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Real chemistry for kids

Once upon a time, learning the details of the elements was “serious science” and left for older students who had the math skills for chemistry. But these days, parents and educators are seeing the value of teaching kids to enjoy science well before they are able to delve into the details.

I was very impressed by Conrad Wolfram’s 2010 TED Talk about math education. He talked about how he got his elementary-aged daughter doing calculus on their computer. No, she isn’t a math super-genius—she was using modern tools so she could access the fascinating application of calculus without having to be able to do the computing required.

The ElementsThe traditional sequence of learning holds that kids “can’t understand” the theoretical ends of math, science, literature, or any intellectual pursuit without having the basic skills that underlie the theory. So in our schools, we require our kids to be able to do long division before we start them on algebra, and we expect them to be interested in how plants grow long before they start wondering what plants—and everything in the universe—are made of.

Wolfram’s talk clarified for me what a lot of homeschoolers (and some brave teachers) have been doing with all sorts of disciplines, not just math. We are literally flipping education on its head, rejecting the traditional pyramid shape of Bloom’s Taxonomy and refusing to start at the bottom, where kids learn facts and basic skills. Instead, we start somewhere in the middle, either at “analyze” when our kids ask a great question or at “apply” in order to have fun through experiential learning.

My daughter has always been interested in chemistry (perhaps she inherited that from her Grandpa, who literally “wrote the book” on polyvinylidene chloride (PVC)). Fundamental to her interest in chemistry is what has had the scientific-minded mixing and stirring, heating and agitating for thousands of years: fascination with the way substances react with each other.

So last year we started on the study of chemistry, not the kid-chemistry you see in “science fun for kids” books, but the actual study of what atoms and molecules are, and why they interact and react the way they do. I am not taking a stand on whether my 9-year-old understands what we’ve studied the way an 18-year-old would—that’s actually of no great concern to me. She has a good number of years before she will have to take a test on this stuff. What I will say, however, is that she has been inspired and excited by what she’s learned, and there is nothing more thrilling than to see a child make a prediction, do an experiment, and laugh with joy at the fact that her prediction was dead wrong. She might even be able to remember why her prediction was wrong, but I see that as less important than the joy she has taken in learning about the building blocks of the universe.

Below are a few of the materials we have used. If you can recommend others, please leave comments!


Wonderful Life with ElementsA friend recommended The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, and given how much use it gets, I should have sprung for the hardcover edition. This book has taken up residence on the table behind the couch (where we keep current reading materials) for a year and a half, and it’s still going strong. The author is a collector of elements, and book is a fascinating compendium of his collection, from an old Kodak camera made with zirconium to a tube of toothpaste made with radioactive thorium.

A new addition to our library is Wonderful Life with the Elements, which just came out from No Starch Press. This little book is a charming translation of a Japanese elements book for children, and benefits from retaining many of its Japanese characteristics. The elements are identified not only by their Latin names (with real International Phonetic Alphabet transliterations, which is rare and very much appreciated in this house)—we also get Katakana transliterations and the Kanji characters for each element. Though we are unlikely to use these features in any practical way, I love the cultural connections this book makes. Even more, the book looks at elements from a variety of less common viewpoints. It starts with vivid graphical illustrations of how much of each element is present in various domains, from the universe to the sun to the oceans on Earth. It also explores the difference between environmentalism (caring about what we do with elements because of how it affects the balance of life on earth) and understanding that except for exploding nuclear bombs, what we do makes no difference to the elements themselves. Each element is given a persona with different body shape, hair style, clothing, and other features to denote the features of each element. My daughter is enjoying reading both of these books side-by-side!

We bought The Disappearing Spoon: And other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements on the recommendation of other parents. Our daughter listened politely to one story then asked to move on to something else, but I know that other kids have enjoyed it so I’m recommending it anyway!


We love the Periodic Table of the Elements in Pictures, free if you download and print it yourself or available for purchase pre-printed. Completely different than the visual approaches of the two books above, it also offers food for thought and imagination, while also presenting factual information. This poster taught my daughter about the Noble Gases.

You can buy a poster and more accompaniments to the first book above at


We have really enjoyed using the free Middle School Chemistry curriculum from the American Chemical Society as the spine for our studies. Although my daughter, who isn’t a great fan of handwriting, didn’t complete all the worksheets, we have worked through most of the experiments, which are designed to be easy to do at home or in a badly equipped school. The curriculum also links to online multimedia displays, many of which are basic moving diagrams that show the interaction of molecules, but some of which are really simple but effective demonstrations of the physical properties of various molecules. Our favorite is the popping water balloon.

Online fun

No budding chemist should miss the hilarious videos of The Periodic Table of Videos from the University of Nottingham. Featuring university chemists doing weird, dangerous, and sometimes amusingly boring things with the elements, these videos create unforgettable illustrations of the properties of the elements.

My daughter loves The Happy Scientist, who does a wide variety of videos on science subjects. (Fee-based but very reasonable.) She based her science fair experiment last year on his video of making a density column.

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Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

6 Responses

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  1. Suki says

    I just saw a posting about a free, online simulation website: . This is great news. We had tried out some fee-based systems that I didn’t end up sticking with because I didn’t feel like we’d get our money’s worth. These simulations feature a variety of disciplines and can be sorted by level. We played around with a few of them and they worked well.

  2. Michelle says

    Thanks so much, Suki! Sophia (9) has asked to learn about chemistry this year, and now I have a great list of books.

  3. Michelle says

    BTW – they were recently selling the hardcover of the visual Elements at Costco.

  4. Connie says

    Chanced upon this while trying to figure out if i should go all out to support my 8 year old’s interest in the elements. I knew she was into non fiction books especially on Animals and viruses & diseases but didnt know she can be so passionate about the periodic table and reading all abt the different group of elements. I am still not sure if she can really comprehend what she is reading but so far she can tell me more things i have ever learnt and threw away since school days. Your article assured me to just support her in this area and will source for those books for her. Thank you very much!

    • Suki says

      You can never know whether a child’s interest in a subject is just a passing fancy or the germ of their future career. In any case, a parent’s support is so important. The elements are a great way for her to learn a lot of basic chemistry. Do you have the wonderful book, The Elements? If not, you must get it! My daughter was so inspired by it.

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  1. Worthy Reads & Blog Business | Mama of Letters linked to this post on October 4, 2012

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