Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

Classroom Compass
Volume 2 Number 3
Summer 1996


The Three Little Pigs

A Design Exploration for Lower Level Students

Early elementary students gain experience with construction techniques for strength and stability.

This activity uses a well-known children's story to introduce elementary students to some basics of structural support. Begin with a reading of "The Three Little Pigs" and a discussion of how the pigs constructed their houses. Have the students examine the structures like braces and trusses (triangles connected together) that support the tables and chairs in the classroom. You may want to let the students explore the world outside, looking at structures supporting, containing, and sheltering people and their belongings. A walking trip down the street reveals houses and transportation structures like bridges and walkways. The playground has structures to look at and the school building itself is supported by braces and pipes that may be hidden.

Encourage a variety of designs and building techniques in the children's structures. Design provides opportunities for experimentation.

Cooperative teamwork is essential to ensure all team members' ideas are heard and considered.

The Challenge: Design and make a shelter for three pigs that the wolf can not blow down.

Student teams may pick from three options for the shelter's main structural support: toothpicks, straws, or rolled paper. The builders may use only 16 total of whatever construction material they choose. Each house must be no taller than 15 cm (6") and must fit into the "footprint," a 15 cm x 15 cm (6" x 6") square marked on the table. Each house must stand for three minutes when placed 7.5 cm (3") in front of a fan.

One of the major challenges in this activity is ensuring that the structures are well enough anchored to the tabletop to withstand the fan's force. Provide a variety of construction and connecting materials to bolster the structures and secure their foundations. Possible materials are: glue sticks, staple gun, paper clips, marshmallows or gumdrops, spaghetti noodles, soaked whole dry peas, brads, and tape. Here are some methods that can work: straws attached with paper clips; spaghetti noodles attached with masking tape; toothpicks connected with marshmallows, gumdrops, or softened beans (let them dry overnight after poking toothpicks in them); wood sticks and glue; and paper rolled around pencils and taped, with the rolls taped together into structures.

The student teams will need a class period to design and build the structures, readying them for the wind test. At the completion of the test, each team should discuss its house and the reasons it stood or fell when the fan blew on it.

Data Collection

Use a large sheet of chart paper with columns headed MATERIAL, CONNECTOR, and RATING. Student teams fill out the data and rate the materials based on their building experience.

Rolled paper glue fair
Rolled paper tape good
Toothpick marshmallow poor


The students' houses have been tested by a force from the side, but many structures must withstand force from above. What structures are strong enough to bear weight?

Give pairs of students a piece of copy paper and a 15cm (6") piece of tape. Let them try to shape the paper so a book can be placed on it at least 20 cm (8") above the table. A column of paper will hold a balanced book. Continue to load books on the column until it collapses and let the students mark areas of weakness and strength in their design. This evidence of "buckling" helps illustrate stress points and areas that need more support.

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