Some might ask why small kids should know about atoms. They are the foundation of existence. Everything they touch and see is built of atoms, even themselves. Of course atoms are not the smallest of particles, but atoms offer a gateway to talk about the smallest of the small too. Atoms need to be covered with kids, because they explain phenomena like electricity, states of matter, temperature etc. As the basic building blocks of the world around them, once a foundation is built with understanding of atoms, it is easy to connect them to everything and build up a worldview based on what we now understand to exist.
This still took a bit of thinking. Finally I decided to make it a crafts-project as that is very tactile. We built an atom. Actually my daughter built the most simple atom, hydrogen, while I was ambitious and built a more complex one, that of carbon. Later that week we made helium and oxygen. At the end of this post there is also an action-based idea on playing atoms.
Now, this project is a useful representation of an atom, as is the Bohr model most of us have been taught – the one where the electrons circulate around the nucleus at different rings, like planets. Both of these are wrong, however. The way I understand electrons, they are more a possibility of being, being fundamental particles, and a forcefield. They can be found around the nucleus. If they would move like these electrons do in this model, they would give out energy every time they change direction and would cease to exist. Still, this works with my four year old. If someone thinks of a useful way of making a model of forcefields, I’d be very interested.
The supplies we needed were:
- Magic dough – you can also use play dough, or clay, but the end result is not as stable and is prone to dropping pieces of play dough as the atom is played with
- food colouring (if you use magic dough)
- wire – I used 0,7mm steel wire
- hamabeads – you can use any other small bead that can handle the heat (if using the magic dough) or just fits inside (if using play dough)
Recipe of Magic dough
- 3dl flour
- 1,5dl salt
- 1,5dl water
- 1tablespoon of cooking oil
Mix flour and salt. Mix water and oil. Add water and oil into the flour and salt mixture and mix well. If it sticks to hands, one can add oil. If it is too dry, add water. Once it feels good, it is time to play and construct stuff from it. Once done, the end results are dried using the oven. Heat the oven to 125 Celsius degrees and put the pieces there for one hour. If they are very big they might need a bit longer. Allow to cool.
Our crafts -project
I divided up the dough into three portions and coloured them blue for electrons, red for protons and yellow for neutron. Because the colouring stuff was liquid I needed to add some flour. I then cut up pieces of the wire. I used short ones for center of the atom and placed one neutron and proton at the opposite ends of it. I used longer ones for the electrons. Inside each proton and neutron I added 3 hamabeads (for proton 2 up-quarks and 1 down-quark and for neutron 1 up-quark and 2 down-quarks) and wrapped them in the dough. I did not need any quarks for electrons as, unlike the proton and neutron, they are fundamental particles that cannot be decided into smaller particles. I curled up a bit of the wire though so that the dough would stay in place. Once the needed parts were ready, I placed them into the oven.
My daughter was less than exited of this, because my dough was a bit too wet and it stuck to her fingers. This is one of her dislikes, so I will need to make the dough using a bit more flour next time. As she was not so exited about this project at this time, I constructed the atom in the evening when she was already sleeping. She, however, loved the way the electrons moved around the core of the atom as I twisted and turned it really fast. We plan on making more on the weekend.
During the building of the atoms and later when we were eating, we talked about the atom. I told her that everything she touches and sees is made up of atoms and the movement of atoms is what explains why some things are solid, some are liquid and some are gas. I tapped the table and told her that in solids the atoms are fixed into place and don’t move. She then remembered seeing The Magic School bus rides again Episode 8. Three in one (if I remember the episode correctly – a very good show by the way), which talked about this and showed, how the atom moved or did not move, as is the case of solids. I was thrilled she made the connection. I then continued and stuck my finger in water and said that in liquid the atoms move, which is why I can put my finger in it. The atoms in the liquid move out of the way. And in gas the atoms move very quickly. I will go deeper into this with her and with you all when we test the different states of matter. Now it acted as a very good way of being concrete in a discussion about something she cannot see or touch.
I told her that the atom she built – hydrogen – forms 75% of everything there is. I concretised it with an apple and cut 1/4 of the apple and told her that if the apple was everything there is in the whole universe, the bigger piece – 3/4 of the apple – was hydrogen and the 1/4 is everything else. I do have to say that it made it quite concrete for me as well.
Action-based play as atoms:
Later she asked if we could play atoms, so we did. I was the center of the atom, the positive proton of the Hydrogen atom and she was the electron running around me while I tried to catch her. I did not try very hard, but it was fun. This game is best played with a sugared up kid if that ever happens in your house. If not, after dinner might work as well.
If you have a whole class of kids (being a teacher), you could organise them into separate atoms. Some could be neutrons holding the centre of the atom (the nucleus) together, some could ne protons trying to catch the electrons and rest could be electrons running around the nucleus. Of course if you have more than one atom, then the electrons can sometimes switch atoms every now and then as the atoms collide – forming ions.
Since building these atoms, it was important to me to keep bringing the term into conversation so as to solidify the concept in my daughter’s mind. When she was out of breath, I told her that she was breathing heavy to get more oxygen atoms into her muscles. When we heated our house with wood I showed her the leftover ash and explained that there are a lot of carbon atoms there. And I also explained at another time that water molecules contain two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, just like the ones we just made.
If you try this at home and your child asks questions, please report back on what they asked so I can further develop these instructions. Also, please remember like and share if you find this useful.
Copyright text and images: Satu Korhonen. You are free to try these experiments out, use them in your teaching. But instead of copying the text or images, link back to this page.