Teacher Feature: Three-Year-Old Class Explores Wrecking Balls

This week’s Teacher Feature highlights a three-year-old class’ exploration of wrecking balls at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  The teachers, Amy Schoolcraft and Connie Giles, noticed a strong interest among the children in construction, so decided to start with demolition.  This lesson included play, art, observation, connection to objects, literacy, and problem solving.  Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from the teachers. 

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We noticed that our class was often playing games such as building with blocks, digging mounds of dirt, and finding inventive ways to create structures on the playground. So when thinking about what our next topic of study should be, it was an easy decision to explore construction. We hope that through this unit our class will have a deeper understanding of construction and demolition, including the various jobs, tools, and equipment needed. We also hope this unit will provide great opportunities to learn about safety, teamwork, and problem solving.

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On their way to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the class stopped several times to observe construction taking place around the National Mall.  Amy and Connie asked children guiding questions such as, “What is that?” and “Where do you think he’s going?” The children excitedly described the tall cherry picker and safety equipment they saw.

There is no better way to engage with a topic than to have first-hand experience with it. We were lucky to come across some big machines and workers on our way to our museum visit, and it was a great opportunity to get us thinking about construction vehicles. By taking the time to notice construction tools and machines on our walk, the kids were able to build context and gain a greater understanding of large machines as they observed how they move, who uses them, and for what kind of jobs big machines can be used.

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When the class arrived at the museum, Amy reminded the children of “The Three Little Pigs” story, which they had read the week before, to see how the pigs constructed their houses.  She continued, “But this week, we’re going to learn about what the Big Bad Wolf was doing – demolition!”  The class decided to try to push over the museum, just like the Big Bad Wolf knocked over the pigs houses.  Although they tried with more and more classmates, none of their efforts were successful.  As they were trying, some children commented, “It’s concrete. It’s too hard”; “My arms aren’t strong enough”; and “This is hard!”

The kids really enjoyed using a familiar story, “The Three Little Pigs”, to learn about construction materials in a previous lesson. By connecting our demolition lesson to the Big Bad Wolf, we hoped to capitalize on their love of the story as we built upon their understanding of construction while also creating a mental image of what demolition is.

As an introduction to demolition, I wanted them to understand how strong buildings are and why a large machine is necessary to knock a building down. What better way to gain a more concrete (pardon the pun) understanding of these concepts than to use our muscles and experiment in knocking a building down ourselves? This activity was an opportunity to work together, problem solve, have a little fun, and give them a chance to get extra energy out in a purposeful way.

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The class decided that knocking a building over with just their bodies was way too hard, and that in order to do it, strong tools are needed.  For example, as one child said, “Like a strong drill to knock it down!”  Amy explained that sometimes smaller tools work, but for big buildings, you need a very large tool, called a wrecking ball.  She brought out a toy construction truck as an example and said that the first thing they would need in order to build their wrecking ball is a boom – the long, strong part that allows a wrecking ball to swing.  The class decided to look around the museum for something they could use as a boom.

I wanted the class to be looking for a sculpture that looked like a wrecking crane’s boom. Boom was a new term for them and by exploring the parts of a toy, they were able to identify and label a boom in a very tangible way.

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After some searching, the children spotted Kenneth Snelson’s Needle Tower and felt that it was long and strong enough to be the boom for their wrecking ball.

I chose this sculpture because of its resemblance to a wrecking ball boom. Its size and shape helped to build the perspective of how large a wrecking ball crane is.  Also its safe and open location gave us an opportunity to explore the sculpture from different perspectives.

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After finding their boom, the class continued to build their pretend wrecking ball out of the truck, and noticed that they would need to attach a string or chain from the boom to the wrecking ball.

I wanted the kids to think critically about how the wrecking ball would work. By posing the problem of how to attach the wrecking ball to the boom, they began to generate ideas from using a string, to jump ropes, and eventually a chain.

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After discussing the parts of the wrecking ball using the toy, the children set to work creating a wrecking ball with their bodies and objects.  First, a child laid down on the ground to be the foundation of the truck.  Another child was at the front of the foundation acting as the person in the truck cab, controlling the movements of the boom and wrecking ball.  Two children acted as the boom by holding the wrecking ball attached to a pulley and rope. The goal was to knock over the building (made of recycled yogurt containers), and the children had to figure out how to move the wrecking ball in order to achieve this.

As a way to apply what we learned about the parts of a wrecking ball crane, we took turns acting out the parts of a wrecking ball working together to knock down a “building”. However, it felt like the activity was getting a bit chaotic and they appeared to be missing the idea that the ball needed to hit the building instead of their hands or feet. In hind sight, shortening the chain, simplifying each kid’s role, and adding a demonstration would have been helpful.

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To round out the lesson, Amy read Bam, Bam, Bam by Eve Merriam, which had simple words, and large images of a wrecking ball that connected to the lesson.  Then she used an iPad to show a video of a wrecking ball in action.  The children commented on how loud it was.  Amy pointed out how much dust and dirt rises during a demolition and how water is used to control it.

I chose this book because the rhythm and rhyme make it a fun and easy read but also because it had clear illustrations of the different parts of a wrecking ball and its job. The video we watched helped our class to see and hear a wrecking ball at work. It inspired a great discussion about some of the draw backs of using a wrecking ball, such as the noise and dust, which are two reasons why they are now rarely used on construction sites. In our classroom, we use technology to help bring a topic to life. Although I feel that teachers need to careful not to use technology as a substitute for hands-on experiences, it can be a great resource for exploring new ideas, initiating discussions, and building observations and insights about a topic.

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Before heading back to school, the children ran around the sculpture getting a closer look.  They noticed the silver color and the cables holding it up.  They even lay underneath the sculpture observing the shapes from a new perspective.

I hadn’t planned to let the kids explore the artwork on their own. I typically walk around the sculpture with the kids to point things out and encourage observation. However, with such an open and safe space, it was a perfect opportunity to allow them to experience the artwork in their own way. Before I knew it, they were pointing out the shapes, materials, and experimenting by finding new ways to look at the sculpture. It all happened very organically and the kids had a great time in the process. Our kids are comfortable around artwork and are aware of the rules, such as no wandering away or touching the art, so I did not worry about reviewing the rules with them before setting them loose. While they did a pretty good job, it would have been a good idea to review the rules anyway.

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Back on the playground, Amy set up an art activity where children had turns moving a “wrecking ball” and seeing how the paint hit the paper.

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The children were able to swing the wrecking ball in different ways and saw the result of their efforts on the paper.

I was excited about this art activity. I hadn’t tried it before but I found it on Pinterest and thought it would be a great way to make some “wrecking ball” art and experiment with the way a wrecking ball moves. We used a plastic water bottle with a squeeze glue lid and filed it with paint. We attached the bottle to a table using string and had the kids swing the bottle over a paper to create a design. Unfortunately, this project did not work as well as it had on Pinterest. The paint was too thick and instead of leaving a stream of paint creating a design, dots of paint ended up scattered on the page instead. All in all, the kids had a lot of fun and were still able to experiment in swinging the “wrecking ball”. A colleague suggested that a variation to try in the future would be attaching a paintbrush to swing back and forth instead. I am looking forward to giving it a try.


After learning more about demolition, the class continued their exploration of construction by exploring building materials, safety equipment, planning, tools, and more!  For more ideas, see our construction Pinterest board!