The kids unanimously agreed that they wanted one of their next unit studies to be about flying. As I began typing up all of the activities we’ve been doing, I realized that my post was getting super long, so I’ve once again separated our study into parts. This first part will encompass our study of the four forces of flight and kites. Our projects with hot air balloons, gliders, airplanes, and more will be coming soon.
I thought it would make the most sense to talk about the history of flight in chronological order. Thankfully, I stumbled on Explore Flight! by Anita Yasuda. The book starts with flight in nature–the inspiration for humans who wanted to fly–and ends with rockets. Included are “25 great projects”–though I had issue with a few, particularly the ornithopter project, which was really just a glider with some added feathers.
Of course, I can’t just use one book and leave well enough alone, so I did quite a bit of supplementing and elaborating by using additional materials.
Introduction to Flight: The Four Forces of Flight
To introduce flight, I started by reading the Introduction to Explore Flight! and doing the two corresponding activities. This section introduces the four forces of flight, but I wanted to talk about them a little more. NASA happens to have Four Forces of Flight lessons for K-4 and 5-8. These provide a little more detailed information about the four forces, as well as activities to help kids experience each one. The Smithsonian also has a website dedicated to flight; the introductory cartoon on their How Things Fly main page (click “Find Out” to start it) is a cute way of helping kids to understand how each of the four forces of flight affect an airplane. (The “Design an Airplane” feature at the end of that video will come in handy later!)
First Flyers: Kites
After understanding what inspired flight and what forces folks had to learn about, we read the first chapter of Yasuda’s book, “Dreaming of Flight.” This is followed by an “ornithopter” project which irritated me because it was actually a glider with feathers, which is not at all what DaVinci was proposing and just serves to confuse things. For a more accurate view, you can watch this 2010 video of a human-powered ornithopter, though obviously this successful effort was way more high-tech than DaVinci had envisioned. A Google image search turns up a lot of cool images to ponder, and the kids really liked looking at the variety of different ornithopters that folks have crafted or imagined.
The first successful flights–believe it or not–were actually via kite. Yasuda’s book briefly mentions them and includes instructions for one kite, but that’s it. Since kites were one of our motivations for learning about flight, I checked out a few books from the library, settling on some projects from Kites for Everyone: How To Make and Fly Them by Margaret Greger. This book contains a wide variety of kite projects using materials from fabric to garbage bags. At the end of her introduction, Greger gives a Kite Directory, which ranks the kites on a four-point difficulty scale. I used that–and the kites’ supply lists–to choose three for us to make. Definitely try one for yourself before starting it with kids! Though she does kite-making sessions in schools, her directions and illustrations were occasionally unclear, so it was best for me to figure things out on my own before involving my kids. Surprisingly, I found both the necessary dowel rods and the recommended string in the craft area of my local Walmart.
We made a Conover Eddy kite (very easy to make and fly, though ours needed tails), a Bag Snake Kite (fun, easy, and reasonably successful), and a Stapled Sled Kite (ours needed a cross-piece to stay open and a tail for steady flight). After a frustrating first attempt with only intermittent breaths of wind, we had a more successful and enjoyable second round. We’re pretty sure all three kites would have performed better with a bit steadier breeze, though.
Greger recommends taking some supplies with for emergency modifications and repairs, and I found this to be great advice. In fact, I’d recommend preemptively adding some reinforcing tape strips around any place that will experience stress–like where strings are attached–because we had a few bridles rip free, causing great distress to the kids. Have some spare tails, a scissors, tape, and extra string and you’ll be ready for anything!