Chemistry is fascinating to all ages, children included. Sometimes the temptation is to think that chemistry is too complex for kids to understand. Granted, you probably shouldn’t try to have them calculate second-order rate laws right off the bat, but basic concepts like atoms, molecular structure, phase changes, pH, and solubility are easily within their grasp.
The key to explaining chemistry to children is not your choice of words. Children are not abstract thinkers, and it does no good to describe something they can’t visualize or touch. To appeal to their sense of the concrete, explanations should involve visible, tangible objects. In some cases it may be appropriate to use the actual chemicals, but much of the time a model is the best representation. Models can be drawings, marshmallow-toothpick structures, Lego-type blocks, balloons, and anything else that illustrates the concept. It doesn’t hurt if the model is fun to make, is edible, or involves a game as part of the learning. Don’t hesitate to explore the web for models and games either. There are a myriad of delightful internet resources that illustrate chemistry topics.
Here are two samples to get you started:
It’s easy to find more – in the search engine of your choice, type something along the lines of “chemistry interactive state of matter”. Obviously you put in whatever concept you want, and you can replace interactive with “demo”, “animation”, or “game” depending on your desires. You’ll have the best luck if you keep the word chemistry in the search.
Now, having said that word choice is not the key to explaining chemistry to kids, let’s point out that word choice is still important. Children have a limited vocabulary to begin with, and they certainly don’t know the majority of the polysyllabic terms that chemists like to throw around. Increasing word power is a great idea, but while you’re immersed in the world of chemicals, it’s best to try to stick to teaching one thing at a time. If you’re teaching about solutions, you might introduce the words solution, solute, and solvent. Or you can keep it simple – use the word solution, and just talk about the “liquid” and the “thing being dissolved”. You can always teach the terms later on, sticking to familiar terminology makes it easier for the child to understand the concept first. The language of chemistry exists so that chemists can communicate with one another. The concepts are the same no matter what you choose to call them. If it suits your mood, you can draw a picture of 2,3-dimethyl-2-phenyl-butane and simply call it “Bob”. (It looks like a stickman, if drawn with the phenyl up top.) So long as you’re consistent, you’ll be able to talk about the concept together, share a laugh, and not get bogged down in formal terminology when the chemistry is what you care about.
Just to make sure you got all that, let’s summarize. You can best explain chemistry to kids if you keep it Fun, Simple, Tangible, Interactive, and Visual. Throw in a couple letter E’s and you can make it FeSTIVe. And after all, chemistry should be festive. All of a kids favorite things are made with chemistry – and that’s something you can explain to them too.