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The Science of Sledding

January 5, 2010
Times Observer
BY Julia GARSTECKI, supervisor at SUNY Fredonia

One of the greatest joys of parenthood is having fun with my children. As a former teacher, I cannot help but see everything as educational. Over the holidays, my sister flew in with her two children from Houston, Texas. Trey, my four year old nephew, had never seen snow before, and as you can imagine, to say he was excited is a drastic understatement! My nine year old niece tried to be a bit more reserved, but even Jessica had to succumb to the thrill of a new falling snow.

As any Yankee can tell you, there are some basic necessities before even getting outside to sled. We begin with our “First/then” statements. First go to the bathroom. Then put on snow pants. Truly experienced Yankee moms will lay out snow pants, mittens, coat, plastic grocery bags, boots etc. in sequential order and our children know the assembly line procedure. Watching these Texans struggling with mittens, hats and bags before boots was amusing, and I downright laughed out loud when Trey pulled off his jeans to put on his snow pants. It made me aware of how far my children and I had come in learning how to prepare for our winter experiences. The snow had remained untouched over night. Trey was so enthusiastic as he grabbed the sled. He hopped in, and as you can guess, went maybe two inches. Luckily he thought that was the best ride of his life and was laughing hysterically. Jessica tried a bit harder, and was a little more curious as to why it wasn’t working. A conversation about friction began. My sister explained that they had to create a path, and the more packed down the path became, the faster they would go. After a few moments of work, a perfect trail was created and they started sledding merrily along. There were a few hiccups along the way, like when Trey wouldn’t pull the rope in the sled. It made the sled go too slow, or not at all. This led us to designing experiments (or has the kids called it, fun).

Jennifer (my sister) discovered the blue plastic swimming pool from under our deck. Could she put all of the kids in it and push them down? The first attempt, no. Was it because the bottom of it was muddy? We washed off the mud and tried again. The second attempt, no. If we rub the bottom with wax paper? Still no! The bottom of the pool had ridges on it, which we decided was smart to keep kids from sliding on wet grass. Though this was safe for the summer, it was a killjoy in the winter.

Did the air filled tube sled faster than the plastic rectangle sleds? We thought it might, because I had described tubing at Peak-n-Peek. Not only was it slower, but as it got darker and colder it got slower because the tube got “mushier” as Jessica called it. Now I was struggling-is that constriction? What is the opposite of expansion? I know air expands as it gets warm…I thought. Now I wanted to look that question up. See? Sledding is educational! In the end the tube was much slower because you can jump on a plastic sled to get it moving, but you cannot jump on an air filled tube because it pops. Especially if you are a forty-year-old woman.

When all the cousins made it outside, more experiments ensued. As these Texans became confident, they became gutsy. And now they had two experienced sledders to work with. Jessica began talking about her science class and started using words like inclined plane and velocity. My son can and will build a ramp out of anything you can imagine. Four children, eight hands. Lots of ramps. Not only did they try a variety of inclines, the boys (four and five, remember) had to then determine if they went faster if they started closer to the ramp or farther from it. Should they push each other or get a running start? Should they all go together? Who went faster-Jessica was taller but heavier, Stephanie was only three and was lightest. Trey was the fastest runner and could get the best running start. Andrew, the quiet thinker knew how to go the farthest.

When they finally came inside, they were all abuzz with their afternoon. I was entertained as well, never realizing the scientific connection sledding had to offer. Not only had they talked about physical science, but the questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting had led to great discussions. Conclusions had been drawn, which created more questions and more excitement. That is a science teacher’s dream. The teamwork had also been fun to watch, as it bonded them and gave these cousins, who rarely see each other, a shared experience. Who knew one could learn so much from simply sledding!

Julia has been involved in education for over twelve years now. She has taught at both the elementary and high school level. While working as an adjunct professor at SUNY Fredonia she learned her son had severe speech and motor delays and decided to stay home to assist in his therapy. Julia currently works part time at SUNY Fredonia supervising student teachers and is completing her special education certification. She lives in Bemus Point with her husband and two children.

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