Family Storytime: Heroes, Flight & Gravity

This summer, we’re celebrating heroes in our summer learning program along with many libraries across the US. It’s quite a fun theme because it incorporates superheroes and comics on the one hand while also providing a great backdrop on which to celebrate the hero within. Many of the books and ideas I plan to share this summer during storytime will encourage kids to do great things. This week was no different.

I have been using letter cards at the beginning of storytime as a welcome activity to support letter recognition, to get kids physically stretching, and to break the ice, so to speak. My pack of letters has 26 cards (plus some duplicates) and each one has an uppercase letter and the picture of a child forming the shape of the letter with their body. I keep the cards in a bag and, one at a time, kids pull out the first card they touch. I hold it up so all can see and we say the letter’s name and then make the shape with our bodies. The cards include a diverse group of kids which I appreciate.

This week I decided to only have the letters that spell AIRPLANE in the bag. After we played the game, I organized the letters into the word as a hint for the storytime theme. I was glad that I simplified things because kids kept pouring into the room and I never would have had enough letter cards for everyone to pick a letter. Frankly, we would have been there all day playing just this one game if we went through the entire alphabet. During some storytimes in the Winter I can get away with every child who arrives at the start picking a letter because the crowds are smaller, but not in the Summer.

Once everyone was settled down on their storytime mat (with a little help from the song If You’re ready for a Story), it was time to read.

Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen (Photo source:

Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen (Photo source:

I recently came across the book Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen (Dial Books, 2008) and knew I had to read it at storytime for a couple of reasons:

  • Violet is a “maker” and designs her own airplane,
  • She stands up to bullies,
  • Her parents support her creative passion,
  • The story has several historical references to innovators, and
  • She is recognized as a hero when she rescues a group of boy scouts stranded in a river instead of competing in the airplane competition she was headed to when she discovered them.

The book also gave me a great opportunity to talk about flight and gravity, the focus of this storytime. Too technical for storytime and the 3-7 year olds who attend, you say? No way! I infuse STEAM in my storytimes every week and have found that breaking down big concepts, like flight or electricity, into bite size pieces can work. Kids may not be ready for rocket science, but everyone starts somewhere. Why not at the library storytime? We do that with reading, why not with science, technology, engineering, art and math?

Before I shared this book, I asked the group what we needed to fly. I was delighted when a girl said “lift and thrust.” The adults were blown away! Over the course of storytime I explained the ideas and what parts of a plane handle lift and thrust using the two books I read, the books’ illustrations and the experiments we did in the second half of storytime.

One thing I would do differently if I wrote this book is make sure the boy scouts are wearing life jackets in the rescue illustration. Drowning is a significant problem in Alaska (many families spent a lot of time on the water) and we are always driving home the idea that everyone needs to wear a life jacket when they are on a boat or dock (young kids). I took a moment to talk about life jackets when we got to that part of the story, but it would be nice to have the book model this important practice.

Kids were wiggly by the time I was finished with Violet’s story, perhaps in part to the large number of people, so we got moving. I had my phone and a portable speaker on hand with the storytime playlist ready to go. I also had my collection of shakers to use with Laurie Berkner’s The Airplane Song. I actually ran out of shakers for the first time ever, but the kids without them handled it well. The song is full of action and the movements work with or without shakers.

Flight School by Lita Judge Photo Source:

Flight School by Lita Judge Photo Source:

We then read Flight School by Lita Judge (Atheneum Books for Young Readers (2014). It’s the story of a penguin who desperately wants to fly, but can’t so he goes to flight school. While his body is meant for swimming and he can’t get airborne on his own, the other students get him off the ground, demonstrating heroism on a smaller scale and helping penguin fulfill a lifelong dream.

Time for experiments! I like to refer to this storytime as Physics for Preschoolers.

Boy, did I miss my summer assistant this week! With three stations going and over 60 people, I could have used an extra hand. She is on vacation so we made do without her…just barely. Designing multiple stations lets me offer a variety of activities and most kids will find at least one that appeals to them. It also helps to spread out the crowd a bit.

Gravity Painting

Station: Gravity Painting
I love painting during storytime. I can handle the mess and so can the families who come. Kids know to wash their hands as soon as they are done at the painting tables (there is a sink in the kids’ room) and caregivers often help clean up. I make t-shirts available, but they never get used. I stick with washable tempura paints to make things easy. Gravity painting was an easy leap for me. I modified a project I found at the Artful Parent, a great place to find ideas that can be adapted for storytime.

Gravity Painting ExampleBefore storytime, I built 12 stands for this activity. I used aluminum trays I have stored away and book ends. I taped the back of the tray to the book end to keep them upright. To paint, kids used eyedroppers to suction watered down tempura paint out of bowls on the tables and then squeezed it on to the 1/2 sheet of cardstock paper in the upright tray. The paint slides down the paper, thanks to gravity, and creates beautiful designs. Some families taped the paper in the tray until painting was complete. We talked about gravity in a very basic sense, remembering again, that we’re introducing big ideas in bite sized pieces.


  • aluminum roasting trays (1 per painter)
  • tempura paints in various colors (I had 4 colors at each table)
  • eyedroppers (1 per color)
  • bowls or containers for paint
  • book ends (1 for each tray)
  • packing tape (to attach tray to book end)
  • white cardstock (1/2 sheet)
  • pencil (for writing names on paper before painting)

Straw paper airplaneStation: Straw Paper Airplanes
We’ve made these airplanes at the library before and I love them. They seem ridiculous, but always fly. I got the idea from the DIY Network. The materials are minimal and I have a nice spot for creating an airstrip where kids can measure how far their play goes and practice throwing the plane. Some kids ended up adding wings and other decorative pieces and then tried to fly them again. Pretty cool.




  • Paper straw
  • 1″ x 10″ strip of cardstock for large circle (plane’s tail)
  • 1″ x 5″ strip of cardstock for small circle (plane’s nose)
  • Scotch tape (to attach circles to straw)
  • Blue painters’ tape for marking distances on carpet airstrip

Balloon PlaneStation: Balloon Planes
I spent the most time at this station since it it was the least self-explanatory. I used a similar experiment at a Maker Monday: Forces of Flight program for older kids last summer and thought it would be fun to show the younger kids. it was a hit! The idea is that a blown up balloon provides the thrust to push the straw it is attached to along a string. One end of the string is tied to a chair  and I held the other end. Kids or adults blew up balloons and we taped them to the straw. I talked to them about Isaac Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion and explained that the air escaping the inflated, but untied balloon would cause the balloon to go in the opposite direction. This helped them position the balloon with the tail towards me and the round, or top part of the balloon, int he direction they wanted it to go- towards the chair. I held the one end of the string so we could see if holding the string up higher or lower changed the speed at which the balloon and start traveled. Many kids tried this experiment over and over. Here is the balloon airplane in action.


  • Paper Straw
  • String (like kite string)
  • Scotch tape
  • Balloons
  • Chair
Robot Factory by Tinybop

The Robot Factory by Tinybop (Photo Source:

As a nice compliment to the storytime activities, we offered the app The Robot Factory by Tinybop on our children’s library mounted iPad. While the app isn’t useful during storytime, it’s a nice sandbox style app that extends the tinkering and learning we did during storytime. The app was available throughout the week. (For more about my library’s mounted iPad and the curated apps I feature see this related post.)

The Robot Factory app is a design studio for young inventors & lets kids build robots from more than 50 parts that can be placed on a robot body in a variety of configurations. Once the robot is built, inventors can test the creation & its physics-driven movements. The design can then be modified as needed or added to a robot gallery. Individual profiles can be created for multiple builders. The app includes a parent dashboard w/tips & settings. :: $2.99 :: For ages 5+. (Source: Homer Public Library’s Kids App of the Week Pinterest Board)


Maker Monday: Forces of Flight

During a recent Maker Monday program for ages 8-18 years, we explored the four Forces of Flight (thrust, drag, lift, weight) and made lots of machines that fly. It was a rowdy couple of hours with lots of budding engineers in one room along with balloons, paper airplanes, and hot glue. I was thankful to have two partners in crime again this week.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about the forces of flight before planning this program. I didn’t become an aeronautical engineer in the planning either. I did learn a lot though, and learned enough to inspire a large group of kids and teens to create flying machines, modify their designs to improve their flying, and have fun working in teams.

Here are some resources for learning about the forces of flight and Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion:
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s How Things Fly: Forces of Flight
Physics Classroom: Newton’s Laws of Motion
NASA LaRC Office of Education NASA Sci Files with Dr. D (another kid friendly video explaining the forces of flight from the Internet Archive, which I love)
There are also lots of good kids books about paper airplanes, motion, and rockets that discuss these concepts. I had several from our library’s collection on display in the program room.

To start things off, I showed the group this video. I did it for two reasons. First of all, the two hosts are women engineers. Not only is STEAM important for kids in general, but I think its especially valuable for girls to see women as scientists in STEAM-related programs so they know anything is possible. Secondly, the video explains the forces of flight well in a relatively short video. The kids started to get distracted part way through the video as they explained the four forces of flight, so I stopped the video and explained them in my own words. This helped reinforce the concepts and kept everyone on track. This isn’t school, so I didn’t want kids zoning out because they were getting overwhelmed. I also didn’t show the complete video because we weren’t doing the same experiment.

After the video we did our first flight test. It was a simple one. We asked the new engineers if they could predict who would be able to jump the highest. Most of the kids looked around the room and chose the tallest person, a teen. Given what we just learned about the forces of motion I asked them to look at the predicted winner again. The vote was still with him as we proceeded with the experiment.

We had kids come up to sheets of paper we hung on one of the room’s walls and we measured their heights. Then we had the kids come back up and jump as high as they could. We marked how high their head reached and compared measurements. The tallest person was not the highest flier! We talked again about the four forces and hypothesized about why a shorter person could fly the highest. Was it their thrust? Or the clothes on the tallest person creating drag?

The next experiment involved balloon rockets. This is where the program room got a little chaotic, but it was a great time to talk about Isaac Newton and his Laws of Motion. I’m pretty sure none of the kids present knew they would be learning about and understanding Newton’s Laws of Motion today, but the balloon rockets immediately demonstrated the Third Law: “ for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

The idea was to create rockets out of balloons and fly them across the room on string courses. We gave each person a balloon (we had a variety of shapes) and asked them to blow up the balloon without tying off the end. We then hung two strings from one end of the room to the other to create our courses. One end of the string was secured on a chair and the other was free so we could string the balloon and an attached straw onto the string in preparation for flying. To see the third law in action, I asked kids which direction the balloon opening should point to make the balloon fly to the other end of the string. You should have seen the lightbulbs go off! The air from inside the balloon should blow towards me, holding the string at the starting point, making the balloon fly in the opposite direction to the other end of the string. So simple.

Once the rocket was ready for launch, the designer let go of the balloon and watched it soar across the room on the string. Kids made many attempts as we tested out shapes of balloons, how much air was in the balloon, size of the straw and type of string.

balloons (various sizes and shapes)
string (various types optional)
straws (various sizes optional)
chair(s) to secure string

To calm things down a bit, we had everyone sit in small groups on the floor (we removed the large tables from the room to accommodate the large numbers of kids). Then we moved on to paper airplanes! I found three paper airplane patterns the kids could copy and build if they didn’t have a design of their own. We used the new planes to see who’s airplane could get closest to the target we created with a wire hanger pulled slightly out of shape to form a diamond. Kids took turns launching their paper crafts across the room towards the target. None of the airplanes made it into the target, but a few came close. Several kids took multiple turns and fiddled with their design to see if it could fly higher, more accurately, or further.Making Paper Airplanes

paper airplane patterns (books or see link above for printable designs)
paper (various weights and colors optional)
markers, pencils, crayons for decorating
paper clips (for weighting the nose of some designs)

Finally it was time for my favorite event, the soda bottle rocket (see full details at this link)! These are incredibly cool and don’t be scared off by the preparation or the fact that you are shooting bottles full of water into the air. Even my dad laughed on the first test run I did at home!Soda Bottle Rocket

Of course you’ll want to launch these rockets outside. I took everyone out to a grassy area alongside the library for the demo. I had everyone stay back (to be extra cautious) behind a certain line during takeoff. I brought with me a plastic soda bottle filled approximately 1/3 with water. I plugged the opening with the prepared cork (repurposed bike tire valve inserted into a drilled hole in the wine cork) and laid it on the launch pad (made from scraps of wood so no one would have to hold the bottle as it is launched and get soaked in the process).

Much of the research I did on these rockets discussed specific PSI for launch, possible bottle explosion, etc. A little common sense goes along way here. The idea is that you pump air into the bottle via the bike tire valve inserted in the cork now attached to the bottle. Pretty simple. I never had any problems and I didn’t use a bike pump with a PSI indicator. It all worked well and was a perfect finale to the program. For the last 20-25 minutes kids took bottles I collected from the recycling bin at the dump and modified them with foam wings, tails and noses to see if the designs would change how the rockets flew. We launched over 25 rockets and it was a crowd pleaser every time.

Soda Bottle Rocket ValveMaterials:
empty and clean plastic soda bottles
wine cork (natural cork, not plastic)- make sure it fits into the bottle opening snuggly without falling in
bike tire valve off an old bike tire inter tube (I got a dozen for free from a local bike shop)
foam sheets or other materials to modify rockets (I had foam on hand from another program)
stand up bike pump
scraps of wood to make rocket launch pad (no design)
hot glue

I did bring a second pump, but we didn’t end up using it. The hold up with this part of the program was the hot gluing of the added design features on to the rockets. I had the easy part as the rocket launcher. My co-leaders had to glue! Some kids did find a use for the other bike pump however. They came up with the fart launcher game. Pumping the pump while holding the end sounds, well, like someone farting I guess.Kids bike pump