Yo-Yo School Can Unlock Secrets of Physics!

Yo-Yo school encourages understanding of physics alongside tremendous manual dexterity

The yo-yo sleeps for now but this simple object, containing two discs, one axle and long string, is an instrument for gravity-defying trickery, which requires some grounding in the principles of physics.

Not many toys can boast over 2,500 years of use worldwide, but the yo-yo has enjoyed consistent use in hundreds of cultures for nearly three millenia. Seemingly moved by magic, the yo-yo is little more than a well-designed tool to demonstrate basic principles of physics. Consisting essentially of a spool and a string, yo-yos (when in the hands of a skilled operator) can spin, jump, hang, and bump in patterns that are so graceful and speedy that they seem almost impossible. And for those of us with few yo-yo skills, they may feel impossible to perform, too!

Luckily, folks who want to learn to better understand the physics and physical movements behind yo-yo tricks have numerous resources available to them – including both weekly classes and a world class championship right in western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley! Popular education-based store A to Z (located on King Street in Northampton) hosts Yo-Yo School three times a week inside their store, and their teachers are true masters. Amongst the crew of talented yo-yoists are a world champion and a world class competition judge! A visit to A to Z Yo-Yo School ensures expert instruction and access to a wide variety of yo-yo styles and colors – if you don’t have a yo-yo at home, you’ll be able to pick out a favorite before class begins.

Held on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons at 4:30, Yo-Yo School is free and open to all ages. However, before stopping by to learn how to walk the dog (or simply how to get the yo-yo to return to your hand after you drop it), consider the motor skills and coordination necessary to hold, drop, and catch a yo-yo. While yo-yos can be fascinating for small children, it’s a skill better suited for elementary-aged kids to learn – working to learn yo-yo tricks teaches discipline to determine children and also gives them lots of opportunity to improve their hand-eye coordination.

In addition to the physical benefits of learning how to use a yo-yo, yo-yo tricks are a great entry point for learning about all sorts of physics principles. In order to understand how a yo-yo works in the first place, it’s essential to understand potential and kinetic energy. Even young kids can learn what these terms mean just by holding and dropping a yo-yo. When they hold it in their palm, it has lots of potential energy, as it can both drop and fall or unwind and spin. When either of these things happen, the yo-yo has kinetic energy – watch as the string unwinds and the wooden or plastic spool spins as it approaches the ground.

Playing with a yo-yo can help students make sense of these concepts and, even if you don’t use the proper scientific terms while you make observations, these basic concepts are sure to be discovered. As kids gain skills in yo-yoing, they’ll make even more physics-related discoveries. Certain tricks depend on different set-ups and angles in order to take advantage of kinetic energy, and to change the yo-yo’s potential energy as a way of controlling its path and speed. Older students can also learn about the role that the yo-yo’s axis plays in its movement – they’ll notice that the unwinding of the string is just as important as gravity pulling the yo-yo downwards, and can learn to utilize the yo-yo’s centered spinning as a means of controlling where it moves and how. To enhance children’s learning about spinning toys, check out Duncan toys’ resources for teaching science using toys. Offering lesson plans for gyroscopes and tetratops in addition to yo-yos, Duncan’s resources incorporate science and observation with physical movement and skills.

Photo credit: Xulian Nava

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