Science & Fun of Chain Reactions

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Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

There are lots of concepts that children learn that involve chain reactions. The interrelatedness of nature is 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 challenging for kids to grasp. Explaining complex concepts using metaphor or visual representations can be 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? 


Building chains of dominoes is the classic DIY chain reaction. 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. When carefully placed, the rectangular blocks can offer hours of entertainment for patient, dedicated, and curious kids who have gentle hands and an interest in engineering or art. To help kids understand the concept of interrelatedness, try building your very own chain reactions at home!


A different version of the DIY chain reaction idea involves weaving together popsicle sticks. Though the cobra weave may look complex, kids can 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, but they are also more affordable for more extensive chain reaction experiments.


Kids inspired by basic engineering can use a similar set of skills to apply to a much more complex chain reaction arrangement inspired by Rube Goldberg! You may be familiar with the concept of a “Rube Goldberg Machine,” a complex machine designed to accomplish a straightforward task indirectly. These clever devices use simple mechanical parts to work together, creating a chain reaction. You might think of a ball that rolls down a ramp, which lands in a cup of water, which turns a wheel, which winds a spool of thread, which somehow lights a candle after six more steps. These machines are after Rube Goldberg, a 20th-century cartoonist who became famous for depicting these contraptions in his comics. One such example was “Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin.”

CBS Sunday Morning shared, “The popular board game Mousetrap is an example of a Rube Goldberg-inspired machine, a contraption that contains elaborate mechanisms with a vast array of moving parts to perform a simple function. Check out the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, where less is never more.” 

Kids can build these machines to make simple, everyday tasks more complicated and fascinating. They require a particular type of creativity to develop and have endless possibilities.

These STE(A)M-based activities can easily bloom from a simple how-to session into a full day of experimentation with lesson plans. 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, which brings skilled domino stackers to the museum for an epic display of chain reactions. 

[Photo credit: (cc) Br. Jeffrey U. Pioquinto, SJ]

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