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The Amazing Index Card Tower

Using one simple material, students build the tallest tower possible.

The famous Index Card tower has become a STEM favorite.

One of the first STEM challenges we ever tried was tower building. The kids loved it so much that I started planning more tower-building events. We have tried towers with many different materials – like spaghetti, toothpicks, and even penny-toting buckets!  

One of our all-time favorite towers is the Index Card Tower.

STEM Index Card Tower Challenge- An easy prep activity for upper elementary. Resource includes a variation for a seasonal version.

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You will love the Index Card Tower because of 5 simple things!

  • It uses only one material.
  • Preparation is super easy.
  • It works for all ages.
  • It’s highly engaging because it’s so competitive.
  • Clean-up is ridiculously simple.

Let’s talk about each of these! Tips and ideas are included.

One Material and Easy Prep with the Index Card Tower

We first used this a few years back with 4th and 5th graders and they quickly showed me how inventively they could fold, bend, and roll the cards. And when I say cards, I mean index cards.  

Why index cards? Why not playing cards?

Well, here’s the scoop about that! I thought about using playing cards until I priced them. Even buying them at the dollar store meant 7 boxes per class and with 5 classes per grade level that was too much.

This would only work if students were told they could not bend or roll the cards. In the photos below you will see index cards in several configurations. That is part of the task. How can you use the cards inventively to make the tower work unless you can fold them?

STEM Activity- An easy prep activity for upper elementary. Detailed teacher’s guide included.

So, one material! Index cards work perfectly. If you need to, you can allow kids to use a small amount of tape.

The easiest way to give each team the index cards is just to hand them a stack. (I don’t count the cards!)

They rarely use all of them. More about this with the clean-up for this one- later!

The Index Card works with all ages!

STEM Index Card Tower Challenge- An easy prep activity for upper elementary. Resource includes a variation for a seasonal version.

Kids are competitive!

Over the last few years, I have tried this type of tower with many age groups- including first and second-graders. Those younger engineers approach the task much differently.

I gave the younger students more tape and you can see that they made triangle shapes by taping two cards together and they held their rolled columns together with tape.

STEM Index Card Tower Challenge- An easy prep activity for upper elementary. Detailed teacher’s guide included.

The first graders loved building, but their towers tended to spread sideways along the tables rather than getting very tall. 

They also quickly discovered that using a card between layers gave them platforms to keep building on

The tallest tower with the little engineers was 85 cm tall. Part of it is in the photo below. The team was so excited they jumped and cheered and bumped the table. And you know what happened then…. lots of groaning as the cards rained down all over the table and floor!

STEM Index Card Tower Activity- An easy prep activity for upper elementary. Resource includes a variation for a seasonal version.

Now, let’s take a look at my older engineers!

These photos are from a fifth-grade group that was unhappy that SECOND GRADERS had an 85 cm tower. The 5th graders were pretty determined to beat them!

Their towers quickly grew so tall they couldn’t reach the top of them to make them taller, so they took the building to the floor!

The tallest towers for the older students were 100+ cm. The very tallest was 120 cm. Incredible! The competition to have the tallest was fierce and the groans from these groups were just as loud as the little kids whenever a tower fell.  

A little bit about clean-up and recycling!

When it’s time to clean up with this task, I put out about four large dish pans labeled: Unused, Rolled, Bent vertically, Bent horizontally. Kids bring their cards and throw them in the labeled bins.   

When the next class comes in I give them a smaller stack of brand-new cards and they retrieve what they need from the already bent and rolled cards as they need them. We just keep reusing them! Later I throw all the bent and rolled cards into a large plastic bin, pop a top on it, and save it for the next index card project!

The Index Card Tower challenge is surprisingly versatile!

STEM Challenge- An easy prep activity for upper elementary. Detailed teacher’s guide included.

Bonus Challenge!

We repeated this challenge right before Christmas one year with one twist- the tower had to hold something! And it might have been that funny-colored little elf!

You could try this challenge at other times of the year and use any object to place at the top.

For Halloween use a small stuffed pumpkin, for springtime use jelly beans, and for Thanksgiving use a stuffed turkey.

This amazing, versatile Index Card Tower Challenge is a student favorite and you will love the easy prep!

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Comments

  1. Hi, Elizabeth! The amount of cards depends on the age level. For the younger students I probably gave them about 30. Older students received a pack of 100. They rarely use all of them. You can read more about this challenge right here: teacherspayteachers.com/Product/STEM-Activity-Challenge-Build-a-Tower-with-Index-Cards-1217602

  2. What was the time frame you gave the students to complete the challenge? I have 4th graders.

  3. Great question! Our classes are 45 minutes! We are able to complete this challenge and clean up in that time!

  4. Hello! I love this idea. I am thinking about doing a similar activity this week with my 4th graders. How do you suggest I preface the kids for this activity?

  5. Hi Codi! I don't do a fancy set-up with this one. You can talk about towers before they start building and let them name the tallest towers in the world if you like. I sometimes do that! Have fun!

  6. Hi Codi,
    Do you give them ideas on how to manipulate the cards? Or do you let them figure it out? This is for my cub scout troop.
    Thanks!

  7. I totally let them figure it out! Usually one team will find a way that works well and the others will "copy"!

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