Wind-Up Toys, Part 2: Can I Design an Investigation?

We have spent time exploring wind-up toys, making predictions about and observing how each one moves. Now, can you design an investigation? First, you will choose one thing to test. Remember, everything else has to stay the same (like how many times you wind it up). We want to be sure that this is a fair test.

You will:

  • Ask a testable question.
  • Choose the toys you will use to test your question.
  • Say what variable you will test (like the time, the distance or the direction it goes).
  • Make a prediction: What do you think will happen? Use what you have already learned to make your predictions.
  • With your partner, try out each toy and observe it carefully.
  • Write your results: What did each toy do?
  • Use your results to make a conclusion. Try to use some science and math words ("energy," "speed," "distance," "seconds," "inches," "faster/slower," "ramp," etc.).
Time Required for the Task: 

Approximately 60–90 minutes (over one or two consecutive days).

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Additional Disciplinary Core Ideas Addressed

Crosscutting Concepts

  • Cause and Effect
  • Patterns
  • Structure and Function
  • Systems and System Models

Science and Engineering Practices

Task Write Up

Big Ideas and Unifying Concepts: 
Physical Science Concepts: 
Inquiry Process Skills: 
Mathematics Concepts: 

Suggested materials

You need a variety of wind-up toys with different motion features and speeds of movement. I discovered that it was hard to find wind-up toys in the springtime (they are rare). It is best to look for them during holiday shopping time from November through January. I also hunt at garage sales and flea markets over the summer to keep the cost under $3.00 apiece.

It would be ideal to have at least one toy per child to start with, so children can exchange and easily try out three different toys during a 60-minute activity, or to share with partners. (I started with 16.) I also encouraged the children to bring in wind-up toys to share and explore for our unit. I did have a few rules for handling the toys: do not wind more than five turns; do place the toy gently on any hard surface; if the toy is not the teacher’s, ask the owner first to borrow it; and return toys gently to the tub when done.

Students will also need a recording sheet. I use a large chart to walk students through how to respond on their recording sheets. This is available throughout the activity to help students with spelling and to provide appropriate examples for them.


My first graders spent about two weeks exploring a collection of wind-up toys by watching how they move. (See "Wind-Up Toys, Part 1: What Can I Learn From Observing?")

In the toy collection, there were two minirobots, two dinosaurs, a turtle, a rhino, a praying mantis, two ladybugs, two penguins, a kangaroo and a dog. The children were encouraged to bring wind-up toys from home to include in our investigations. This investigation broadened the students’ experiences observing motion and forces, as well as their understanding of our unit on simple machines. The students also used their prior knowledge of how energy is released in different ways by making predictions about how the wind-up toys would react on different surfaces, such as tile floor, rug or wooden ramp.

Instructional Stages
What the Task Accomplishes

This series of investigation tasks, which involved a collection of wind-up toys that work by turning a knob, was very engaging for my first graders. (It also helps to develop fine motor skills.) This introduces the concept of energy stored in a spring, which is wound by a key and then released. The children are exploring and observing these familiar toys to expand their understanding of stored, kinetic and mechanical energy, as well as energy transference and the function of simple machines and mechanical systems.

This investigation enables students to examine how the toys work on different surfaces (you can introduce the term friction), to measure time and distances traveled, to observe paths of the toys (straight, turning, looping), predict and observe speed, and to calculate the time from starting to stopping. There are also variables to control (such as the number of winds to give each toy, where it is placed before it is released, etc.) to ensure fair testing.

How the Student Will Investigate

Previous open-ended investigations encouraged students to predict, observe and test a variety of wind-up toys. (See the task "Wind-Up Toys, Part 1: What Can I Learn From Observing?" for more details.)

This culminating inquiry task involved having each child design a fair testing situation for three wind-up toys of his/her choice. Children worked with partners in order to share the limited number of wind-up toys and to help each other with the observations, measuring and recording. They were asked to base their investigations on the information they had gathered and observed over the previous two weeks or on questions that had stimulated new ideas during the unit.

The recording sheet was started and explained to the whole group before starting the fair testing investigation. Step 1 asked the essential question (the testable question). We generated several possible questions, and I wrote them on a chart for students to refer to later. Step 2 asked for a sketch and labels for the three toys to be investigated. (You may wish to set a time limit on choosing these toys and moving on.) Step 3 asked for one variable to be looked at during the investigation. (Again, we reviewed the list of variable we had observed during the prior investigations.) Step 4 asked for a prediction of the three toys to fit the question. (Remind students to talk about this with their partners before they decide what to write.) Step 5 demonstrated the recording of the results. Step 6 encouraged any conclusions/reflections.

Two adults were available to ask questions, assist in the flow of the investigation and help with spelling if children needed or wanted it. (This is a great classroom activity for parent volunteers or older learning partners, fourth graders and older, to assist with.) It is important for first graders not to feel “bogged down” with investigations that require more steps in recording than they are used to. You want scientific investigations to be engaging and successful for all levels of learners.

Interdisciplinary Links and Extensions

An excellent science resource book for related investigation is Wind-Ups (Toy Box Science), by Chris Ollerenshaw and Pat Triggs. Other qualities of toy construction and motion that can be investigated are stretching, bouncing, bending, squeezing, twisting, spinning, and popping. Playground toys could be investigated for motion as well.

Social Studies
Children can have fun making a comparison of how the motion of “antique” tools and household objects used mechanical energy to work. Perhaps there is an antique dealer in your area who could visit the classroom – or a grandparent.

Language Arts
You could integrate a book related to the movie Toy Story or read an easier version of The Nutcracker Suite. Both would lend themselves to personal and fanciful writing activities for children. Have children write stories about their own toys or a toy with magical qualities they would like to have.

Creative movement could be integrated in this unit by having the children portray the toys from The Nutcracker Suite. They could invent cooperative skits to demonstrate their own stories in order to meet standards for retelling, improvisation for drama/arts and comprehension of scientific concepts about motion. Children could work with partners to write and sing new jump-rope jingles to try out with their jump ropes.

Problem-solving extensions could be created for odd/even concepts. (For example: You have 5 shelves and want to organize your toys (beach balls, stuffed animals, bags of marbles, blocks and board games). There are more shelves that have odd numbers of toys than have even numbers. Each shelf holds from 3 to 9 toys. Organize your shelves and label the toys and numbers you used.)

Teaching Tips and Guiding Questions

As the children engage in exploration and investigations, there are many open-ended questions that can guide their thinking, build understanding and create risk taking.

Some of the questions that can be asked are:

  • What is your toy doing? Which direction is it moving?
  • Can you describe how fast it is going compared to another toy?
  • Does it move the same way each time? Try it at least three times to see.
  • If we changed one variable, what might your toy do differently? (Remind students that if we changed two or more variables at the same time, it would not be a fair test.)
  • How would you describe what motion is?
  • What tools at school or at home demonstrate a similar motion?
  • How does the number of windings affect the way the toy moves or the distance it travels?
  • Do all wind-up toys have the same path pattern? How do we sort or classify their movements?
  • How well does each toy work on different surfaces?
  • Why do some toys travel farther than others?
  • What materials would you use to make your wind-up toy go uphill or downhill? What might happen? What did happen?
  • Where does your toy get the energy to move?
  • Where do you get the energy that moves your body?
  • What do you think is making this toy move like that?
  • How long does it take each toy to cover the same distance?
Concepts to be Assessed

(Unifying concepts/big ideas and science concepts to be assessed using the Science Exemplars Rubric under the criterion: Science Concepts and Related Content)

Physical Science – Properties of Matter: Students observe and compare physical properties of matter.

Physical Science – Motion and Forces: Students apply forces to objects (gravity, inertia, friction, push and pull) and observe the objects in motion. Students see that an unbalanced force acting on an object changes its speed or path of motion or both. Students use the terms motion, energy, faster/slower, etc. appropriately.

Scientific Method: Students determine the patterns and/or which kinds of change are happening by making a graph or table of measurements (change and constancy). Students observe that how a model works after changes are made to it may suggest how the real thing would work. Students choose a useful model to explore concepts (models) as well as observe and explain reactions when variables are controlled (cause and effect). Using data and prior knowledge, students describe cause-effect relationships with some justification.

Design Technology – Use of Tools: Students observe that tools are invented to extend the ability of people (to make things, to move things, to shape materials).

Design Technology – Design Constraints and Advantages: Students observe that some materials are better than others, depending on the task and characteristics of the materials.

Mathematics: Students use precise measurements and compare attributes or effects. Students collect, organize and analyze data and use graphs, tables and representations appropriately.

Possible Solutions

This was the first time I had asked my first graders to design their own investigation based on what they had learned from the previous two weeks of observations with the wind-up toys. This is an example of what might be expected from young children, after they have expanded scientific/mathematical skills, scientific concepts, problem-solving strategies, communication skills, risk-taking and confidence in themselves as scientific investigators.

Wind-up toys work by turning a knob or key. The toys then operate on the energy that is stored in a spring. Take apart a toy to see how it works, if you have a spare. Ask the children what changes they see when it runs down. Even though the children are working with partners to share the wind-up toys, each child was asked to complete a recording sheet that demonstrated five to six steps in the designing of an individual wind-up toy investigation.

Step 1: Essential question
Step 2: Drawing and labeling of three toys used
Step 3: One variable to look at
Step 4: Prediction(s)
Step 5: Results
Step 6: Conclusion(s)

Note: It might help to know the following data about each wind-up toy from the collection that we used. The speed and time descriptions were based on earlier observations after all the toys had been wound five times by an adult.

Toy Speed Path Time
Ladybug Slow Circle 13 seconds
Penguin Slow Zigzag 1 minute
Turtle Medium Straight 10 seconds
Dinosaur Slow Straight 30 seconds
Praying mantis Fast Straight 32 seconds
Robot Slow Straight 28 seconds
Dog Fast Straight 2 seconds
Kangaroo Fast Straight/Flips 15 seconds
Rhino Fast Zigzag 15 seconds
General Assessment Notes

In the task "Wind-Up Toys, Part 1: What Can I Learn From Observing?" benchmarks were assessed by looking to see (1) if the question was clearly stated and that the child chose the same three toys for the prediction and recording of results, (2) if the child picked one variable to look for during each wind-up test and if the predictions and results were close and accurate and (3) if the child made at least one accurate conclusion at this age level. It is also important to look for children's use of prior knowledge and earlier information gathered from earlier their wind-up toy explorations.

Student Anchor Papers & Task-Specific Assessment Notes

The student’s solution is lacking in some of the explanations and in accurate observations, but the task is completed. There is a scientific question to test. The prediction is not organized but is clear. The results are labeled, but the results of some tests are erroneous (e.g., the rhino moves fast). This makes the conclusion not completely accurate. No tool (clock) is used for data collection. Conclusions are vague and general, lacking any comparison (all are “slow”). The student is able to gather and use most of the data which demonstrates understanding and reasoning in designing the task.


The student’s solution is lacking in appropriate details, and the strategies lack scientific reasoning. There is a good scientific question. The variable being looked at is “time,” and data are recorded using appropriate tools. The student does not use prior knowledge to predict when the toys would stop. All the toys ran out in less than one minute, and the student predicted eight minutes. This shows that the student does not understand the concept of time in making the prediction. There is some evidence of understanding and use of data because the student concluded that the toys ran out of energy quickly.


The student designs a task that investigates using a ramp, which had not been modeled during the previous two weeks. This shows a connection to earlier investigations with our cars and ramps unit. The student’s questions match the variable and tool that are selected. The prediction is based on prior experiences with the wind-up toys. The conclusions are stated through dictated sentences and provide evidence of more complex thinking and reasoning, as well as an effective use of tools to test the question. The student’s solution could have been strengthened by showing a ramp in the observations/drawing.


The student asks a different question to design the investigation. The student wants to test the direction the toy would go in. (Refer to the chart of statistics.) The predictions are clear; the same three toys are tested. The descriptions are accurate and detailed. The dictated sentences provide evidence of using prior knowledge and scientific reasoning. The conclusions support excellent observations about how the toys are made and work differently. The student shows evidence of noticing details and function.

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