How to Teach Newton's Laws of Motion in Elementary School

A Newton's cradle
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Isaac Newton's laws of motion are complex guidelines that explain the basic principles of motion as it occurs on Earth. Teachers can effectively introduce these topics early on, even though students will not understand the full implications until they are older. Introducing these laws early creates a framework on which future teachers can build to develop a complex understanding of the law of motion.

Introduce Isaac Newton to the class. Use a biographical text as an aid or one of a variety of available educational videos ranging in age appropriateness. Wonderful resources for teachers include the books “Isaac Newton and the Laws of Motion” by Andrea Gianopoulos and “Discovering Nature's Laws: A Story about Isaac Newton.”

Explain that one of Isaac Newton's most significant scientific works is his laws of motion. Tell students that these laws explain why things move the way they do.

Work with the class to develop a definition of the word motion. Write a definition on the board that the class agrees upon and then compare it to the dictionary definition. Ensure that the students fully understand what motion means, because that understanding is pivotal to their comprehension of the laws of motion.

Tell students that Isaac Newton had three laws of motion. Use a soft foam ball to demonstrate the first law.

Set the foam ball on a stationary surface. Ask the students why the ball is not moving. Once students decide that it is because of the flat surface, give the ball a shove. Ask students why the ball started moving. Discuss this until the students decide that the ball started moving because you pushed it.

Explain to students that Newton's first law of motion says that objects at rest stay at rest and objects in motion stay in motion unless an outside source affects it.

Move on to the second law of motion. Hold the foam ball and then let it drop to the ground. Ask students how fast they think the ball was going. Pick up the ball, throw it towards the ground and ask them how fast it was going. They will likely come up with a set of speeds higher than their first estimation. Discuss why the ball moved more quickly until they decide that the second ball was moving faster because you threw it. Explain that you applied force when you threw the ball.

Tell students that Isaac Newton's second law involved force. Explain that applying force to an object impacts its speed.

Ask a volunteer to help present the third law. Position yourself and the student volunteer at far ends of a table or desk. Place the ball on the table and give it a gentle shove. Once it gets to the volunteer, have him push it back to you. Ask students why the ball started moving in the opposite direction when it reached the end of the table. Discuss this until they reach the conclusion that it switched directions because the volunteer pushed it back.

Explain to students that Isaac Newton's third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the volunteer engaged in the action of stopping the ball, the ball responded with a reaction of rolling in the other direction.

Tell students that Newton's principles contain lots of math and calculations. Explain that what they have just seen is a demonstration of the basic laws of motion that he laid out.

Ask students to state the laws of motion and write their responses on the board.

Create posters that list the laws of motion and contain pictures illustrating each law, to cement student understanding. Place these posters around the room for students to reflect upon and admire.

Erin Schreiner is a freelance writer and teacher who holds a bachelor's degree from Bowling Green State University. She has been actively freelancing since 2008. Schreiner previously worked for a London-based freelance firm. Her work appears on eHow, and RedEnvelope. She currently teaches writing to middle school students in Ohio and works on her writing craft regularly.