Planes, Trains and Automobiles

In this lesson, children will graph the different vehicles that they scoop out of a bucket and then analyze their collected data, creating rules for why a vehicle is similar or different than other vehicles.

Content Area:

Beginning Skills and Processes

Learning Goals:

This lesson will help toddlers and preschoolers meet the following educational standards:

  • Develop beginning skills in the use of science and engineering practices such as observing, asking questions, solving problems and drawing conclusions
  • Explore the physical properties of objects
  • Use tools and technology to assist with science and engineering investigations

Learning Targets:

After this lesson, toddlers and preschoolers should be more proficient at:

  • Collecting, describing, comparing and recording information from observations and investigations
  • Using mathematical and computational thinking
  • Identifying, describing and comparing the physical properties of objects
  • Using nonstandard and standard scientific tools for investigation

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Lesson plan for toddlers/preschoolers

Step 1: Gather materials.

  • A bucket of vehicle counters (Learning Resources Mini-Motors Counters are available at and
  • A shovel or scoop that fits into the bucket of vehicles
  • Magnifying glasses
  • Large, 1″x1″ graph paper, already labeled, for a bar graph. The various types of vehicles (car, school bus, boat, train, fire truck and plane) should be spaced out along the X-axis (the line on the graph that runs horizontally from left to right). The number of vehicles of each type should be written along the Y-axis (the line on the graph that runs vertically). Do not go higher than 10 at the beginning. Instead of just using the word for each of the vehicles, have a picture of the vehicle accompanying the word. Prepare the bar graph ahead of time so that all that the children need to do is collect and analyze their data.

Note: Small parts pose a choking hazard and are not appropriate for children age five or under. Be sure to choose lesson materials that meet safety requirements.

Step 2: Introduce activity.

  1. Introduce the concept of a bar graph. Explain that a bar graph is a way in which scientists collect information and then study and compare that information.
  2. Explain that the children are going to use bar graphs to record how many vehicles they scoop out of the bucket. Say: “We want to see what vehicles we collect when we use the scoop to collect vehicles from the bucket. We want to see how many of each vehicle we collect and who scoops the most of one particular vehicle and who collects the least of one particular vehicle. We will be able to determine this by recording our collections on our bar graphs and then comparing our bar graphs with our friends’ bar graphs.”
  3. Invite the children to share what they see in the bucket and describe some basic characteristics of the vehicles.

Step 3: Engage children in lesson activities.

  1. Using a bar graph, model the collecting and recording of the vehicles. Scoop a quantity of vehicles out of the bucket and place them in a working space next to your bar graph. Start by sorting all of the like vehicles into groups. Say: “I think that I will make this a little easier by first sorting all of the same vehicles into piles. That way, it will be easier for me to count each group and then record how many are in each group.”
  2. While the children are sorting, ask what attributes of the vehicles could be used to sort and classify the vehicles. Use magnifying glasses so that the children can view the vehicle parts more closely.
  3. While sorting, invite the children to generate some rules of classification for the vehicles.
  4. Once the children have generated a classification system, invite the children to make statements about what they see. Ask: “How many trains do I have in my pile? (4) “That’s right. In order to record the four trains on my graph, I must first find the train column on my graph and then count up four boxes above the train drawing to show that I have four trains.” Place Xs in each of the boxes. “I have marked off four boxes that represent four trains. Over on this side of the graph, there is the number 4 to help me.”
  5. Continue graphing the remainder of your vehicles. When you are done, ask the children what they notice. Ask: “What vehicle do I have the most of? What vehicle do I have the least amount of? Do I have the same amount of any vehicles?”
  6. Once they are done analyzing their own data, gather the children together to analyze their findings as a group. Ask: “What were the similarities in the data collected? Any differences?”

Step 4: Vocabulary.

  • Observe—To watch and document an item to gather information
  • Characteristic—A feature or attribute of an object
  • Magnifying glass—A lens that enlarges the view of an object to enable the viewer to see smaller details of the object
  • Analyze—To examine information in order to make conclusions

Early Science Glossary

Step 5: Adapt lesson for toddlers or preschoolers.

Adapt Lesson for Toddlers
Toddlers may:
  • Sort but have trouble with one-to-one correspondence
  • Have emerging language to describe characteristics of vehicles
Child care providers may:
  • Help the child count each of the piles of vehicles once they are sorted
  • Use parallel and self talk to describe vehicles
Adapt Lesson for Preschoolers
Preschoolers may:
  • Be beginning to understand how to read and interpret a simple bar graph
  • Sort vehicles according to different classification rules
Child care providers may:
  • Have the children create and label their own bar graphs. Give them the graph paper and pose the question: “Using the squares on this paper, how are you going to record the number of each vehicle that you scoop out of the bucket?”
  • Invite children to describe differences and similarities between different the characteristics of the vehicles and generate new classification rules for sorting vehicles

Suggested Books

  • The Greatest Graph Contest by Loreen Leedy
  • Tiger Math: Learning to Graph from a Baby Tiger by Ann Whitehead Nagda
  • Lemonade for Sale (MathStart 3) by Stuart J. Murphy

Music and Movement

Outdoor Connections

Web Resources

Comment on this lesson