Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Putting Together A Chemistry Curriculum

There is quite a difference between the way I thought I would teach chemistry compared to the way C prefers to learn. C is very visual-spatial in his thinking. He absorbs knowledge when he can see it and touch it. He doesn't mind listening, but he can't just listen - there has to be a visual component, or lots of space to wiggle and jump around. And when he's excited by a new idea he gets very loud! Which is a joy. He also loves to play with an idea - to absurdity if possible.

This makes putting together a chemistry curriculum in the more formal way a problem. But it also gives us great scope for experimentation. Afterall, where else can you go?

I have previously talked about using Mythbusters as an experimental base. And for all it's silliness, it gives an excellent grounding in practical science.

A while ago, we went to a bit of effort to put together a chemistry cupboard - filled with all sorts of basic supplies that he might need. But as he's 6, I'm not (yet) willing to let him have easy-to-get dangerous chemicals like Hydrogen Peroxide(!!).

There are many lists online on how to put together a good cupboard / kit from everyday stuff from the hardware store / supermarket, so I won't repeat them here. (This is a more dangerous version- not really our thing yet!)
Some of the most useful items in the cupboard are not what I expected - plastic cups and pH kits. C loves to think up new questions on the pH of various substances. We've also had lots of fun with iodine-solutions from our first-aid kit - great for starch experiments. With these chemistry experiments I like letting C be the leader - sure, I can show him cool science demonstrations (which was the way we used to do it when he was 2 and 3). But mostly, I prefer it if he comes up with questions to answer and then we brainstorm some of the ways to answer the questions. Mummy's just the lab-assistant!

For us, the failures are just as important as the successes. C keeps notes on all of his experiments - sure, they look a bit like cook-books - ingredients + instructions + results. But the writing it down is, I think, one of the MOST important parts of learning science.
Molymod creation: glucose

But how does he learn all the knowledge-based stuff he needs to start to understand chemistry?

I think C was maybe 3 (or earlier - my memory's a bit fuzzy most some days), that he became obsessed with the periodic table - we had a cheap printed-from-the-internet-then-laminated copy of the periodic table. He loved it. He also loved 'They Might Be Giants' and the Tom Lehrer Elements song.
Eventually we found an awesome card-based box-set of the periodic table. Great for bouncy kids - he could lay out the whole table down our hallway - and study all the information on the back about each element. The pictures were gorgeous too. 

It wasn't long before we found the Nottingham University videos on the periodic table. I have lost count of the amount of times these have been watched - it's been an easy-to-access bookmark on our computer for years now.

The thing is, though there's an awful lot of information for kids on the elements ...where to go when they want to know more? Most of the info is pitched at highschool / early Unversity students. Lots of fun still, but rather devoid of excitement and movement for an active 6 year old boy.

There are some notable exceptions.

One of the best is lego chemistry - wonderful workbooks that create 'labs' for kids that start with the experiment, then go on to use lego to explore how the elements turn into molecules and react with each other. C loved this. We had many months of wonderful 'chemistry lego' play.  (Though we replaced calcuim chloride with acetic acid/vinegar - an easy change with a few google searches for chemical equations and formulas).

Eventually, he grew out of this too - he wanted to know whether certain combinations were 'allowed' or not - lego blocks are wonderful, but not so crash hot at getting the molecular shape exactly right.

So the next step for us was molymods. These are several degrees of wonderful. But not exactly pitched to be toys for kids (A shame really). Ours even came with a small booklet on fun chemicals to make. After having a set, I would even recommend them for little ones who have got beyond the 'putting everything in the mouth' stage.

Both C and J love playing with them. C loves creating all sorts of molecules - how many connections can you manage? Is this a real molecule? Then it's off to the internet to check the chemical formula - chemical data sheets rock! We've had a lot of fun finding all sorts of cool and dangerous molecules!
 And through this wonderful osmosis, C has started to learn how to name the molecules directly - without ever reading any books.

And J loves molymods too - to play 'ice-creams' - strawberry (oxygen), vanilla (hydrogen), chocolate (lithium) and kiwi-fruit (chlorine) flavours!

It's a favourite game.

One area we had struggled with, is how to learn about chemical reactions in a visual-spatial way, without the dangerous lab-experiments. Nottingham Uni has an excellent video section on molecules that we use extensively.

Luckily, we now also have the very wonderful goReact website. It's a great interactive website with a periodic table + reaction area. Add enough of just the right amounts of elements and you create molecules! It has a lovely guide at the side, and also gives you a picture or a short video describing the chemical when you create it. Its kind of like a chemical lab - without the messy stuff. Great for our 6 year old chemistry obsessive!

Where we go from here - I don't know. My desperate hope is that these will keep him entertained till he's old enough to enter a real laboratory...maybe when he's 7...


  1. Thanks for the links and suggestions here. Some very useful additions to our Chemistry & Physics study for next year (for DD8 and DS9). We'll also be using McHenry's "The Elements", but from the pages you have listed and the rabbit-trail ... I now have enough audio-visual and kinaesthetic extras to keep both children happy.

    I also want to say I have enjoyed reading many of your blog posts today. I can't comment on them all, but THANKYOU for taking the time to write about so many interesting and important aspects of the G&T home ed puzzle!



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