Why Dominoes Are a Great Science Experiment

If you’ve ever played a game of domino, you know how exciting it is to set up a long line of tiles and then flick one to start the chain reaction. It’s like the beginning of a fireworks show: a single act triggers a series of explosions that culminate in a grand finale. But dominoes can be used for much more than entertainment, and they’re a great tool to teach children about science.

Dominoes are small and detailed, and they require skill to create. The process of putting them together isn’t unlike the process of writing fiction: it requires careful planning, precise execution, and an understanding of the domino effect—the idea that one action can trigger many more to follow. Whether you write off the cuff or take your time with an outline, plotting a novel ultimately comes down to one simple question: what happens next? Thinking about the Domino effect will help you answer that question in a compelling way.

There are several different ways to play domino, and the rules can vary from place to place. Some games are played with a straight line of dominoes, others are curved, and still others use grids that form pictures when they fall. Some people even make 3D structures out of dominoes, such as towers and pyramids.

A player must match a domino with another in order to continue the chain. Each domino has a number on one side, and the other is blank. If a player places a tile that has the same number as the end of the chain, it’s called “stitching up the ends.” This allows the players to play on more quickly and efficiently.

Dominoes also offer an opportunity to observe physical laws in a simple and accessible manner. If you’ve never seen this for yourself, try this experiment: Reset all the dominoes so they are upright, then very lightly touch the first domino with your finger. Watch what happens. The domino doesn’t move because it has inertia, a tendency to resist motion. But a little nudge is enough to push the domino past its tipping point, and then it falls over and unleashes the chain reaction that follows.

The same principle applies to nerve impulses in the body. The speed at which a domino chain falls depends on the size of the triggering domino and the distance between it and the next domino in the chain. Also, like a domino chain, a nerve impulse cannot pass from one neuron to another—it must travel down the axon of the cell.

This experiment can also be a fun way to introduce students to the concept of chain reactions. They can watch the chain reaction as it develops and talk about how each step contributes to what happens at the end of the chain. Then, they can draw a design on paper of how they would like to see their own domino effect happen—whether that’s a straight line, a curved line, a grid that forms a picture, or a 3D structure—and then make the plan come to life.