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Lesson Plan on Bridges: Forces, Arch Bridges, & Truss Bridges

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

Lesson Plan on Bridges: Forces, Arch Bridges, & Truss Bridges

Lesson Plan on Bridges: Forces, Arch Bridges, & Truss Bridges

This is the first half of a two-part hands-on unit study on bridges. Activities include building grape and toothpick truss bridges, piecing together a play-doh arch bridge, acting out the forces involved in bridge building, and more! These lessons are geared toward elementary and middle school level children. They were created for a weekly homeschool co-op that meets for 2 1/2 hours with 33 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, camp, or co-op!

One student's drawing of a bridge

One student's drawing of a bridge

Types of Bridges

1. Pray. Read and discuss Ephesians 2:20.

2. Have children draw a quick sketch of what comes to mind when they think of a bridge.

You will need:

  • Writing implements
  • Paper

3. Ask children to think about the last time they remember crossing a bridge. Where were they? How were they traveling (on foot, by car, bicycle, bus, or train)? What were their impressions? Did they notice the bridge? Ask what structures they consider to be bridges. Usually when people think of bridges, they think of structures spanning water.

4. Ask the children to think about other obstacles bridges can span.

5. Introduce the five major types of bridges (beam, arch, suspension, cable-stayed, and cantilever) by showing pictures from books. I used Bridges Are for Crossing .

You will need:

  • a book such as Bridges Are for Crossing showing the five major types of bridges (If you'd prefer a book with photos rather than illustrations, Bridges by Seymour Simon is a great option.)

6. Look back at the original drawings each child sketched. Categorize them into each type of bridge. (Assist children who are not able to identify their bridge type.) Which bridge type did most people think of when they thought of a bridge?

(Introduction ideas came from

Book I used for activity 5

Tension & Compression

Tension & Compression

Tension & Compression

7. Explain that bridges, like all built structures, rely on unseen forces that hold them together which allows them to support additional weight, also called "loads." We usually don't think about forces acting on an object or structure that isn't moving. A force is a push or pull on an object. When an object is at rest (not moving), the forces acting on it are balanced.

8. Demonstration of forces:

  • Place a chair in the middle of the floor. Ask the children whether there are any forces acting on this chair. Explain that even without anyone pushing on the chair, there are forces acting on it. The force of gravity is pulling down on the chair. It doesn't collapse because it supports its own weight.
  • Have a child push the chair a short distance. Ask, "What force just acted on the chair?" (A push unbalanced the forces on the chair & made it move.)
  • Now have 2 children face each other and push on either side of the chair so that it doesn't move. Ask, "Are any forces acting on the chair? If so, why doesn't it move?" (Although two forces are acting on the chair, they are balanced, causing it to remain in place.)
  • This is the case with a bridge. Two forces, compression and tension, are working together in balance to keep the bridge up at all times.

You will need:

Scroll to Continue
  • a chair

(The chair activity idea came from

Tension at work.

Tension at work.

An example of compression.

An example of compression.

Learning Compression and Tension

9. Compression is the act of being pushed or pressed together. Everyone should place their hands with their palms together & elbows bent. Tell them to press their palms together. This pushing force is called compression.

10. Explain that tension is the act of being stretched or pulled. Have the children place their hands in front of them, and clasp curled fingertips together. Tell them to pull on their hands. This pulling force is called tension.

Beam Bridges

Beam Bridges

Beam Bridges: Compression and Tension

9. Give each group of children a slightly damp (i.e. not rock hard) sponge and a marker.

  • One child should draw a few lines, about 1" apart, on the sponge. (Don't measure or use a ruler. Exact spacing isn't important.)
  • Have the children bend the sponge into a U-shape as if a load were on it. See how the lines get closer together on the inside of the U? That's because a force called compression makes things shorter. On the outside of the U, the lines get farther apart. A force called tension makes things longer.

You will need (per group):

  • Kitchen sponge
  • Marker

10. How do these forces of compression and tension work on a bridge?

  • The sponge is like a simple beam bridge, just like if you put a log across a stream in order to cross it.
  • Position 2 books of approximately equal height (3-4 inches) 1-2 inches apart so that the flat sponge can "span" them. Put the sponge across the distance between the 2 books.
  • Have one child use a pen, pencil, or finger to place a downward force on the top of the sponge - just enough to cause the sponge to bend but not completely collapse.
  • What happens to the parallel lines drawn on the top and bottom? (The lines on the top move closer together. The lines on the bottom move farther apart.)
  • Ask where the sponge is in compression or where the compressive forces are located. (The inside of the U-shape/the top.)
  • Where is the sponge in tension, or where are the tensile forces located? (The outside of the U-shape.)
  • How could you balance out the forces of tension and compression acting on the bridge to make it stronger? (Some ideas include using a stiffer material for the beam, or adding supports, such as knitting needles or pencils, to the sponge.)

(The sponge activity idea came from

Demonstrating suspension bridge compression

Demonstrating suspension bridge compression

Demonstrating suspension bridge tension.

Demonstrating suspension bridge tension.

Compression and Tension on Suspension Bridges

13. A suspension bridge must be balanced to stand up. It uses tension in the cables to create an overall force of compression in the towers. Everyone will need a partner for this activity.

  • To demonstrate compression on a suspension bridge, have partners press the palms of their hands together and lean toward one another. The children will be making an arch with their bodies. Go around to each pair and push on top of the arches. Explain that when you are pushing down you are causing them to push together, or to be put into compression.
  • To demonstrate tension, have each team member grasp the other's forearms. Both children lean back. Their arms should stretch out between them. Go around to several pairs and lean gently on top of their arms to test their "structure". Explain that when you lean on them you are pushing down and causing their arms to stretch, or be put into tension.
Demonstrating loads.

Demonstrating loads.

Live Loads and Dead Loads

14. Explain that bridges must be able to support two types of forces, called loads, or they will collapse. Show the toy bridge. Ask what weight it needs to support. Dead load is the weight of the bridge itself, such as its columns, beams, nuts, bolts, trusses, cables, etc. Now place the toy car, person, cow, or other item/items on the bridge, and tell the children that these are live loads. Ask them to tell you what a live load is. Live load is the weight or force of temporary external elements acting on the bridge, such as people, vehicles, etc.

You will need:

  • A toy bridge (like a block in the shape of an arch)
  • Examples of live loads (i.e. a toy car, toy cow, or toy person)

15. Ask students to come up with more examples of live load. If they need hints, blow on it (wind) and shake it (earthquake). Explain that environmental factors, such as temperature, earthquakes, and wind also constitute live loads acting on bridges. Hot and cold temperatures cause parts of the bridge to change shape and put pressure on other parts of the bridge; earthquakes push and pull horizontally on a structure as the ground beneath jerks back and forth; and wind blows on a structure pushing it horizontally.


Loads on Beam and Arch Bridges

16. Beam Bridges and Loads:

  • The difference between bridge designs is how a bridge carries the weight (load). Let's start with the most simple of bridges, the beam bridge.
  • For this demonstration, everyone will need to work in pairs or in groups of three.
  • Stand a pair of books upright like bookends, each about 6 inches apart. Have children work in groups or pairs with one child holding up the 2 books and one child adding the "load" to the bridge.
  • Place a piece of paper across the first pair. Gently place paperclips one by one in the middle of your beam bridge. At what point can it no longer hold its load and it begins to sag?
  • How can you make it stronger? Let children try out some theories.

17. Arch Bridges and Loads: The Romans came up with one solution to this: the arch.

  • Have the children try to for an arch using just the sheet of paper. It will collapse because its ends move outward.
  • Curve a piece of paper upward and tuck the ends inside the book covers to form an arch. The books are acting as abutments. What kind of force do the abutments (as represented by the textbooks) impose on the arch, pushing (compression) or pulling (tension)? (Answer: The abutments push back on the arch since the arch is pushing on the abutments.) Point out how the stacks of books act as abutments keeping the ends of the arch from spreading apart. Gently add paper clips. Does this shape hold more of a load?
  • Tape 2-3 sheets of paper together end to end to make 1 long piece. It needs to be as high as the books when it's propped up between them in an arch. Rest a piece of paper on top. Can this bridge hold more paper clips than the first 2? Why? (The arch helps to distribute weight.) (Note: Not all groups had success with this.)
  • Accordion-fold a piece of paper lengthwise. Place it across the top of the books. Fold another piece of paper in the same way. Lay 1 sheet of paper under and 1 sheet over the accordion-folded paper. Try not to squish the folds. Do you think this will hold more than the arch bridge? How many paper clips can this bridge hold before it begins to sag? The triangles in this bridge make it stronger. We'll come back again, so remember that!

You will need per group:

  • A pair of books
  • A piece of paper
  • Paper clips
  • Heavier items such as pennies
  • Tape

Rainbow Bridge and Arch Bridge Model

Rainbow Bridge and Arch Bridge Model

Arch Bridge Models

18. (If you are not limited by time) Divide children into groups of 6. Have 3 children stand in 1 line facing the other 3 children who are also standing in a straight line, 1 behind the other, facing the other team. The middle 2 children will place their hands on each other's shoulders. The outside children should put their hands on the waist of the child in front of them. Once they're set, start pushing. Push equally so everyone stays up. As soon as you're pushed, feel the compression (pushing) force that squeezes your body. That's what it's like to be a stone in an arch bridge. Let each child have a turn in the middle. The place in the middle is called the keystone. (The bridge activity idea came from Bridges by Carol A. Johmann).

19. Show a picture of Rainbow Bridge. Have children use play-dough to form an arch bridge. Place it on its side. Cut it into 5-7 wedge-shaped pieces. Try to put it together again so that it can stand up. Briefly discuss the role and importance of a keystone. (The arch bridge activity idea came from Bridges by Carol A. Johmann).

You will need per student:

  • Half of a container of play-dough
  • A plastic knife

The Strongest Shape: Squares vs. Triangles

20. Make Squares and Cubes:

  • Start with 4 toothpicks and 4 gumdrops or grapes. Poke the toothpicks into the gumdrops/grapes to make a square with a gumdrop/grape at each corner. Poke another toothpick into the top of each gumdrop/grape. Put a gumdrop/grape on the top of each toothpick. Connect the gumdrops/grapes with toothpicks to make a cube. (A cube has a square on each side. It takes 8 gumdrops/grapes & 12 toothpicks.)
  • Use more toothpicks and gumdrops/grapes to keep building squares onto the sides of the cube. When your structure is about 6 inches tall or wide, try wiggling it from side to side. Does it feel solid, or does it feel kind of shaky?
  • What shape might be stronger and less shaky?

You will need per student:

  • At least 100 gumdrops, gummy fruit, or grapes
  • At least 100 toothpicks

21. Making Triangles & Pyramids

  • Start with 3 gumdrops/grapes and 3 toothpicks. Poke the toothpicks into the gumdrops/grapes to make a triangle with a gumdrop/grape at each point. Poke another toothpick into the top of each gumdrop/grape. Bend those 3 toothpicks in toward the center. Poke all 3 toothpicks into one gumdrop/grape to make a 3-sided pyramid. (A 3-sided pyramid has a triangle on each side. It takes 4 gumdrops/grapes and 6 toothpicks.)
  • Use more toothpicks and gumdrops/grapes to keep building triangles onto the sides of your pyramid. When your structure is about 6 inches tall or wide, try wiggling it from side to side. Does it feel solid, or does it feel kind of shaky?
  • Why are triangles so strong? As you've probably already discovered, squares collapse easily under compression. Four toothpicks joined in a square tend to collapse by giving way at their joints, their weakest points. A square can fold into a diamond.
  • But if you make a toothpick triangle, the situation changes. The only way to change the angles of the triangle is by shortening one of the sides. So to make the triangle collapse you would have to push hard enough to break one of the toothpicks.
  • Can you identify which parts of the triangle are in tension and which are in compression? (If pressure is applied to any of the corners, the two sides radiating from that point will be in compression, while the side opposite that point will be in tension. If pressure is applied to any of the sides, that side will be in tension, while the other two sides will be in compression.)
  • Can you add a toothpick to the square and rectangle so they don't move? (Take notice of the shapes they have made inside the square and rectangle; they are triangles.)
Making trusses and assembling them to make a truss bridge

Making trusses and assembling them to make a truss bridge

Truss Bridges

22. Building Truss Bridges: Use your gumdrops and toothpicks to build a truss bridge, which combines triangles and squares.

  • Place two gumdrops/grapes with their bases laying flat on your work surface. Insert the pointed ends of a round toothpick into the center of each gumdrop's/grape's side to create a barbell shape. Insert another toothpick to each gumdrop/grape at a 45-degree angle. Insert both bare ends of the toothpicks into the same gumdrop/grape to form a complete triangle. Insert a toothpick into one of the base gumdrops/grapes of the first triangle at a 45-degree angle, and another toothpick into the top gumdrop/grape. Insert both of the new toothpicks' bare ends into a new gumdrop/grape; this will create a second inverted triangle.
  • Repeat this process until you have three upright and two inverted triangles that form a trapezoidal shape.
  • Repeat the triangle-making process to create another trapezoidal shape; this will run parallel to the first and give you the second side of your bridge.
  • Connect the two trapezoidal sides of the bridge using a total of seven toothpicks to run across from gumdrop to gumdrop.
  • Look down from an overhead vantage point to check that you have three squares at the base and two squares at the top.
Painting Famous Bridges

Painting Famous Bridges

Painting Famous Bridges

23. Allow students to view pictures of famous bridges. Let the children sketch a famous bridge using a pencil and then color it in using watercolor.

You will need per student:

  • Paper
  • Writing utensils
  • Water colors
  • Cups/bowls for water
  • Books with pictures of famous bridges


24. Ask questions such as:

  • Name a type of bridge (beam, arch, suspension, cable-stayed, & cantilever) What is the definition of a force? (a push or pull on an object)
  • Name a force that acts on bridges. (compression, tension, load)
  • Use your hands to show me the force of compression. (Push them together.)
  • Use your hands to show me the force of tension. (Pull them apart.)
  • What is a dead load? (the weight of the bridge itself, such as its columns, beams, nuts, bolts, trusses, cables, etc.)
  • What is a live load? (the weight or force of temporary external elements acting on the bridge, such as people, vehicles, etc.)
  • Describe what a beam bridge might look like. (a log across a stream)
  • Describe what an arch bridge might look like. (a bridge with arches under it)
  • What shape can make a bridge stronger? (triangle)
  • What is a keystone? (The stone in the crown of the arch that holds the other stones together.)
  • Describe what a truss bridge might look like. (a beam bridge made of triangles and squares)
  • What was your favorite activity from today?
Bridges by Seymour Simon - Book image is from amazon .com.

Bridges by Seymour Simon - Book image is from amazon .com.

We also enjoyed reading:

  • Forces Make Things Move (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Kimberly Bradley (for reviewing the concept of forces)
  • Building Big by David Macaulay (especially great for older children)
  • Bridges (SeeMore Readers Level 2) by Seymour Simon
  • Cross a Bridge by Ryan Ann Hunter
  • Bridge Building: Bridge Designs and How They Work (High Five Reading) by Diana Briscoe
  • Bridges Go from Here to There by Forrest Wilson
  • Rosita's Bridge by Mary McMillan Fisher
  • Sven's Bridge by Anita Lobel
  • From Cement to Bridge (Start to Finish) by Robin Nelson
  • Bridges by Etta Kaner
  • Let's Try It Out with Towers and Bridges : Hands-On Early-Learning Activities by Seymour Simon (great for preschool & kindergarten ages)
  • Bridging the World by Robert S. Cortright (for pictures of famous bridges)
  • Bridges of the World Coloring Book by Bruce LaFontaine (for pictures of famous bridges)

Would you like to dig in deeper with more activities? These have many more wonderful ideas on what to do!

  • Bridges! Amazing Structures (Kaleidoscope Kids) by Carol A. Johnman
  • Bridges and Tunnels: Investigate Feats of Engineering with 25 Projects (Build It Yourself series) by Donna Latham
  • Building Toothpick Bridges (Math Projects: Grades 5-8) by Dale Seymour Publications Secondary
  • Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures: The Step-by-Step Way to Draw Castles and Cathedrals, Skyscrapers and Bridges, and So Much More by Lee J. Ames
  • Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book by Steven Caney
  • Build It!: Activities for Setting Up Super Structures (Design It) by Keith Good

Items for Families to Bring Per Child:

  • A pencil, marker, watercolor paints with paintbrush, & small container for water for paints
  • Five sheets of white computer paper (4 of the pages can be scrap paper but 1 should be clean for the watercolor picture.)
  • Kitchen sponge (1 for every 2 children)
  • 20 paperclips
  • A handful of small items that are heavier than paperclips (such as pennies)
  • Scotch tape (1 per family)
  • Half of a container of play dough
  • At least 100 grapes, gumdrops, or gummy fruit
  • At least 100 toothpicks
  • Protective cover shirts (optional – we will only be using watercolor paints)
  • At least 1 picture of a famous bridge that your child can sketch (from a library book, the Internet, etc.) (1 for every 3 children)

Items to Bring to Share with the Group:

  • A book with pictures of the 5 major types of bridges
  • Large amount of books or other items that can be used for bridge span testing
  • Toy bridge (like a block in the shape of an arch) & examples of live loads (toy car, toy cow, toy person)
  • A picture of Rainbow Bridge (from a book or the Internet), 1 plastic knife per child, and One piece of wax paper per child (to protect the table)
  • Paper towels or napkins

Bill Nye on Bridges & Forces - My children LOVE watching Bill Nye!

World's Biggest Arch Bridge: Hoover Dam Bridge


Build grape and toothpick truss bridges, piece together a play-doh arch bridge, act out the forces involved in bridge building and suspension bridges, paint famous bridges, hold a bridge-building contest, and more in this fun 2 part unit study on bridges!

Looking for all of my hands-on unit study lessons?

  • Fun, FREE Hands-on Unit Studies - Over the years I have posted over 30 science and social-studies based unit studies, compromised of more than 140 lessons. For each lesson I have included activities (with photos), our favorite books and YouTube video clips, lapbook links, and other resources.

© 2012 Shannon

Do you have a favorite bridge? Do you even notice them? - Or just leave a note to let me know you dropped by! I love getting feedback from you!

Shannon (author) from Florida on December 02, 2020:

Unfortunately, this platform doesn't offer that as an option. You can copy and paste the text into a Word document & then print it.

Lindsay Pilgrim on March 21, 2020:

Is there a printable version of this lesson?

Nasfat on October 10, 2018:

Thanks iijuan for the great effort.

Are all the lesson plans for 4th to 5th Grades? if yes do you have some for other grades,

Shannon (author) from Florida on August 24, 2012:

@digitaltree: Thank you so much!

digitaltree on August 24, 2012:

Nice Lens and lesson on building bridges.

Shannon (author) from Florida on June 27, 2012:

@BikePro: Thank you for dropping by!

Graeme on June 27, 2012:

Thanks for the great article, and the Bill Nye video! Brings me back...

ceejaycmarshall on June 12, 2012:

I love this lens! Great unit to fit a bridge theme! Thank you.:)

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