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Ramps and Pathways

Ramps and Pathways

a constructivist approach to physics with young children


By: Rheta DeVries & Christina Sales, this book is a © 2011 NAEYC publication


I attended a workshop in June 2009 in Charlotte, NC at the NAEYC PDI Conference entitled, “Ramps and Pathways: A Constructivist Approach to Teaching Physical Science.”  The session was presented by Betty Zan, Jill Uhlenberg and Rosemary Geiken.  They are all from the University of Northern Iowa where the Ramps and Pathways project was pioneered.  So naturally when I saw there was a BOOK about the same amazing topic I just had to read it!


From the book: I offer for you here a basic list of what you need to start a Ramps and Pathways program, as well as some of the information about the whole process in general that I found of interest!


From page 6:  “this is a book about movement of marbles and other objects along sections of track that we call ‘pathways,’ including inclined pathways, which we call ‘ramps.’”


Materials Needed:


Cove Molding:  Cove molding is a decorative wooden edging used to conceal the seam between ceiling and wall around the perimeter of the room.  You can get it at building supply stories.  Size:  1-¾ inches wide and cut into 1, 2, 3 and 4 foot lengths.  Other options:  plastic rain gutter, transparent flexible tubing, and cove molding of smaller and larger widths.


Adequate Space:  This requirement is pretty self-explanatory.  The book stated that children initially worked independently and made a single ramp section; later on they worked together, side-by-side and collaborated on larger, more elaborate ramp structures that required more space.  Remember that outdoors is an option too.  Ideally children are able to work on their structures for more than one day.  If they MUST come down, find a way to capture what has been created to serve as a model for that child the next day as s/he continues to add to their building.


Variables:  Variables includes supports to hold ramps at a particular angle.  A suggested list might include blocks, tables, chairs, desks, existing shelves, etc.  You also need different objects to travel down a ramp or along a pathway; such as: marbles, small balls, ping pong balls, golf balls, “play pit” balls, small cars, etc.


The books offers suggestions on how to start such an exploration in your program as well as a thorough overview of how it connects to the constructivist way of interacting with children.  I found the explanations of conventional knowledge vs. physical knowledge quite good (pages 16 and 30) and an example shared quite telling:


The authors observed children who had memorized definitions for words such as inertia, but were surprised when marbles flew straight down an incline, off the path and didn’t follow the zigzag pathway they had constructed at the bottom of the incline!  The children had memorized a definition but did not “know” what it meant! Not until their hands, and bodies got involved in creating physical examples did they really understand and “know” what inertia meant.


From page 18:  Memorization may satisfy requirements for standardized tests but it misleads adults, teachers, parents (and sometimes the children themselves), into assuming that children understand the concepts they have memorized.  Piaget referred to this memorization as “school varnish” as it conceals what children actually think or believe at that stage of their growth and development.


The book encourages mutual respect between the adult and the student.  Especially when the children are faced with a challenge that makes them frustrated.  The authors offer encouraging language such as, “What could you do to get the marble to move?” or “What are you wanting the marble to do?”  One phrase I found of particular interest (page 33) is that if we, as the adult, offer that something can CHANGE, the simple use of the word change often communicates to the child that there is another option and might assist in encouraging the child to keep exploring and not abandon the activity.  I would offer this to you even OUT of the context of Ramps and Pathways … offering the possibility that something can change might be a powerful catalyst in many other areas of our program!


The book is filled with color pictures of ramps and pathways created by children and both the text and photographs makes me want to make this a required “center” in everyone’s room!  Additionally, there are lots of great quotes from Vygotsky and Piaget to support the implementation of a Ramps and Pathways activity.


The authors conclude the book by presenting their 10 Principles of Teaching.  They apply the principles specifically to the Ramp and Pathway activities but I’d say that they are 10 points that should be applied to each and every area of our environment and in all our interactions with children!


  1. Experiment with materials to experience challenges and learning opportunities
  2. Inspire children’s interest by introducing materials (such as Ramps and Pathways)
  3. Create an environment that inspires children to have ideas and to figure out how to do something
  4. Allow children to try out their ideas
  5. Observe children’s actions to understand/asses their reasoning
  6. Intervene with questions and comments to encourage children’s thinking (constructing mental relationships)
  7. Do not pursue if a child does not respond to an intervention
  8. Support children’s work with representations and discussions (of Ramps and Pathways)
  9. Integrate all areas (within Ramps and Pathways): math, language, art, etc.

10. Encourage social interaction



“It is important for teachers to present children with materials and situations that allow them to move forward.  It is not just letting them do anything. It is a matter of presenting to the children situations that offer new problems, problems that follow on from one another.  There needs to be a mixture of direction and freedom. “



A little bit about the workshop I attended back in 2009:


The session was great, the handouts were informative and the speakers passionate about their topic. The highlight of course was the experiment they had us do where we had to work in small groups to construct a ramp structure (with blocks, cove molding, marbles, cups, etc.) that manipulated a marble to move along a structure fulfilling various requirements (listed below).  We were only given 20 minutes to create the structure and we were told to use as few as materials as possible to make a structure that had a marble:

  1. Turn one corner
  2. Experience an acceleration in at least one section (defined as speeds up, slow down or change direction)
  3. Travel through the air for a period of time
  4. Exert a force on a second object
  5. Move through at least one section of the structure in which the kinetic energy of the marble increases (goes straight but gets faster)
  6. Does work (exerts pressure or force) on a plastic cup
  7. Move through at least one section of the structure in which the gravitational potential energy increases (moves UP the ramp)
  8. Move through at least one section in which the marble moves steadily (straight)


It was a lot of fun!  We all worked in our groups and created our structure, then we went around and observed all the other structures!  Some advice from the instructors when using marbles on tables:  put bulletin-board border around the edge of the tables to keep the marbles ON the table and not shooting out all over the floor!  (I thought this was a brilliant suggestion!) They also suggested that some children might need to work at the table before transitioning to the floor for larger scale Pathway construction.  Additionally, use masking tape to define space for creating Pathways on the floor.


After the conference I immediately went home and implemented Ramps and Pathways in the classroom I was in at the time, as well as on a much larger scale in my backyard with my niece and nephew. I have included a couple pictures of what transpired in the backyard!! Send or post pictures of what transpires in your yard or program!!!


And to view videos of various Ramps and Pathways projects do a quick search on YouTube!!



Lisa Murphy

March 16, 2011


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