The Wind Tube

We’ve built a fun science exploration tool, which we use in our Family Inventors’ Lab class.

The Exploratorium shared a project idea for building a Wind Tube. (Also check out the Kodo wind tunnel.) It’s basically a clear tube mounted over a fan. Kids can place items into the tube and see what happens. Heavy items just sit there. Lightweight items shoot out the top of the tube. Other items may float, spin, or rattle back and forth. The video at the the top of this post shows some of our initial experiments. (If you want to learn how to make a DIY wind tube, check out my next post.)

Dave Stroud says this about how kids (and adults!) play with a wind tube.

The Wind Tubes intrinsically encourage a particular type of play that helps guests experience the way science works. The intent is for guests to internalize a science based mindset – do something, measure the outcome, make changes, do something, measure the outcome, compare the outcomes, make changes, do something, measure the outcome, compare the outcomes – repeat this process until you run out of time. The user experiences the phenomena by exploring it, rather than being shown an outcome and having it explained. (Source)

I have definitely seen this in action. Toddlers and preschoolers love to launch the same items over and over. Four to five year olds start experimenting more, looking around the room and deciding what to try next! As they experiment, I hear them talking: “I wonder what this will do?” “What can I try next?” “What do you think will happen this time?” “That didn’t work, I wonder if I could combine it with this?” It’s “tinkering” at its finest! Older kids, teens, and adults enjoy engineering items to achieve different goals – lifting up heavy materials, designing a neutral buoyancy item that will float in the tube forever, or creating items that spin on their way up.

As Stroud says, this activity results in:

• Making guests [child] less reliant on “authority” to answer questions
• A higher level of engagement and deeper investigation
• Guests defining their own success and making their own meaning (user defined outcomes)
• Generating a particular category of questions such as: How can I get it to…? What if I…? Instead of: Why does it…? What makes it…?

Here are some of the experiments my family developed just in a few hours of play when we first built our tube:

Scarves. An easy peasy thing is scarves – they catch the wind so nicely, then gently flutter to the ground.

The Frisbee. (really a plastic lid)  It gets caught in the air currents and will float forever. My son learned that if you put your arm over the fan to block some of the air flow, the Frisbee will sink down the tube.

Cardboard boat. This cardboard snack tray will float easily on its own. The small plastic monster will not – it’s too heavy and not aerodynamic. But, put the monster in the boat and it floats!

Parachutes. This plastic pterodactyl won’t fly even though it has wings. But, if you build it a parachute out of a plastic bag and a pipe cleaner, it soars. Note: you can also make parachutes with coffee filters or use these parachute party favors. (Amazon affiliate link)

Pipe cleaner spinner. My personal favorite is this twirled-up pipe cleaner that spins and spins as it floats in the air.

Tops. And speaking of spinning, watch these plastic tops. They don’t float, but they definitely respond to the wind!

Other materials to try: scarves, balloons, rubber gloves blown up and tied, dixie cups with coffee filter parachutes, whiffle balls, strawberry baskets, etc. I also really like these three projects… these pictures were from the wind tube activity at the Orlando Science museum.


Here is a printable template for the helicopter shown above.

Here are ideas from the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History:

As kids play, they learn hands-on about aerodynamics, wind currents, how lightweight things fly better than heavy things, but even heavy things can fly if they have a parachute or an “air ship” that can catch the wind currents. Having the ability to play hands-on with this will allow them to internalize the learning much more than when they cover all this stuff in high school physics class someday!

Challenges for Kids:

For older kids, you could make a poster to accompany this activity with challenges like these from MOTAT:

  • Can you build something that will leave the tunnel in a particular direction?
  • Can you build something that will hover above the wind tunnel?
  • Can you make something that spins clockwise as it rises in the tunnel?

Learn more:

If you want to read more about “transactivity” and what makes this such a cool learning activity, check out Stroud’s post: This is a great “case study” post, which shares observations on how people play with the tubes.

Here are links to some other people’s experiments with and thoughts about Wind Tubes


21 thoughts on “The Wind Tube

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  3. redwoodsoul

    Hello! I’m a wanting to make a wind tunnel for the preschoolers I work with, but haven’t had luck finding the .0075 x 48″ x 48″ acetate sheet posted by the exploratorium, would you be able to tell me where you ordered your material from? Thank you for your time.

      1. redwoodsoul

        Hello! Thank you for replying I ended up getting a .01 Lexan sheet. Mine will be 4 ft, do you think legos will support it? I bought the legos, but I can’t return them if they’re open.
        Also, I’m planning on getting the same fan, honeywell turbo 910, do you think it’ll be powerful enough to blow objects through a 4ft tunnel? Thank you again!

      2. redwoodsoul

        Oops, I got excited and didn’t fully read your other post, I’ll have to think of something that will secure the wind tunnel better than legos. I might do clothespins or I might do the wooden spacers from exploratorium.

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