Chemistry @ Home

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Chemistry @ Home

By Kathleen Humble

There is quite a difference between the way I thought I would teach chemistry and the way my son, Canary, prefers to learn. Canary 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. After all, where else can you go?

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 six, 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.

Some of the most useful items in the cupboard are not what I expected – plastic cups and pH kits. Canary 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 Canary be the leader – sure, I can show him cool science demonstrations (which was the way we used to do it when he was aged two and three). 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. Canary keeps notes on all of his experiments – sure, they look a bit like cook-books: ingredients + instructions + results. But the process of writing it down is, I think, one of the MOST important parts of learning science.

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

I think Canary was maybe three (or earlier – my memory’s a bit fuzzy most some days), when 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 Tom Lehrer’s ‘The 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 periodic 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 information is pitched at high school/early university students – lots of fun but rather devoid of excitement and movement for an active six 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. Canary loved this. We had many months of wonderful ‘chemistry Lego’ play (though we replaced calcium chloride with acetic acid/vinegar – an easy change with a few Google searches for chemical equations and formulae).

Eventually, he outgrew 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 as 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 Canary and Jubilee love playing with them. Canary 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, Canary has started to learn how to name the molecules directly – without ever reading any books.

And Jubilee 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 was how to learn about chemical reactions in a visual-spatial way, without the dangerous lab-experiments. Nottingham University 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. It’s kind of like a chemical lab – without the messy stuff. Great for our six-year-old chemistry obsessive!

Where we go from here – I don’t know. My desperate hope is that these will keep him entertained until he’s old enough to enter a real laboratory…maybe when he’s seven…


From Otherways 139
Kathleen blogs at Yellow Readis

For older kids see: How to Build Your Own Chemistry Set


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