Teaching Fourth Grade NGSS Physical Science with Hands-On Activities

NGSS physical science standards for fourth graders include the study of energy and waves. This post details activities I use to address these standards.


I believe that kids should do science. Unfortunately, in many cases, students only read or watch videos.

Evidently the NSTA (National Science Teaching Association) agrees. As a matter of fact, they advocate using Three-Dimensional Teaching and Learning. Their vision states:

  1. Science and engineering practices should be used to actively engage students in science learning.
  2. Science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts should be integrated.
  3. Phenomena should be used to engage students in three-dimensional instruction.

So what are the three dimensions?

  1. science and engineering practices
  2. crosscutting concepts
  3. disciplinary core ideas

And what does all of this mean to practitioners? After much reflection, I determined that my units should:

  • meet grade-level standards
  • engage students in the act of science
  • integrate scientific and engineering practices
  • focus on broad concepts (e.g., patterns and systems)

For this set, I first deconstructed the standards. That way, I could meet their full intent. Through the nouns, I discovered content. From the verbs, I determined what kids should do. Furthermore, I scaffolded skills and concepts in a logical progression, building toward mastery.

In fourth grade, NGSS physical science standards are broken into two parts: energy and waves. Let’s take a look at the activities I developed to address them.

Physical Science Energy Standards – Grade 4

The energy portion of the physical science standards focuses on speed, forms, collisions, and transfer.

Relate Speed and Energy in Physical Science

4-PS3-1 Use evidence to construct an explanation relating the speed of an object to the energy of that object.

For the first physical science standard, fourth graders experiment with speed and energy.

After reviewing forms of energy, they participate in the following hands-on activities.

  1. Kids rub their hands together faster and faster. Then they try rubbing a pencil and a metal hanger. This illustrates the transfer of motion to thermal energy.
  2. Using balloons and toilet paper tubes, students (or the teacher) build launchers. After placing a small object in the launcher, they pull back with varied degrees of tension. This illustrates the transfer of mechanical energy to motion energy.
  3. After building spool racers, kids experiment by twisting less and more. Then they race them! Again, the transfer of mechanical energy (tension) to motion energy is illustrated.
  4. In this activity, kids use Hot Wheels tracks and cars. They vary the incline to experiment with gravitational energy.
  5. Finally, they fold paper to make footballs. Here, they flick the footballs harder and softer. This solidifies understanding of motion energy and speed.
Activities use a launcher made of a toilet paper tube and balloon, a spool racer, a folded paper football, and Hot Wheels racetrack and cars.

Are you feeling “pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this post.

These hands-on activities can be completed in stations or as stand-alone projects. Afterward, kids review vocabulary and concepts. Then they take a test.

Observe Sound, Light, Heat, and Electric Currents

4-PS3-2 Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents.

For this standard, students explore each form of energy through hands-on activities. In each set, they observe, generalize, and provide evidence. Instead of simply observing that energy can be transferred, I wanted my students to conceptualize the nuances. Therefore, you will notice that multiple activities explore each form of energy in more depth.


To address this physical science standard, fourth grade students participate in sound activities. At each of six science stations, kids observe and generalize specific sound concepts:

  1. Sound is a vibration.
  2. It travels in waves that spread out in all directions.
  3. Increasing force/energy increases amplitude.
  4. When sound waves have more room, it results in longer waves and lower pitch.
  5. Dense and smooth materials conduct sound better.
  6. Sound travels best through solids, second best through liquids, and worst through gases.

Six physical science activities use simple classroom materials to explore sound. They include tin cans, rubber bands, spoons, tuning forks, rubber bands, spoons, a Slinky, and other everyday objects.

When students finish the activities, they solidify concepts with sound websites, books, and videos. Then they review and take a short assessment.


Next, kids tackle light activities. Similar to sound, they work in lab groups and travel to stations. At the first five they observe and provide evidence for these concepts:

  1. Light travels in a straight line that bounces off of hard, shiny materials.
  2. Density, thickness, and color affect whether an object is translucent or opaque. Light travels through clear (transparent) materials.
  3. Smooth, dense, shiny objects reflect light; soft, rough, or bumpy objects tend to absorb light.
  4. Light is refracted when it travels from a gas into a liquid.
  5. The visible spectrum appears when light separates.

At the sixth station, fourth graders do a little “light reading” to explore additional concepts.

Five stations use everyday materials to explore light. Materials include flashlights, mirrors, a CD, water in a cup, and other objects typically found in a classroom.

Once again, fourth graders cement science concepts with books, websites, and videos. Additional enrichment activities let kids explore color, shadows, and more. And again, students review and take a brief test.


It’s tricky to experiment with thermal energy in fourth grade. Why? It’s hot! After a lot of my own exploration, I came up with eight heat activities.

  1. Kids place food coloring in cups of hot, warm, and cold water. From their observations, they define heat.
  2. First, they place an ice cube in their hands. Second, they hold a cup of warm water. Third, they place their hands on their cheeks. In each situation, students determine which direction heat is moving.
  3. To explore conduction, kids touch the handle of a metal spoon that has been placed in a bowl of hot water. Then they touch a towel that has recently been ironed.
  4. For convection, students add colored ice water to warm water and watch it sink. They also hold a paper curlicue over a heat source. Both activities help kids see that warm air/water rises while cold sinks.
  5. In these physical science activities, students hold their hands near (but not touching) a heat source. Then they move from the shade into the sun. In both instances, they observe that hot objects radiate heat, which travels through the air or space.
  6. Using a metal can, glass jar, and Styrofoam cup, kids explore which insulate and conduct heat. First, they add hot water to each and record temperatures every twenty minutes. Second, they do the same with cold water. Bonus: Students practice measuring with a thermometer.
  7. Kids explore how heat changes matter. In this simple activity, they observe three states of matter in glass jars: an ice cube, water, and air (with water vapor).
  8. Finally, in this math connection, kids learn how we measure in Fahrenheit and Celsius.

In these physical science activities, ids explore thermal energy with hot and cold water.

Again, kids solidify their understanding with heat websites and videos. Then they review and take a test.


Inevitably, electrical energy activities require more supplies. For this physical science unit, you’ll need batteries and holders, bulbs and holders, and wires. If your budget doesn’t allow this, kids can explore virtually instead.

Let’s take a look at the labs:

  • With just a battery, bulb, and wire, kids do this time-tested inquiry activity. Seriously, just give them the materials. At first, they struggle. But then they start to find solutions. You’ll love it!
  • Before the activity, kids read some background information. It covers atoms, as well as static and current electricity. Then, using only two wires, they build a simple circuit.
  • After building testers (open circuits), kids complete a conductors and insulators lab. If it lights up, it’s a conductor.
  • Finally, kids build and compare series and parallel circuits.

Students use batteries, bulbs, and wires to explore electricity.

I’d like to suggest three extensions. First, kids use an online program to explore electrical circuits virtually. Second, they can use Snap Circuits to build all kinds of projects. (Because they are so sturdy, you can share them with other teachers. Additionally, they last for many years.) Third, kids build their own light boards.

As with the other forms of energy, kids use websites and videos to reinforce their understanding. Then they review and take a test.

Ask Questions and Make Predictions About Collisions

4-PS3-3 Ask questions and predict outcomes about the changes in energy that occur when objects collide.

I thought long and hard about this physical science standard. One year, my students simply used marbles in collisions. Sure, it was fun. But I wasn’t sure that they understood. As a result, I designed a small pool table.

Now my students explore the true intent. After a bit of exploration, they ask their own questions.

In this set of collision activities, students:

  • Practice shooting toward a bumper. Then they record how the marble bounces.
  • Experiment with straight shots. First, they simply hit the marble into the pocket. Then they try with two marbles.
  • Explore bank shots.
  • Measure angles.
  • Ask and answer questions.

In these physical science activities, fourth grade students use a miniature pool table to explore collisions.

This set is purely experiential. Therefore, it does not include assessment.

Design Something That Converts Energy

4-PS3-4 Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.

Yep. This physical science standard asks kids to use the engineering design process. Therefore, I developed a STEM activity. It asks kids to build an instrument with varied pitch. Specifically, kids identify the problem, research, develop possible solutions, choose one, construct and test a prototype, communicate results, evaluate, and redesign.

In this physical science activity, fourth graders complete a STEM challenge to explore pitch. Suggested materials include straws, tape, craft sticks, rubber bands, and toilet paper tubes.

Suggested materials include straws, rubber bands, craft sticks, and toilet paper tubes.

Physical Science Waves Standards

The waves portion of the physical science standards focuses on waves in water, the eye, and using patterns to transfer information.

Develop a Model of a Wave

4-PS4-1 Develop a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and that waves can cause objects to move.

These waves activities focus on waves in water. For this set, I put the cart before the horse. As I prepared, I realized that watching videos worked best at the beginning. After kids explored waves and their properties, they complete another STEM challenge. In it, they determine which of four models (shown below) best represents a transverse wave.

In these physical science activities, kids learn about waves then participate in a STEM challenge to determine which model best represents transverse waves. Suggested materials include rope, plastic bottles, water, straws, tape, a paint tray, and sand.

Develop a Model of the Eye

4-PS4-2 Develop a model to describe that light reflecting from objects and entering the eye allows objects to be seen.

In this set of eye activities, kids:

  • Experiment with reflected light. Placing a small object inside a toilet paper tube blocks the light. Therefore, it cannot be seen. When kids shine a flashlight down the tube, the object appears.
  • Learn parts of the eye. Using a diagram and definitions, fourth grade students consider analogies. For example, maybe the cornea is like a prism.
  • Draw a model. Instead of an actual model, students substitute their analogies for the parts.

In this short set of physical science activities, fourth grade students experiment with light and vision, learn about the eye, make analogies, and draw their own model.

Since this is a more factual unit, kids review and take a short test.

Use Patterns to Transfer Energy

4-PS4-3 Generate and compare multiple solutions that use patterns to transfer information.

This set of activities bridges physical science and technology. At first glance, a connection may not be evident. However, kids can soon see that Morse Code uses sound waves. Additionally, binary code is transferred by electricity. Finally, students consider other common ways that patterns transfer information.

This set of physical science activities connects with technology. Fourth grade students explore Morse code, binary code, and everyday uses of patterns to transfer information.

How These Physical Science Units Use Practices

Physical Science Activities Use Science Practices

In most activities, fourth graders work in science groups. This helps kids understand that scientists do not work alone. Instead, they work in teams.

Furthermore, activities place students in situations that ask them to use scientific practices. They ask questions, make predictions, plan and carry out investigations, and draw conclusions.

Physical Science Activities Use Engineering Practices

Several activities focus on engineering design processes. Kids use all of the related NGSS standards:

3-5-ETS1-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

3-5-ETS1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to met the criteria and constraints of the problem.

3-5-ETS1-3 Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Enjoy Teaching

I enjoy teaching – even when it’s standards-based. But it’s even better with hands-on activities. Hopefully, this post will help you do the same. Feel free to download my NGSS physical science pacing guide and objectives.





Brenda Kovich, NBCT

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