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Forces and Simple Machines #2: Paper Airplanes

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Lesson Overview:

Building on last week’s “Tuning In” work, today’s lesson looks at the forces of flight.  Using a short video from DK Find Out, a simple handout for taking notes, and a bit of colored paper, students put the forces to the test by folding and flying their own paper airplanes.  This lesson requires very little preparation, it’s easy to teach, and the fun rating is off-the-charts.

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



Identify the four forces that influence flight.  Following instructions, build a paper airplane and fly it.  Write at least two sentences using the new vocabulary to describe the airplane’s flight.  (AASL 2.3.1, “Connect understanding to the real world.”)

Suggested Time:

45-50 minutes

Success Criteria:

Each student will accurately record the four forces that act on airplanes.  Then, students will build their own paper airplanes, fly them, and write a few sentences to describe their test flights.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Explain that today’s lesson will build on last week’s lesson, which looked at simple forces.  Remind the students that last week they went camping with Mr. Magee, in the mountains, with a cute dog and a problematic bear.  Explain that today, instead of looking at a story, the class will use a short information video.

Explain that today’s lesson has four short parts:

  1. Watch an information video and record the forces that affect an airplane or a paper plane.
  2. Build a paper airplane.
  3. Fly the paper airplane.
  4. Write a few sentences, using the special vocabulary about forces, to describe the flights of the planes.

2. Main:

Pass out the student assignment sheet.  Make sure that everyone has a pencil to write with.

Play the short video about the forces of flight, found on DK Find Out, here: DK Find Out, How to Make a Paper Plane

Review the material with the students.  Make sure that they understand and can spell the new vocabulary: Gravity, Thrust, Lift, and Drag.  Check to ensure that the students’ diagrams are labeled correctly.

Ask questions to check for understanding:

  • What force pushes the airplane forward?  (Answer: Thrust)
  • What force pulls the airplane towards the earth?  This force has to be overcome so that the airplane stays in the air.  (Answer: Gravity)
  • What force pulls the airplane upwards?  (Answer: Lift)
  • What force gives a bit of friction, pushing back on the airplane as it flies?  (Answer: Drag)

Note that these are still “pushes” and “pulls” but that they have special names when applied to aircraft.

Once the students’ notes are complete, give each student a piece of colored paper to fold into an airplane.   Review how to fold an airplane based on the instructions in the video.  Some students may want to fold according to their own designs, and that is fine.

After each student completes a folded airplane, tell them that they’ll need to carefully watch their planes so that they can make sentences describing the thrust, drag, lift, and gravity.  Take them outside to fly the planes for a few minutes.  If you used colored paper, you could try managing the activity by having all the blue planes line up and fly first, yellow second, red third, etc.  Do this so that every child gets to fly two or three times before returning to write the descriptive sentences.

3. Conclusion:

Make sure that each student writes at least two sentences using the new vocabulary of “drag, lift, gravity, and thrust.”  Encourage simple sentences such as:

Sample 1:  “There was a lot of wind today, which increased the drag on my plane.”

Sample 2:  “The shape of my wings helped give my plane a good bit of lift.”

Once the students complete the writing part of the lesson, they should tidy up and put their written work in their Unit of Inquiry notebooks.  If there is any additional time, I’m sure they’ll want to conduct a few more test flights!

  1. DK Find Out Video Segment on the Forces of Flying and Paper Airplanes, found here: DK Find Out, How to Make a Paper Plane
  2. Student assignment sheet (attached).
  3. Pencils
  4. Paper for building paper airplanes
  5. Access to a place to fly the planes, outdoors if possible.


Recommended books for this lesson: 
  1. Paper Airplanes, Flight School Level 1 by Christopher Harbo
  2. Paper Airplanes, Copilot Level 2 by Christopher Harbo
  3. Paper Airplanes, Pilot Level 3 by Christopher Harbo
  4. Paper Airplanes, Captain Level 4 by Christopher Harbo
Key Terms:

Forces, Gravity, Lift, Drag, Thrust, Airplanes, Paper Airplanes

Student Handout, Paper Airplanes