Simple Ideas to teach Atomic Number

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My family started our homeschooling story last week. We met our co-op group, enjoying being with families again, each of my boys finding new friendships. I’m so glad we started homeschooling with a group of others who know so much more about homeschooling than I do. My fellow homeschooling moms have already imparted wonderful knowledge on me, along with encouragement. Our co-op also gives us guideance on what to teach each week. For science, this past week we to focused on the definition of atomic number. Throughout the week, I found simple, yet fun ways to help them understand the definition of an atomic number.

Fun and simple ways to help kids understand the atomic number of an element. Everything is fun when you include food! Make elements at snack and dessert.

How to Teach kids about the Atomic Number of an Element

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I started our week by teaching my sons what an atom is. I explaned that atoms are everywhere, but are so small we cannot see them.

Then I asked my middle son bring out one of his favorite t-shirts; a dingy yellow shirt, but with one really helpful image. The Periodic Table.

Where to Find an Atomic Number

I brought my son’s shirt to our table, then pointed to the Helium element on the periodic table. Next, I pointed to a number in the upper left corner, and told them this was the atomic number of the element.

How to find the atomic number of an element

I explained that the atomic number is the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. I looked at my boys, and saw three blank stares. I needed to find a better way to help them understand.

To start, I went to our local library to see if I could find children’s books about atoms. I found two non-fiction books with simple explanations of atoms:

The books gave a great summary of what an atom is, and the parts of an atom. But I am a true believer than the best way to learn is through hands on activities. So for snack time and dessert the next day, I created a fun way to make the lesson more tangible.

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Hands-on Models of Atoms

To make our two models, I started by drawing two concentric circles on a paper plate.

Circles to make atom model on a paper plate.

The inner circle is the nucleus of the atom. The outer circle is the first electron shell, where the electrons orbit the nucleus of the atom. The lip of the paper plate is a second electrol shell.

Atomic Number at Snack Time

For snack, I brought out green and red grapes, along with blueberries. Using the green grapes as protons, red grapes as neutrons, and blueberries as electrons. We used different colored grapes for protons and neutrons because these two parts of an atom are the same size. Electrons, on the other hand, are much smaller than protons and neutrons, which is why we used blueberries.

Helium Atomic Number and Atom Model

I pointed to the element Helium on my son’s yellow shirt again, and asked “What is the atomic number of Helium?” They all said “2!”. I told them “YES! Which means a Helium atom has two protons in its nucleus.”

Then I put two green grapes in the nucleus of our atom. Then I explained that the number of protons in an atom is equal to the number of neutrons in a nucleus, and so I added two red grapes to the nucleus.

Then I explained further our atom is a neutral atom, which means it has no negative or positive charge. Protons have a positive charge, and electrons have a negative charge. Inorder for our atom to be neutral, two electrons must be added to offset the charge generated by the protons. My oldest (a fifth grader) understood this concept the best, since he knows how to add negative and positive numbers. We then added two blueberries as electrons to the first electron shell (orbit).

Helium atom model with fruit.

Lithium Atomic Number and Atom Model

We decided to make another atom, so we looked at my son’s shirt again. We picked the element Lithium (Li) to model.

Lithium has an atomic number of three, which means it has three protons in its nucleus. I then asked my sons how many neutrons we should add. They agreed we should add three neutrons to the the nucleus of the atom. I then asked them how many electrons we needed to add. My oldest son said, “We need to add three electrons to keep our atom neutral”. He was right! I then added the electrons to the paper plate. I told my sons that only two electrons fit in the first electron shell, so we needed to place two blueberries (electrons) on the first circle, and the third blueberry on the rim of paper plate, the second electron shell.

Lithium atom model with fruit. Atomic number of 3.

Carbon Atomic Number and Atom Model

We made one more atom model, this time a Carbon atom. I told my sons that the carbon atom is important to life. In fact, all living beings have carbon in them! The atomic number of carbon is six, so my oldest added 6 protons (green grapes) and 6 neutrons (red grapes) to the center of our model. He then added two electrons (blueberries) to the first electron shell, and 4 electrons (blueberries) to the second electron shell.

Carbon atom model with fruit. Atomic number of 6.

Atomic Number for Dessert

Later in the day, after lunch, we brought out our paper plates again. I always have peanut M&Ms (because they’re my absolute favorite), and had picked up some mini-M&Ms earlier in the week. Using the peanut M&Ms as protons and neutrons, and mini-M&Ms as electrons, we recreated our elements from earlier in the day.

In the following models:

Protons = yellow peanut M&Ms
Neutrons = orange peanut M&Ms
Electrons = tiny M&Ms

We decided to make Helium, Boron, and Carbon atoms this time.

Here’s how our candy atomic models turned out!

Helium Atomic Number and Atom Model

Helium atom model using candy.

Boron Atomic Number and Atom Model

Boron atom modle with candy. Atomic number of 5.

Carbon Atomic Number and Atom Model

Carbon atom model.

We had so much fun making our element models. And what’s even better was the hands-on activity definitely helped the boys understand what the atomic number of an element represented. Even my 4 year old figured out that whatever number an element had on the periodic table meant that would be the number of M&Ms on the plate (and more!). He understood so well, that I had to refuse to make the model of the element gold. I refused to share 79 (times two) of my peanut M&Ms.

For more fun hands-on STEM ideas, check out some of my other posts!

Melted Crayon Pumpkin STEAM Activity
Grow Gold Overnight! A fun experiment for kids
Grow a Pot of Gold! Crystal Science Experiment 
Semipermeable Membrane STEAM activity
“If I Built a House” Preschool STEM Activity

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