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Ohio State University Extension


Using a Waterslide to Introduce STEM to Younger Youth

4-H Youth Development
Tim Tanner, Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development, Ohio State University Extension

According to the National 4-H Council’s STEM Research website, 60 percent of youth who participate in 4-H STEM programs express a strong interest in a career in a science-related field. Given the need for an increased scientific employee base, this is promising news.  

STEM programs have received much attention in recent years, which has led to more hands-on engagement among participants. Unfortunately, many of these programs lack the truly physical engagement necessary for youth learning. This water slide activity promotes both tactile and mobile engagement—beneficially in the oft-overlooked STEM subject of physics. It is an ideal program for 4-H camping, special events, and community club recreation. 

Why incorporate STEM at 4-H events? 

Well-led STEM activities provide a number of benefits to youth participants. 

  • Ensures youth are receiving hands-on, experimental science instruction which may be limited in their formal education settings.
  • Strengthens problem solving and critical thinking skills.
  • Invites curiosity into the learning process.
  • Builds scientific literacy, a key attribute of many of today’s career paths.

Slide Materials 

The STEM waterslide is easy to construct. First, find a location with thick grass (clear from debris!) with easy access to a water spigot. Ideally, this will be on a slight downhill grade to aid participant enjoyment. Second, secure at least 8 x 100 feet of 4 mil or thicker clear polyethylene plastic sheeting. Black plastic is acceptable in a shaded location. Third, secure several sandbags or other soft devices to hold the slide somewhat in place. Fourth, procure a water hose and lemon scented dish soap. Fifth, make the laminated physics term cards as described on the following page.  After adult testing, your slide is ready to go! 

  Water slides can be cheaply and safely incorporated into 4-H camping, STEM enrichment, and community club activities. In this picture, a 4-H camper tests out a simple slide. 

Slide Safety Operations 

With all the materials on hand, setting up and testing the slide will take approximately 15 minutes. Here are a few safety and operational considerations: 

  • Be sure to remove any sticks or other debris from the slide area.  If the grade is steep enough that participants will go off the end of the slide, be sure this area is clear or safety-baled.
  • Only use the number of sandbags necessary to keep it in place. Some participants treat them as bowling pins!
  • Double up the plastic under the starting zone, as this is the most likely area for plastic tears.
  • Test the slide several times to get a feel for the appropriate amount of water and soap ratios.
  • Make sure participants know in advance to wear smooth swimsuits and no jewelry.
  • Once participants are on-site and have received instructions about the event, demonstrate the recommended technique (e.g., sitting style, feet first).
  • Reduce the amount of pre-slide running distance if participants grow too rowdy.

The Event: Learn on the Return 

Laminate half sheets of paper with the following physics terms and place them along the “return to the beginning” side of the water slide as demonstrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1.  Water Slide Learning Stations 
Participants will stop at each laminated lesson card on the return trip.  This, in addition to watching their friends go down the slide, helps the physics terms to “soak in” experientially.

Acceleration: A change in speed over a certain period of time. When you are running to jump on the slide, your body is accelerating until the moment you meet the slide. 

Potential Energy: Energy that is stored within a system. So, if your body is sitting at the beginning of the slide but has not yet started to go downhill, it has potential energy.

Speed: The rate of motion. If we had a radar gun on your body as it passed this point, it might say you were traveling at 12 mph. That is a measure of speed.

Kinetic Energy: The work needed to move a body from rest to action. Once your body starts slipping down the slide, it has gone from potential to kinetic energy. 

Gravity: Objects with mass attract one another (heavy usually wins!). The reason you do not hover above the slide is because the ground weighs more than the air. 

Friction: Force that resists objects in motion. The reason your body feels a rub during the slide is because friction is working against your moving body. 

Force: A push or pull that causes objects to change their speed. When your body slows down near the slide’s end, it is because friction has been exerting a force on you for a long time (or because you hit the safety bales!). 

Inertia: Objects in motion will remain in motion. The reason you feel an impact when you hit the safety bales at the end is because your body will keep going until another force or object stops it. 

As students return to the waiting line, they are asked to silently read each term card on the way back to the starting line. This results in very little wasted waiting time on the second and third trips. After three trips (and two “learning returns”) the participants have soaked in enough experiential physics learning and fun to conclude the activity on a high note. A brief recap is usually unnecessary, but if you want to add depth of learning, consider these questions:

  • Which participants seemed to go the farthest? Why?
  • What role did the soap play?
  • How might wearing jeans impact your sliding?

Increasing the Challenge 

Club officers or camp counselors will enjoy the opportunity to pre-test the water slide to ensure safety and smooth operations. As they make inevitable adjustments, build their STEM and critical thinking skills by asking: 

  1. What adaptations did you make for safety? Why?
  2. When your trial runs were too slow/non-slippery, what did you do to improve the slide’s quality?
  3. What accommodations would you suggest for participants who have apprehension or limited mobility?

Safety note: Even if you increase the challenge, be sure to have an adult field test the slide first. 

Further Resources and Research  

Want to scaffold this learning by having students design their own water slides first? Check out this resource: 

Several easy-to-facilitate, hands-on 4-H science activities are available for download at

The latest in 4-H STEM research is available at!science.

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Originally posted Apr 20, 2017.