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Pulley Play

If you can find a bag, basket or bucket (really, any sturdy container with handles), some rope and a tree with a sideways limb, you can create a simple pulley and inspire hours, even days of muscle and brain boosting play. If any of that is hard to come by, scroll on for other ways to activate muscles and joints!).

Do not be misled by how simple this one is to set up. Pulleys are engaging! First, they require kids to use their muscles and joints, activating that hidden sense called proprioception.

Pulleys are also super STEM learning tools. There are endless ways to experiment with pulleys. We'll offer a handful of ideas here, but if you use inquiry together, you'll undoubtedly invent many more. Invite others to play as well, and your child will get the chance to work together with other kids to experiment and share the pulley—marvelous opportunities to develop collaboration and problem solving skills too. 

The Guide

Gather the three things you need.

  1. A bag, basket or bucket (i.e. sturdy container with handles)
  2. Around 30 feet of rope (or longer if your tree is tall)
  3. A tree with a sideways limb 

Set up a simple pulley. 

Tie one end of a rope to the handle of a basket. Tie the other end of the rope to a rock, stick or weighty and toss-able object. Toss the end with the rock over a tree branch and, voila, you have a pulley.

Raise and lower the basket a bit.

Model once if needed, then let kids have fun with raising and lowering the basket. Wonder what happens if you pull fast? pull slow? let go?

Agree on some rules

Once kids see what this thing can do, set up some rules together for how to play with pulleys and keep everyone safe. We love to count down from 3 before we let go, for example.

Add weight. 

Start to add different objects of different weights. We like to add a bit more each round, wondering, "Can we really lift this?!" Young children really respond to physical challenge and just love to amaze us that they can do something we appear to think is impossible. 

Add "passengers."

Another option is to add special passengers such as a favorite toy, baby doll or stuffed animal. Wonder together about what kind of ride the passenger in question would like or how he or she might feel after each ride. Try to give different types and speeds of ride. This simple twist offers a powerful chance to build empathy and self control.

Experiment a bit.

Without interrupting focused play (such an easy thing to do as an excited adult), offer "what if? questions to surface possible experiments. "What if we used this rope vs that rope? swap a larger basket? use a higher branch? construct a simple crank?" Tinkergarten leaders continue to amaze us with the variations they invent in their classes, teaching us that there is no shortage of options here.

Revisit pulley play.

Although our adult brains seek novelty, we are not boring parents for returning to an activity—and this is a perfect one to recycle. The child mind benefits tremendously from repetition and the chance to build on prior experience. 

Want more ideas?

Look below for more activities to activate kids' proprioceptive systems. Or download this guide for grown ups to learn more!

Why is this activity great for kids?

Pulley play supports development on many levels. Kids activate their proprioceptive system and derive both satisfaction and self reliance when doing heavy work. The chance to experiment and play with this simple machine is a marvelous way to build STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills in a most age appropriate way. Consider the needs of your "passengers" and kids develop empathy and a touch of focus and self control to boot. If pulley play happens in a social group, kids can also develop key collaboration skills. 

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