The Physical World: Rainsticks and stoves

This week my younger group (covering the KS1 syllabus) made home-made instruments. This is what our craft table looked like after the activity:

craft table

We started off with a recap about sound, given that most of the children hadn’t taken part in last term’s class. One girl played her violin for us and my 10 year old son demonstrated his doumbek (a middle-Eastern drum). He pointed out to the other children that the sound was far better if you angle the drum so air can move out of the base. All the children had a turn on the doumbek if they wanted to.

I told the children that all sound is caused by vibrations. We tried plucking a rubber band, and I stretched it two different ways to show that the same band stretched longer makes a higher note. I got out the copper pipes for my glockenspiel and we had a go at hitting them. To get a good resonance you have to suspend the pipe where the nodes are. (Nodes are stationary points in a wave, i.e. they do not move up or down.)

We briefly talked about the vibration making the air molecules move and then reaching our ears. I also said that the amplitude of the vibration determines how loud or quiet the sound is. However, the amplitude comment was mostly directed at one of the mums so I am not sure whether any of the children absorbed this information.

I then got out my box of ‘junk’ and showed the children the rainstick I had made by knocking nails into a Pringles tube and adding some popcorn kernels. All the children had loads of fun hitting nails into their tubes (wearing suitable safety gear of course). I ran out of popcorn and so I had to give them rice as well.

This is a picture of the inside of my rainstick, with the nails making a spiral pattern.

spiral nails inside tube

Some children made other ‘instruments’ with the materials I had provided. However, I think once I brought out my rainsticks, all of them wanted to use the nails, so the instruments weren’t as diverse as I had hoped.

If repeating this class, I would organise it differently. I think I would start off with the box of junk, provide a larger number of materials and a wider range of materials, and challenge the children to find different ways of making a noise with the same object. This could lead into a discussion about how we make music (striking, blowing, scraping, shaking). I would leave the rest of the class far more open and see what instruments the children came up with.

I might not introduce my rainsticks until half-way through so that it was just one option for making an instrument and the children didn’t feel they had to follow my lead. Or perhaps I shouldn’t show them my instrument at all. If we did make rainsticks, I would provide several different types of filling, some small like rice and some much larger, like shells. Then the children could see whether the type of filling made a difference, and decide which kind they wanted to use.

When I am further ahead with my copper-pipe glockenspiel it would be good to get the children to organise the pipes in order of pitch. This would make it absolutely obvious that pitch is related to the length of the pipe (and we can extend to other instruments too).

I also forgot about two activities I had planned – one to get the children to do a kind of ‘mexican wave’ to illustrate vibrations, the other was a small discussion about our larynxes (voice boxes).

Nevertheless, I feel happy with this class as I think all the children enjoyed themselves and learned something – whether about the nature of sound or the skill involved in hammering in nails! I know for certain that one child went home and subsequently experimented with rice and other household items all over the place, and my 3 year old (who sits in on the classes) had plenty of fun decorating herself with sticky circles (which I had provided for decorating the rainsticks).

The older group (covering the KS2 syllabus) this week consisted simply of my 10 yo son mentioned above. But we finally got the chance to make our own soda-can stoves. We went outside to fill them with methylated spirits and try to light them.


These stoves are really easy to make and use everyday materials. Nevertheless we identified two main problems with actually using them: the wind blows them out pretty quickly; and you need something to balance a pot on if you actually want to use them to heat up any food. But my son was so keyed up by just making the stove that he vowed to find the next few days addressing the other design problems. I think this will cover some of the ‘Working Technologically’ side of the syllabus as well!


My two middle sons also had fun making a mini-camp-fire with the spent matches:

mini camp-fire


I found the rainstick activity on the Satisfied Mind website.

I am following the instructions on to make my copper pipe glockenspiel but there are other instructions all around the internet.

The soda can stove instructions were also on

The Physical World

Playground sessions, squidgy stress toys, junk instruments and survival stoves. I had so much fun stuff planned for this term. It ended up being quite disjointed because of my house move and various illnesses, but I can build on that for next term, and re-use some of the material with new groups.

I was excited about covering The Physical World with outdoor sessions. After all, how better to learn about forces, sound and light than playing outside? However, a combination of factors meant that the number of sessions was quite low. I found it was hard to do targeted work in 45 mins with the younger group when they just wanted to make the most of (a) being together and (b) the wonderful opportunity afforded by being in a playground, next to the sea and with a rock face to climb!!

North Harbour Reserve, in Balgowlah. Photo from

My youngest son experienced gravity and the importance of friction first hand, when he slipped on a rock and fell from higher than his own height onto the ground. He had plenty of scrapes and bruises to show for that, but luckily nothing was fractured or broken.

Overall, the younger group (Key Stage 1 in Australia, roughly ages 5 to 7) had one outdoor session thinking about forces, and we squeezed in a bit of discussion about light sources too. We had an indoor class making stress toys, paper aeroplanes and paper helicopters (to explore the effect of unbalanced forces on different materials). The next class was very small, but we covered the basics of sound and vibrations in a very small class. I am making my own copper pipe glockenspiel and I am hoping that each child will design and make their own musical instrument next term. There are some links for homemade instruments here:

The older group (Key Stage 2, aged 8 to 10) has been thin on the ground but we used the outdoor session to introduce Newton’s Laws of Motion (demonstrated in the video below using rocket sleds on an ice rink).

I think if I were running this class again, I would devote more time to discussions of energy transfer, and definitions of energy and power. However, we can cover that when we next meet the concepts.

The second class was inside, finding out about heat and insulation by looking at ice cubes melting. We put them in identical cardboard boxes, some insulated with particular materials, placed them in front of the fire and checked how much they had melted after each 5 minutes. I tried to introduce them to good experiment design, particularly the idea of a ‘fair test’ and use of what scientists call a ‘control’. I think my middle son was far too excited to just get the ice cubes melting. So for example, we didn’t start off all the boxes at the same time. If they were interested, we could repeat the ice-cube experiment again but try to design it better. However, I think we have already moved on to designing and making stoves out of household equipment.

I found some great instructions for DIY stoves (particularly on American-based survival type websites). A couple are given below, but there are also plenty of videos on YouTube which you could follow.I think just working together with a hands-on activity like this could lead to good discussions about types of fuel, insulation, global warming, recycling, self-sufficiency etc. This will also cover some of the Technology requirements of the syllabus, partly due to the skills required, but also in discussing the different designs and what changes we might use.

Can stove on
#10 can rocket stove on

My eldest son has been covering the Key Stage 3 syllabus on his own but I hope that next year we can arrange some classes with other children to cover the high school requirements.