Chemistry for Kids: Hands on Activities for Learning About Atoms and Molecules

As a homeschooling mom, I think hands on activities make learning science so much more interesting and fun. I also think they help children to understand science in a more concrete way. Things like atoms and molecules are pretty hard for a young child to comprehend without something tangible to relate to. In this post, and in a series of posts that will follow, I want to share with you some ideas for teaching elementary and middle school aged children about chemistry.

Let’s start with atoms and molecules.

What is an atom?

Atoms are tiny tiny particles that make up all matter. You can’t see them - in fact, they are so tiny that millions and millions of them can fit in the point of the very sharpest pencil. But eveything around us is made of millions and millions of atoms - our bodies, our homes, our pets, the trees, even the air we breathe! To help make this concept more concrete, take a look through a magnifying glass at an image in a book or a picture printed from your computer. This will work best with a magnifying glass that magnifies at 4X or higher.

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What do you see? Can you see that the picture is made from many many tiny dots? When you look at the picture with just your eyes, you don’t see the dots, but the picture is really just a whole lot of tiny dots of color put together. Atoms are like this - only even smaller!

The Human Atom

This is a fun activity for a group of children. You build a model of an atom using people as the subatomic particles. You need one notecard for each child in the group. Divide the notecards into three equal groups (roughly) and write a minus sign on the notecards in one group, a plus sign on the second group of notecards, and a zero on the third group of notecards.

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Give one notecard to each child in the group and explain that the protons are positive and they are found in the center of the atom, which is called the nucleus. The neutrons are neutral and also found in the nucleus. Protons and neutrons are roughly the same size and they are the largest of the three main subatomic particles. Have all the children with + or 0 cards form a group in the center of the room. If you are working with a multi-age group, give the smallest of the children the - cards and explain that electrons are negatively charged and they are the smallest of these three subatomic particles. Then have the “electrons” run around the nucleus, explaining how the electrons move around the nucleus in orbitals.

Build a Model of an Atom

This activity is good for explaining several concepts about atoms. This model follows the Niels Bohr model of an atom. You can make the framework for the model by tracing circles onto a clear placemat or cutting board. Whatever you use, it needs to be fairly thin. For beginning chemists, I recommend working with just two orbitals at first. The location of electrons in orbitals after the second orbital gets complicated, so keep it simple for beginners. Lay strips of double-sided tape in the middle of the circles. This will be the location of the nucleus of the atom.

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Have your child or children take a look at the periodic table (I really like this placemat version because of its durability). Notice the atomic number above the name of each of the elements.

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The atomic number tells you how many protons are in the nucleus of the atom. This is an atom’s identity. No other kind of atom will have that number of protons. For example, any atom that has just one proton is hydrogen. The atomic number for hydrogen is 1. Select an atom (choose one with an atomic number of ten or less since we are only dealing with two orbitals). Look at its atomic number. For our example we will use carbon. Carbon has an atomic number of 6 which means it has 6 protons in its nucleus. Take 6 tokens labeled with + (I used bingo tokens for this) and stick them to the double stick tape in the center of your atom (if you want to get fancy you can also use removable poster dots to stick your protons on).

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Usually, there are about the same number of neutrons as protons in an atom. Carbon has 6 neutrons, so place 6 tokens labeled with 0 in the nucleus of the atom.

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An atom in its neutral form will have the same number of electrons as protons. So carbon has six electrons, which we will represent with tiny magnets labeled with a minus sign. The tiny magnets are to remind us that electrons are much smaller than protons and neutrons. Place a second magnet underneath the mat behind each “electron” magnet to hold the “electrons” on. Younger children (6-7 or younger) might have a hard time manipulating the tiny magnets, so if you are working with younger children I recommend using brads instead of magnets. You will have to make some holes in your orbitals so you can stick the brads through.

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Now its time to talk about orbitals! The first orbital can only hold two electrons. The second orbital can hold eight electrons. The inner orbital has to be filled before any electrons can go to the second orbital. The outer orbital of an atom is called its valence shell. Atoms are kind of particular in the way they like their valence shell to be. They are kind of all-or-nothing characters - they either like their valence shell to be completely full or completely empty. And they will give away, receive, or share electrons in order to get their valence shell closer to full or empty, which is how atoms bond together. We can show this by building two different atoms and “bonding” them together with our magnet or brad electrons.

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Here we have carbon and oxygen. When they bond, they share 6 electrons in order to achieve a full eight electrons in their valence shells. This is called a covalent bond (co for together (sharing) and valent for valence electrons).

You can also use this model to represent an ionic bond. In an ionic bond, an atom donates an electron to another atom, creating one atom with a positive charge (the electron donor) and one atom with a negative charge (the atom that received the extra electron). The atoms have become ions, and because they are now charged they are attracted to each other. You can demonstrate this with a sodium fluoride molecule. Sodium (Na) has 11 electrons, and fluorine (F) has 9 electrons, so sodium gives one electron to fluorine giving them both a valence shell with eight electrons, which makes the valence shell full and the atoms happy!

Positively charged sodium is on the left, negatively charged fluoride is on the right

Positively charged sodium is on the left, negatively charged fluoride is on the right

Build sodium and fluorine and move one “electron” magnet from sodium to fluorine. Sodium is now positive because it has more positive protons than negative electrons, and fluorine has become a negative ion (fluoride) because it now has more negatively charged electrons than positively charged protons. Like magnets, the oppositely charged atoms are attracted to each other and bond together to form a molecule of sodium fluoride (NaF).

I did these activities with my own children (ages 6-12) and a group of homeschool children in that same range, and I was really impressed with how much information about atoms they were able to understand and retain. I hope your children enjoy these activities too!

Overnight Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal: How to make your family a nourishing whole-food breakfast - in your sleep!

It’s really important to me to feed my family healthy nourishing foods. But making a healthy whole-food breakfast every morning can really be a challenge! I’m going to share with you my favorite way to feed my family a nutrient dense breakfast. It’s fast and easy - so easy, in fact, that you can do it in your sleep!

Overnight Baked Oatmeal

Imagine waking up in the morning to the smell of oatmeal baking knowing that you have a hot breakfast waiting for you. There is an under-used feature on most ovens that can make this happen. On my Frigidaire oven it is labeled Start Time. If you have never used Start Time, you should try it! It starts your oven at a specified time, so you can leave a dish in the oven overnight and set Start Time to bake your breakfast in the morning before you wake up (this is only for a dish that is ok to leave unrefrigerated, of course). You can also put a frozen meal in the oven before leaving home and set Start Time so lunch or dinner will be ready and waiting when you get back. This feature varies between ovens, so read your manual to find out how to do it.

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I use Start Time regularly to prepare a hot breakfast for my family. I mix up my baked oatmeal recipe in the evening (I will share it with you at the end of this post), which takes about 10 minutes, grease a pan and pour the batter in, and put the pan in the oven. I then push Start Time and set the time for about 50 minutes before I plan to get up in the morning. Then I set the temperature to 350 degrees. The oven will turn on and warm to 350 at the set time, and I get to go to bed knowing that my family will have a delicious, hot, healthy breakfast ready and waiting when we wake up!

My Overnight Baked Oatmeal recipe is made from whole-food, it is allergy friendly because it is gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and corn-free, and it is very nutrient dense! I like to use One Degree Organic oats because they are gluten-free and they are sprouted, which makes them more digestible and makes it easier for us to absorb their nutrients. The baked oatmeal is also soaked overnight, which makes the oats even easier on the digestion! You can find these oats on Amazon, but you might find them for a better price at your local health-food store, so check for them there. This recipe is incredibly versatile so you can flavor it any way you like. I’ve made so many versions of it -I’ve flavored it with pumpkin, banana, winter squash, dates, cranberries, raisins, and more! I have even hidden pureed beets in it (but shhh! don’t tell my kids!)


Overnight Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal

Serves 6

Ingredients:

3 c. of rolled oats or quick oats (both work but they will yield different textures)

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ginger

1/2 c. melted coconut oil or butter (you can also use olive oil, but I think the results are better with coconut oil or butter)

1 c. water or milk, almond milk, or coconut milk, add more if the batter seems too dry (note - if you are leaving this at room temperature overnight, you can use raw milk, but do not use pasteurized cow’s milk)

1/2 - 3/4 c. maple syrup (1/2 c. will be barely sweet)

4 eggs

1 tbsp. lemon juice

1 c. pureed pumpkin (you can also use pureed winter squash, 2 mashed bananas, dried cranberries, chopped dates, or raisins)

1 tsp. vanilla

Set oven to Start Time 50 minutes before you would like breakfast to be ready. Set temperature to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8 baking dish. 

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients in the order listed.  Mix until well incorporated. Pour into prepared dish and place in the oven. In the morning, after the oatmeal has been baking for 50 minutes, insert a toothpick to make sure it is done. When the toothpick comes out clean, remove the oatmeal from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes before serving.