Back when I was in fourth grade, marbles were the consuming passion of all the kids in my class. We’d spend all of recess haggling over trades, sorting our collections, and showing off our coolest-looking aggies. We even found the time to play marbles with our marbles!
Times have changed a little since then, but kids (and even some grownups) all over the world are still playing with marbles. These simple glass balls are proof that a toy doesn’t have to “do” anything to be great—in fact, it’s often the case that the simpler the toy is, the more you can learn from it, and the more fun you can have using your imagination to come up with new games and experiments!
One of the best (and also dorkiest) things about marbles is that they’re a good way of learning about classical mechanics, the branch of physics that has to do with objects in motion. In particular, they can be used to demonstrate Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion, the foundation for much of our understanding of how and why things move (or don’t, as the case may be).
The traditional game of marbles showcases all three laws of motion. Marbles tend to stay still unless something (like another marble) hits them; lighter marbles are easier to move than heavier ones (the reason “shooters” are bigger than regular marbles); and when two marbles collide, they bounce off each other with equal force (so when a shooter hits a regular marble, the little one goes flying while the shooter only slows down).
If you put your marbles through a marble run, you can see a demonstration of something else that Isaac Newton—among other famous smart guys, like Galileo Galilei and Albert Einstein—was interested in: gravity. The force of Earth’s gravity is what causes the marble to go faster and faster as it rolls down the chutes and ramps.
Of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to have fun with marbles. Some people would rather learn about their history, or see how they are made; some (like my 4th-grade classmates) care most about winning against their friends; others just want to collect as many neat-looking and unique marbles as they can! As long as you are having fun and using your imagination, there is no limit to the fun you can have, even with something as simple as a bag of little glass spheres.
The World’s Only Curious George Store, located in Harvard Square, carries a selection of marbles, as well as many other children’s toys, games, and books.