Science & Fun of Chain Reactions

Dominoes, Popsicle Sticks & Rube Goldberg Machines
The Science (and Fun!) of Chain Reactions

There are lots of concepts that children learn that involve chain reactions. The interrelatedness of nature is, for example, entirely dependent on an intricately woven set of relationships. When one thing changes – the availability of a resource or the population of an animal, perhaps – everything else is affected. Human populations experience a similar phenomenon – such relationships are all around us! However, the abstract nature of interrelated relationships can be hard for kids to grasp. Explaining difficult concepts using metaphor or visual representations can he helpful, but what about something that kids can touch and see themselves – something that perfectly illustrates the idea of interrelatedness and chain reactions, but happens much more quickly than chain reactions do in nature or within human society? 


To help kids understand the concept of interrelatedness, try building your very own chain reactions at home! Building chains of dominoes is the classic DIY chain reaction, and the rectangular blocks – carefully placed – can offer hours of entertainment for patient, dedicated, and curious kids who have gentle hands and an interest in engineering. The beauty of dominoes is that they can appeal to kids of any age – kiddos as young as four can set up simple chains of the blocks, while older kids can spend hours creating elaborate chains.


A newer version of the DIY chain reaction idea involves weaving together popsicle sticks. Though the cobra weave may look complex, it’s entirely possible for kids to do it by themselves – so long as they remember to hold the end until they’re ready for it to pop! Not only is the popsicle stick weave slightly more exciting than a single line of dominoes (the sticks go flying as they come undone!), a second added bonus of the activity is that popsicle sticks are much cheaper to buy than dominoes are – making it easier to afford if you kids decide they want to make a chain that circles through your entire house.


Kids who are incredibly savvy at basic engineering can use the same sorts of skills required for these two activities and apply them to something much bigger: a Rube Goldberg machine! Such machines can be built to make simple, everyday tasks more complex in a fascinating way, or can be created just for the sake of watching a good chain reaction. Rube Goldberg machines require a certain type of creativity in order to create, and the possibilities are endless.

All of these activities can easily bloom from a simple how-to session into a full day of experimentation, and they can help to fill up a chilly, snowy day when your family doesn’t want to leave the house. If your kids become particularly enamored with the idea of building chain reactions, be sure to check out the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center’s Annual Domino Toppling Extravaganza (every February) which brings skilled domino stackers to the museum for an epic display of chain reactions. The 2011 stack included nearly 21,000 dominoes, as well as some cobra weave sticks and elements inspired by Rube Goldberg machines!

[Photo credit: (cc) John Watson]

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