Teach Science and Music and Have a Wild Rumpus with PLASTIC CUPS!


Don’t you love it when the materials you need for a project are available at the dollar store or, better yet, free? These science and music projects use any and all kinds of plastic cups you can round up. They might include large or small plastic or paper drinking cups, applesauce, yogurt and snack cups, and even plastic tops of laundry detergent bottles. Here are some activities which use plastic cups to help young children learn science concepts and processes, musical improvisation and creative thinking, musical beat and rhythm, following auditory cues, and social skills like cooperating with others, sharing, and respecting others’ ideas. That’s a lot of education for a few bucks!

1. EXPLORE different ways to play music with the cups. Put on some music with a steady beat – any kind your group enjoys, whether it’s traditional children’s songs, country, pop, whatever. The important thing is that it has a strong, steady beat for children to follow.

Give each child two cups.Tell them they can use the cups to play along with the music in any way they like. If your group isn’t used to musical improvisation, you can start them off with a few ideas for them to try. Thump the cups, upright, on the floor, to the beat. Tap your knees with the cups. Clap them together. Clap them lightly on over your ears like earmuffs! When they see that there are no “wrong ways” to play, children will come up with all sorts of ideas. They might even turn the cups upside down and make them “gallop” on the floor like horses’ hooves. (More on that later!)

2. EXPERIMENT with different kinds of cups, to find out if they have different sounds (called timbres, pronounced “tambers”). Do bigger cups make louder sounds than smaller cups? Is it possible to make quieter sounds with big cups, depending on how forcefully we play them? (Force and loudness have a direct proportional relationship – the more forcefully objects are hit, plucked, shaken, or strummed, the louder the resulting sound will be. This is an example of the scientific concept of scale, proportion and quantity – a concept basic to all domains of science.)

3. ACCOMPANY music with the “galloping” sound of the cups. Two great pieces for galloping along with are the “William Tell Overture” by Rossini and the theme song to the old TV show “Bonanza” (available on Amazon, iTunes, and other sites). Remind children that the object isn’t to gallop as fast as they can, but to play along to the beat of the music. For extra fun, you can add a “freeze” variation – randomly stop the music and call out “Whoa!” to stop the galloping – then start the music again with a “Giddyup!”

4. ILLUSTRATE a story with sound effects. When your students can do the “cup gallop” well, they can bring a picture book to life with sound. Two fun stories for this are “Clip Clop” by Nicola Smee (a very simple story for younger children) and “Cowboy Ned and Andy” by David Ezra Stein. First, read the story and ask  children where  galloping sounds would be heard. Then read it again with children playing the cups, reminding them when it’s time to gallop (it should just take an expectant look, or some groups might need a verbal reminder – “Galloping time!”) This activity is always very exciting!

5. COLLABORATE on musical inventions. Have children in small groups at tables with cups of different sizes, tape, scissors, craft sticks, plastic beads, plastic bottle caps and other loose parts. Let them work with each other to come up their own musical instrument. It might be some kind of drum, or shaker, or maybe both! They should think about what they want it to sound like and what materials would help them get the sound they want. If they really need help, you can intervene, but encourage them to try out their own solutions to design problems – they’ll usually surprise you with their unexpected ideas! When they’re done, they can take turns showing their musical inventions to the larger group and demonstrating how to play them. Children will be excited to share the brand-new instruments they created!

So enjoy exploring plastic cups! There’s so much to discover with these simple items – and a lot of fun to be had, too!




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