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Explaining The Atomic Structure to Tiny Children

  1. Apr 11, 2003 #1
    Hello people,

    If a four year old were to ask you "what is an atom?"...

    what would be a good way to answer the question, keeping in mind your audience.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 11, 2003 #2


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    I remember my mother explained it like this:

    Ask what the smallest thing they can think of is. (I thought of a grain of sand)

    Then ask if it's possible to cut that in half. (Yes)

    Then ask if it's possible to cut that in half. (Yes)

    Ask how far can you keep cutting it in half. (dunno... forever?)

    Actually, there is a smallest piece. That is what an atom is. It is the smallest piece of something possible.

    Now, I don't remember how old I was when I asked, and I'm no expert on child development stages, but that's how I was first taught it.

    EDIT: Your profile says you live in California. If you're anywhere near San Fransisco, you could take them to the California institute of science museum. When I was there last summer, they had that awesome movie where the camera starts on the sleeping guys hand and zooms ALL the way out, and then goes back and zooms ALL the way in.

    I dunno. Maybe 4 is too young to appreciate that. I'll leave it to the parents here to say what's up.
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2003
  4. Apr 11, 2003 #3


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    But then you get problems when they learn about protons, electrons and neutrons.... And then more problems when they learn (eventually) about quarks and gluons....
  5. Apr 11, 2003 #4
    was that movie called the powers of ten? that is the coolest movie ever created...in the 80's

    FZ i agree if your tlaking to an older kid but if your tlaking about a 7 year old who wont have to really worry about that till about late 7th early 8th grade a simple exsplantion will be sufficent. Besides it's not like most kids will remember it unless they are actualy really intrested to begin with
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2003
  6. Apr 11, 2003 #5
    An atom is like a very small, round cloud, by itself too small to see. This cloud is tough enough to join many other atoms of different round shapes to make things that we can feel - like animals, plants, rocks, air and water.

    Pretend(!) that atoms were blown up to the size of toy balloons. If that happened, a bug made of atoms would become as big as a city (still pretending?) Since a bug is much smaller than a city, an atom must be much smaller than a toy balloon.

    If you counted all of the times your heart beat in your life, that number of atoms would only stretch one meter (stretch arms)!
  7. Apr 12, 2003 #6
    Or you simply add to it that it can be broken down farther then that, but that most of those pieces don't last very long on there own.

    Bit like a family, I suppose, (how novel a thought isn't that) needs each other to maintain itself.
  8. Apr 12, 2003 #7


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    Ah but protons are very stable on their own, and neutrons are pretty stable too. Maybe a house and bricks description? Everything are like houses... when you take them apart you can keep doing it until you get to the basic bricks. You can cut them up too, but it's terribly difficult...
  9. Apr 13, 2003 #8
    So, FZ+, the half life of a neutron @ ~ 15 minutes is now considered stable?

    Protons are stable, probably longer the the present known age of the univesre, Hence we could do the protons as the 'bricks', neutrons as the Mortar, (Crumbles upon dis-assembly) and the electrons as the very 'light of reflection' that changes, comes and goes, when states change.

    My referance to things not having long times of existance is in referance to the Quantum particlulates, as most of them have VERY short timing.
  10. Apr 13, 2003 #9


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    Come on folks,

    four year olds...

    four year olds...

    No neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks, until they're at LEAST 5.
  11. Apr 13, 2003 #10
    I've done it with sugar.

    You draw a... leaf... for example... on a dark table top with sugar.

    You say "this is a leaf... it is made of molecules... that's what the sugar is... molecules."

    Then you take one grain of sugar and crush it into powder and say:

    "We have taken one molecule of the leaf and... to see what its made of... we crushed it... all of these little bits are atoms that make up the molecules of the leaf."

    Then you make it fun and say..."Pretty cool, eh!?"
  12. Apr 13, 2003 #11


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    Heh. Now to present that schedule to your local education authority....

    I did use the qualifier "pretty". It's certainly a few orders of magnitude more stable than the other ones, with lifetimes like 10^-10 seconds and less. Indeed, in terms of particle physics, 15 minutes is ages....
  13. Apr 13, 2003 #12
    FZ+ has a good point here (not for this subject, but the main idea).
    Which is that children are oftenly told a certain answer to one of their questions, and then later in their life when they face the exact right answer, they may feel that they are lost, or confused.
    So only tell the child whatever you see he can understand, but don't forget to tell him that science is not as simple as it seems to be, and some day he will face more complicated information about what he is asking for.
    If at this point the kid still asks "What complicated things ?", then i see you must really answer him about (at least) protons and neutrons and electrons, he might like the idea.
    If he understand it (i doubt it frankly), he would have made a breaktrough.
    If he doesn't, he will still have known what the atom is, and he would have heard of "neutrons" and "protons", so he has some kind of a good idea !

    What do u think in this philosophy ? (Maybe some will say the kind might feel consfused if you tell him too much !)
  14. Apr 13, 2003 #13


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    Erm... thanks?

    And then, what if he asks: "Is that it then?" You will have to respond: "Not quite"....

    Skip ahead a *long* time...

    And you end up telling him the entirity of physics.

    And tommorow, he's forgotten and asks you again....
  15. Apr 13, 2003 #14

    Sounds like a plan to me, based upon a simplistic understanding of learning, as in, everything that you learned in school, was, prior to your having heard it from your teacher, over your head!

    Therefore we can note that exposure, which is what that amounts to be, has it's values, and a lack of exposure, is definately less likely to be educative, then taking the chance of exposure, with the inclusive need of knowing, to the best of your abilities, not to overload!

    Enigma, I had heard 5.27 years old, are you sure it's really 5???
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