Getting to know the periodic table from atoms

August 06, 2004|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

"This is He."

Excuse me, what did you say?

"My balloon - his name is He."

We were having lunch at a restaurant and my 9-year-old named the balloon given to him by our waitress.

You named your balloon?

"Yes," he said smugly.

Why did you name him He?

"It's short for helium."

Aha. I got the connection.

Oh, yes, and that's helium's symbol on the periodic table of the elements.


"Yeah, mom, we went over that already. Don't you remember that big chart we have?"

That big chart, the aforementioned periodic table, used to confound me beyond measure in school. One day I decided to memorize the whole thing in hopes of making sense of it.

Did it help? Not much.

Knowing information is one thing. Applying it is another.

Elementary-age children should be introduced to the periodic table in practical, simple, fun ways so they'll be prepared to apply that information later on, says Jomar Tussing of Hagerstown, a former high school science teacher who home-schools her two children, Hannah, 11, and Zach, 9.

"The periodic table is the building block for everything we have in front of us," says Tussing, who teaches science at area home-schooling co-ops.

She likes to explain the elements in terms of atoms - the building blocks of matter. Each atom has a center made up of protons and neutrons. Electrons orbit the center, or nucleus, of the atom.

Children might enjoy pretending that they and their friends are an atom. Children who are the protons and neutrons could stand in a group while the children pretending to be electrons could run around them in a circular fashion.

A child can simulate this with toys. He could put beanie babies or stuffed animals (protons and neutrons) in a group and roll balls (electrons) around the outside.

Then he can learn how atoms act in different kinds of matter - solid, liquid and gas.

In solids, atoms are close together and move so slowly that we don't notice the movement. In liquids, atoms are farther apart and move faster than those in solids. Gas contains fast-moving atoms that are far apart.

You can see the effect temperature has on atoms by adding food coloring to cold water and hot water. In cold water, atoms move slowly and the color sinks to the bottom. In hot water, the color spreads quickly and evenly.

So, what does this have to do with the periodic table?

The first element on the table, hydrogen, has one proton, one neutron and one electron. Helium, the second element, has one more of each. The number of protons, neutrons and electrons basically increases with the atomic numbers. While the number of neutrons can vary, the number of protons and electrons balance each other.

Armed with this basic information, a child will be less likely to become overwhelmed when he takes chemistry or physics.

That's the practical aspect. To make it simple and fun, try these suggestions from Tussing:

  • Go on an element hunt. How many can you find in your house? Do you have silver jewelry? Copper materials? Milk of Magnesia? Got calcium? How many elements from the periodic table are listed on the side of your cereal box?

  • Put some vinegar in a bottle. Place a little baking soda in a balloon. Put the balloon over the mouth of the bottle and then allow the baking soda to drop into the vinegar. The gas given off from the chemical reaction between the baking soda and the vinegar will blow up the balloon. You've combined a solid and a liquid to produce a gas.

  • Talk like a chemist.

    "Kids like to sound big," Tussing says. "They love asking for a glass of H2O."

    While reaching for the salt shaker, say, "I think my food needs some sodium chloride."

    The next time you clean a grill, joke that "Here's a little extra carbon for us."

    Children might like knowing that CO2, carbon dioxide, escapes when we exhale.

    CO, carbon monoxide, comes out of a car.

A grammar note: When a caller asks for you by name, do you wonder which response is correct - "This is he/This is she" or "This is him/This is her"? Remember that the nominative case pronouns - I, he, she, we and they - are used after forms of the verb "to be" - am, is, are, was and were. So, the correct response is "This is he" or "This is she."

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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