STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities are an important part of learning for kids, both in and out of school. They provide a grounding in subjects vital to children in modern society, where the use of technology and data are key parts of their daily lives and will likely be vital in the job market.
Today we’ll look at some STEM activities using paper that you can easily do at home, which can provide simple and enjoyable educational play. Since we’re using primarily paper, these STEM challenges are quick to set up and easy to do. Let’s explore!
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How Strong is Paper? Paper Column STEM Activity
Paper is bendable and pliable and can easily be torn, crumpled, or creased. Typically strength isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking about paper.
Can a piece of paper hold up a book? It absolutely can, with the right preparation. We’re going to roll and fold our paper into columns and see if it can support the weight of a book. We’ll try a few different shapes and see which design is the most effective.
Circle – This is the easiest, just roll the paper into a cylinder and tape it in place.
Triangle – With two folds, you can divide your paper into thirds and create a triangle pillar. Tape the seams to hold it together, and you’re all set.
Square – With three folds you can create a square-shaped column and secure the edges with tape.
Experiment with some other shapes like pentagons or hexagons.
Once you have your column, stand it upright. Now try to balance a book on it and see if it holds. Add more books until the column crumples under the weight. Which shape is the most stable? Which shape holds the most weight?
Paper Bridge STEM Challenge
This is a classic STEM challenge that will inspire the budding engineer in curious kids. We’re going to take the concepts we used in our paper columns and build on it (literally.)
You’ll Need a few items:
- 5 sheets of paper
- a ruler
- books (or other objects to test the bridge’s strength)
The challenge is to build a bridge using the paper, which typically involves rolling up some of the paper into pillars. What’s great about this particular activity is that at the first it seems impossible, but seems so simple after it’s done. You can have a competition to see who can build the strongest bridge, or improve upon your own ideas to see if you can come up with a design that can hold more weight than your last.
Set yourself some guidelines for the challenge, for instance:
- The bridge must by 11 inches long (or the length of once piece of paper.)
- At least 2 pieces of paper must sit on top of the pillars (that makes it a bridge!) This also sets a limit on the amount of paper that can be used for the support pillars.
- The height of the pillars, thus how high the books must be off the ground, is 6 inches.
For a bonus challenge, set a time limit before the books (or other objects) are to be placed on top.
If you’re building bridges with classmates or friends, see which bridge design holds the most books. However, it can just be about seeing if everyone can complete the task and build a structure that can hold at least 3 books.
Everyone has made a paper airplane at some stage in their lives; it’s a fun activity for any child and with just a little tweak we can learn about data analysis as well as problem-solving.
Kids can experiment with different designs and see how changes affect how their airplane flies. As they experiment, they’re getting into some engineering and design concepts and learning cause and effect.
They are also using critical thinking skills to analyze how their plane flew, and how they can fold it differently to change how it flies. Did it fly straight, dip down too early, turn to one side? How can the design be changed to correct the issue?
All you will need is paper. (You could allow scissors, tape or glue, but the classic version is simply folded paper.)
You can compete with friends or classmates, or just experiment with different designs to see:
- Which paper airplane that goes the furthest
- Which paper airplane that stays in the air the longest
- Which paper airplane flies the straightest
To make things a bit more interesting and scientific, we can add add some data analysis. Why not work out the average speed of the airplane? Simply measure the distance covered and the time it took, then divide the distance by time and you have a great new metric and kids having fun with math.
Our kids love to launch things into the air, and wanted to blast off a rocket during our paper projects. We found this was a quick STEM activity we could do using just paper, scissors, and a few pieces of tape.
- Roll a paper into a cylinder. (We wanted to launch ours, so we rolled it around a nerf-style launcher.)
- Tape the cylinder so it doesn’t unroll. If you’re going to try to launch your rocket, seal off one end of the paper cylinder with tape.
- Cut a circle, and make a straight cut from the outer edge to the center.
- Roll this into a cone or funnel shape. Size it to your rocket, as this will serve as the nose cone.
- Tape your nose cone in place.
- Cut a few triangles to use as fins, and tape them in place.
- Decorate your rocket with crayons or markers if you wish.
The rocket is fine on its own, though our kids were excited to see it launch. We were surprised to find that our paper rocket launched just as well as the foam rockets that came with the launcher.
If you’re interested in the launcher, this is the one we use. The kids love it, and the foam rockets that come with it sail much higher than I had anticipated. It also works great with DIY paper rockets!
Scratch Art Paper STEAM Activity
Here’s a simple STEAM activity with paper for the little ones that love to draw. In addition to a sheet of paper, you’ll need some crayons, black paint, and a few drops of dish soap as well.
Take a piece of white paper (index cards also work well because they are a bit thicker) and color it in using crayons. The key is a rainbow style effect where the whole card is covered solid with different colors. It’s important that black is not one of the colors used, because we are going to coat black over the top. You can do blocks or shapes of color, gradients, rainbows, scribbles, or whatever suits your creative fancy.
To make the black top covering, mix a couple of drops of liquid soap with black paint. The ratio should be roughly one drop of dish soap for each tablespoon of paint. Now cover your lovely colorful crayon drawing with a solid coat of black. It seems odd to cover something you may be proud of, though it’s part of the process; the final effect is worth it! Once dry, put on a second coat of black to ensure an even covering.
Once dry, you are ready to create your masterpiece. Find any object that can scratch off the black top coat; a toothpick, coin, paperclip, or chopstick may work. Using different scratching tools can provide a variety of shapes and textures. Simply begin to scratch off the black to reveal the colors underneath. Use your imagination and draw whatever you desire and you’ll see the beautiful rainbow of colors coming through.
Children love this exercise because they get to make all elements of the project and have fun creating some art.
This STEM activity is a little more complicated but is a really good exercise for testing your child’s observation skills and understanding water flow. The goal of the exercise is to create a paper mountain and guess where water would flow off the mountain ridges.
What you will need
- A piece of paper
- Washable (critical they are washable) marker pens
Now follow these instructions
- Scrunch up the paper into a ball, then slowly open it up but leaving several parts still scrunched, making your mountain ridges
- Next, color in the top of a couple of the ridges with the washable marker. Simply draw along the top of a ridge and make sure it has a really good covering of pen
- Now it’s prediction time. Let us imagine that a rainstorm has hit your mountain range, which way will the water fall down the mountain and where will the most water fall?
- Once you’ve written down your answers, test out your theory. Take the spoon and put a little water into it. Now gently tip the water onto the top of the ridge and watch. The washable pen will start to streak down the paper, showing you which direction the water is going
- Compare your results to your predictions. How did you do?
This exercise works with kids of most ages, as it’s both simple, fun and engaging for the slightly older learning mind.
Origami is the art of folding paper and takes a bit of planning and practice (and patience!) Origami is a great way to introduce kids to some simple engineering concepts and design process. Using simple folds, you can turn a piece of paper into something three dimensional.
We read the story book More-igami by Dori Kleber, in which a little boy fascinated with folding things learns how to create through folding paper. After reading the story, we did the exercise included in the back of the book, which shows how to fold a sheet of paper into a ladybug. This is a fairly simple origami craft and a great place to start.
Our son was curious, so we checked out a few other origami books, and founds some other designs online. Origami-instructions.com has some great starter pieces for kids, while you can also see some stunning and complex examples of what is possible with origami.
If you’ve got a little one in your life curious about folding, this is a great starter set that includes instructions and specially printed colored paper.
We were amazed by some of the creations on Mariano Zavala’s Youtube Channel. There are some incredibly complex designs with fold-along how to instructions. For a quick sample, check out this time-lapse spinosaurus!
Can You Fit Through a Piece of Paper?
We’ve seen variations on this STEM challenge; cutting a single sheet of paper so you can walk through it. It seems impossible, right? It’s a fun idea that we had to include here, and sparks some critical thinking. With a little thinking (and perhaps some trial and error) you can do it.
If you’re doing this experiment with a child, we’d recommend letting them try by themselves and see what they come up with to solve the problem. It’s okay to experiment and struggle a bit before figuring it out.
You can see how to step through a piece of paper here. It also works with an index card sized piece of paper!
Wrap Up – STEM Activities Using Paper
We shared a few STEM Challenges and projects with paper and some other simple materials. With little more than a few sheets of paper, you can do some fun activities for kids using items you already have at home requiring very little preparation.
Our kids had fun and learned a few lessons along the way.
Related Post: Awesome STEM Activities with Household Items