WENT IN A STRAIGHT LINE!“.
My husband and I smiled at each other.
Husband: Yep. Let me show you why.
Before the TIE Fighter is hit by the Millennium Falcon, it is moving in a circle, and the Millennium Falcon is moving in a straight line before it hits the TIE Fighter. So once the TIE Fighter is released from the clip holding it to the circular path, it continues to move in a straight line just like the Millennium Falcon. The TIE Fighter moves in a straight line tangent to the circle.
Son: What is tangent?
Husband: Its just a straight line that touches the circle in one spot.
Son: So the TIE Fighter moves in a straight line that touches the circle its moving in?
Husband: That’s right!
And he went back to playing.
I love it when my son’s toys help him explore engineering principles, like circular motion. We didn’t go into the details of circular motion and centripetal forces, but were able to introduce him to the concept. And as he continued to play with his toy, the concept was confirmed over and over again. I even caught him trying to hit other things with the TIE Fighters as each one flew off!
Looking for the toy my son is playing with? You can get it here!
For other great toys that teach kids about engineering, check out my other engineering toys posts!