This weekend, Carter's Steam Fair came to our lovely local park, and we spent an exciting couple of hours there on Sunday afternoon. Carter's is always a huge hit with my two children. Personally, I love the traditional-looking rides, the bright retro-colours and the 1950s music; the vintage feel of whole thing ticks all my boxes. Bud and Daisy, however, are much more taken with choosing how to spend their £10.00 as quickly as they can, and seeing how many extra times I'll allow them to go on the dodg'ems after all their money's been spent.
As a teacher with a science background I can't help but take the chance to chat with my children about the physics of the funfair whenever we're there. I do try to let them enjoy the super-swirling, scream-inducing, tacky-prize-obtaining opportunities as well; I promise I don't get too nerdy and spoil the fun. But being at an old-fashioned fair such as Carter's really does provide a fantastic excuse to talk about some real-life applications of the laws of physics and mechanics and, of course, to experience them in brilliant, hair-raising style.
If Carter's, or a similar type of traditional fair, comes to your town - try talking with your kids about the science behind the rides while you take a look around. You don't need to know much yourself; just by asking the right kinds of questions, you'll be getting them thinking about the physics behind the fun, and this will definitely fire-up their enthusiasm for scientific enquiry. And, after they've been on the rides, they'll be able to tell you, first-hand, about the effects of physics on their bodies. My son, for example, says he never wants to go on the chair-swing ride again - he hates the spinning-out feeling apparently (no future as an astronaut then) - whereas, my daughter absolutely loves it; NASA, here she comes! Buddy was more at home behind the wheel, displaying a natural instinct and unbridled joy on the dodg'ems; judging when to avoid, steer into or anticipate the inevitable collisions of other cars. Daisy, not driving and therefore with no control over what happened to the car, was hilariously surprised by practically every bump; she screamed and whooped nearly the whole time.
Here are a few questions you could ask your children when you're at an old-fashioned funfair:
1. Take a close look at any steam-powered engines working the rides:
- What's making the steam?
- How does the steam make the ride move?
- What fuel is heating the water to make the steam?
2. Try the person-powered swing-boats:
- What did the fairground attendant have to do to help us get on the swing without it moving?
- Look up! Why do we have to hold each other's ropes - and not our own?
- How do we make our swing go higher and higher?
3. Experience the centrifugal force on the chair-swing ride:
- What happened to us, and our chairs, as the ride started spinning?
- Why did our chairs keep moving up and out from the centre of the ride?
- What does it feel like to be on the ride?
4. Experience collision/motion physics on the dodg'ems:
- What happened to your car when you went into the back of another?
- Was it different to when someone when into the back of you?
- What happened to your car when there was a side-by-side collision?
- Why did that man's hat fall off when his car collided with another?
At home, we've made all kinds of mini-fairground rides - from up-turning and spinning an umbrella as a merry-go-round for small soft toys and whizzing the salad-spinner to give others a centrifugal-force-experience, to demonstrating the exciting effects of collision on friction-free motion using a tray covered with a layer of ice and a few matchbox toy cars.
I'd love to know what else we could try. Do leave any ideas in the comments box.
You can find details about other family-friendly funfair physics facts and investigations here: