All you need to keep your kids occupied non-digitally on a super hot or rainy day is a glue gun, craft sticks, wooden clothes pins, masking tape, bottle tops, plastic spoons, rubber bands, and small size Lincoln logs or other small, glueable pieces from the thrift store or junk drawer. (If you want to take it to the next level, we were inspired by Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare. The kids didn’t have the attention span for the more complicated designs, so we mainly improvised.)
Obviously the clothes pin provides your firing mechanism and everything else is there for leverage and torsion. To fire the catapult, hold the front end of the bottom craft stick down onto a flat surface, load the bucket, and pull it back. Then, release it quickly. You can pull it down farther if you hang it off the edge of a table or other piece of furniture.
The kids think they are just shooting each other (or, in the case of our outdoor distance trials, shooting mini marshmallows into their mouths) but, since we all understand the underpinnings of math, science, music, and other abstract disciplines based on our experiences, they are absorbing plenty of physics along the way.
We found that we had two designs that achieved superior distance, but that only one achieved both distance and accuracy. For older kids who have started learning math, you could introduce the basics of chart making by measuring each shot and plotting the distances on a graph. For preschoolers, distance trials and “aim for the bucket” are good games. (Sorry, did I say bucket? I meant MOUTH. I did mention we used mini marshmallows as ammo, right?)
TIP: The kids enjoyed making up their own design refinements, and we discovered after a little experimentation that wiffle golf balls make excellent indoor ammunition. They are light, aero-dynamic, and they bounce entertainingly. You can also shoot each other with them without hurting anyone. And, they are the right size to fire from a bottle cap or spoon.