Teaching Elementary STEM (Engineering!) and Physics at Home
We’ve had a lot of indoor time lately — and I’m not even talking about sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19! Since baby Lochlan’s premature entrance into the world seven months ago, our usual social outings have been stripped back a great deal. (Master Lochlan would rock a shirt with the phrase, “I was social distancing before social distancing was cool.”) Our family has always loved games and building sets, but this rainy housebound winter, we’re enjoying them even more than usual.
[Disclosure of Material Connections: I received a complimentary GraviTrax set from Timberdoodle in exchange for writing and publishing this review. All opinions — and photographs! ;) — are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.]
Ravensburger is a familiar name to any puzzle aficionado, yet until I saw GraviTrax in the Timberdoodle catalog, I didn’t even know Ravensburger made other types of products. GraviTrax, a Ravensburger invention, is a super fun interactive marble track. As you’d expect from the German puzzle company, it’s not a pre-assembled one trick pony; it’s a building set with many unique parts. Using an assortment of included pieces, kids design and construct a physics-based track so steel marbles can drop, curve, and race toward the finish line.
Timberdoodle includes GraviTrax in the Third Grade Curriculum Kit — they always have STEM and hands-on components in their grade kits. But because it appeals to a much wider age range, it’s available as a stand-alone purchase, too. The box touts the game’s age range as 8-99. I believe it! Both my husband and nine-year-old Aveline have equally as much fun building tracks — although only Aveline was willing to be photographed. ;)
How does GraviTrax work?
The neatest thing about GraviTrax is how incredibly versatile it is. This isn’t a static marble run with a predetermined route, it’s a hands-on construction set. The enclosed user guide has plans for nine different exciting tracks in three levels of difficulty to get users started, and then kids (or adults) can begin building their own track systems.
As users experiment with building their own original designs, they’ll experience how the real-life principles of physics directly affect the steel balls’ route through the track system. Add a free-fall to jump from one level to a lower one, incorporate track switches to introduce variability, and use slides to connect levels of different heights. If you can build a track in which the marbles build enough momentum, you might even be able to watch as the steel spheres roll uphill. By adding the 3-in-1 tile to the finish line, players can also pit different color balls against each other and keep track of first, second, and third place.
Aveline’s very favorite toys and activities involve creating, so she was just giddy about the number of pieces this set came with. The adaptability and flexibility is super exciting — so much possibility.
What’s included in GraviTrax?
GraviTrax comes with four interlocking honeycomb baseplates — similar in strength to a board game baseplate — into which hexagonal tiles easily nestle. Kids stack these hexagonal tiles into small pillars of varying heights, placing them strategically on the base plates to create a foundation for the track system.
Atop the pillars, players chart a course for the steel marbles — either from the provided step-by-step plans or from scratch — using a combination of transparent honeycomb plates and white channeled tracks, curves, junctions, and switches. There’s even a magnetic push-button canon capable of shooting marbles off the starting line. How fun!
In addition to the nine complete track plans, the included booklet also has a section of STEM challenges, called tasks, which span six levels of difficulty. Each task poses a different engineering challenge, and is marked by icons indicating either missing elements, a sequence problem, a height mismatch, or missing tracks. Players attempt to solve the architectural issue, then turn the page to check if their building choices match the proposed solution.
While GraviTrax is a totally screen-free activity, you can download an optional GraviTrax app to support gameplay. The app’s Editor Mode lets users design an original track by choosing 3D versions of the same track, tile and connector pieces included in the box. Users can then tap on Play Mode to test the track virtually by watching a bird’s-eye (or marble’s-eye) video simulation of the steel ball careening down the track the user just created. Tap on Manual Mode, and the app will automatically generate step-by-step plans of the custom track, so kids can follow the instructions to build it out with physical pieces. (And there’s a section of the app with the same nine track plans included in the physical booklet, too, which is nice in case you lose or misplace the booklet, or a younger sibling tries to eat it.)
Because the six steel marbles included in the Gravitrax set are small, typical glass marbles can’t be used interchangeably. I don’t mind that, though, because I can keep tabs on the choking hazard more easily this way. (I store the steel balls on my desk, off the game shelf and away from the baby.) I always appreciate, too, when kids’ stuff comes in a really high-quality box, to allow for neat storage on the game shelf. The GraviTrax is sturdy and symmetrical — yay!
Add a STEM challenge to your homeschool
There are a lot of building toy options available to kids, and Aveline enjoys many of the most popular ones. But she keeps coming back to GraviTrax for more physics experimentation and STEM building challenges. It’s a ton of fun! Click here to buy GraviTrax.