It’s never too young to learn about basic chemistry especially when you can turn your kitchen into a science lab.
One of the difficulties with teaching science to children is that, in every scientific field, the breadth and depth of knowledge are vast and our understanding of the fundamental principles of each field is complex and nuanced. We often try to teach our children by finding the fundamental basis, like the cell in biology or the gene in evolution, and work up from there. However, that can often confuse kids. It is often best to teach a subject in the same order that humanity learned it over time. For example, if you are teaching evolution, you will talk about how there are so many different breeds of dogs and different types of birds.
Chemistry is much like evolution, in that people had been using it before they understood the fundamental concepts of it. Making beer and bread are essentially acts of chemistry, and they’ve been around for over ten thousand years. When we start teaching our kids about chemistry, we don’t need to jump right into atomic bonds and quantum physics. We can start the way humanity started: by mixing various substances and seeing what happens.
When introducing a new concept to kids, it is often important to start with any relevant vocabulary. You can’t talk about a subject if you don’t know any of the words that describe that subject. The best place to start is with the forms of matter: liquid, solid, and gas. (You can skip plasma and Bose-Einstein condensate if your kid is younger than 6.)
Start with a simple example like an ice cube.
Step 1 – First, grab an ice cube and let your little one hold it, then have them put it in a cup or glass. Ask questions about how the ice feels in their hand. Is it wet or dry? Is it hard or squishy? Is the ice hot or cold?
Step 2 – Next, let them keep touching it while it’s in the cup. You can use plastic tupperware as well, the point is for them to observe and feel the ice as it melts into water. Explain to them that ice is water and that when water gets cold it turns into a solid form. As the temperature rises, the ice transforms into water.
Step 3 – Once the ice has completely melted, pull out a pot and add ice, water, and whatever is left in your cup. You’ll need to be careful for this part, but your want to turn on the burner let the water come to a boil. As the steam begins to rise and escape the pot explain to your preschooler that when water gets super hot it turns into a gas called steam. Do not let your toddler close to the pot or touch the steam. It’s too hot. Just pick them up and allow them to watch the steam from a distance. This is a great opportunity to teach your child why they shouldn’t ever touch the stovetop.
Step 4 – Once they’ve lost interest, it won’t take long, explore the house with them so they can find more things that are solid, and be sure to open the fridge so they can see other liquids like milk and juice. Gas is a little more difficult, but you can blow up a balloon or a bag to show how gas is all around us.
Extra credit – Ask your kid what liquid rock or metal might look like. You can talk about volcanoes and metal smithy so that they know that different substances have different melting and boiling points.
Diving Deeper With Books and Chemistry Kits
Chemistry In My Dreams tells the story of Desi whose dreams teach her about chemistry. She learns about chemistry from a honey bee, a snowman, and others as she drifts off to sleep every night.
Clifford The Big Red Dog Kitchen Science Kit lets your child experiment right in your own home. They’ll make slime, erupt a volcano, grow fungus, and much more. You might need to purchase a few additional items in your local grocery, but this is a great kit to engage your little ones.
Scientific Explorer My First Mind Blowing Science Kit is a deluxe kit with over 20 pieces. Several of the experiments included are erupting an underwater volcano, growing crystals, creating a sunset in a test tube, and learning about acids and bases. Keep in mind, you’ll need to purchase additional items to complete all the experiments.
More Experiments You Can Do At Home 🧪
Two important words are: react and transform. For the purpose of a 6-year-old, react means that something happens when you put two different substances together. There could be heat, light, a change of color, or a smell. Transform means that one or more of the substances changes its state, or the two substances mix together and become something new. There are two experiments you can do with your kid to show reaction and transformation.
The iconic kitchen science experiment is the volcano made of vinegar and baking soda. This is an excellent way to show your child how two inert substances can be mixed to cause a violent, or at least entertaining, reaction. For this experiment, all you need are water, a 20-ounce drink bottle, a deep pan, dishwasher detergent, baking soda, and vinegar.
Step 1 – Fill the bottle three-quarters of the way full with hot water.
Step 2 – Add half a teaspoon of dish detergent and two tablespoons of baking soda. You can add food coloring if you want. Have your kid stir the mixture until it is uniform. You can use this time to teach your kid the word solution, which means a stable mixture of different chemicals.
Step 3 – Put your bottle in the middle of the pan. Ask your kid what they think will happen when you add the vinegar to the liquid mixture. Have them list a series of hypotheses: maybe nothing will happen, maybe the color will change, or maybe it will give off a putrid odor.
Step 4 – Have your kid pour the vinegar into the mix and watch as the liquids combine and create a geyser of bubbles. You can keep adding baking soda and vinegar to continue the eruption.
What your child has observed is a transformation: Baking soda, (sodium bicarbonate) and vinegar (acetic acid) combine to form carbon dioxide, water, sodium, and acetate. Carbon dioxide is a gas, so it produces bubbles in the mixture. It is the same gas that you find in soda. Chemicals from one mixture separate and combine with chemicals from the other mixture, causing a variety of new substances to form. Much like mixing red and yellow to make orange, mixing a substance that is carbon and X with a substance that is oxygen and Y creates carbon dioxide and XY.
An excellent experiment for showing reaction is cleaning pennies with vinegar and salt. Start by collecting a bunch of old pennies. Ask your kid why old pennies are dirty and dull, while new pennies are shiny and bright. The answer is, in part, because they’ve been handled by thousands of people, all of whom excrete grease and leave it on everything they touch, and the pennies have accumulated decades of human oil, making them about as gross as a touchscreen. However, there is another reason why they are green and dingy which is way less disgusting.
Step 1 – In a bowl, mix a quarter cup vinegar with a teaspoon of salt.
Step 2 -Have your kid hold a penny, dip it in the solution halfway, and hold it for thirty seconds. When they pull it out, there will be a neat line across the middle, under which the penny is clean and above which it is dingy. What they’re seeing is a reaction: the copper oxide on the surface of the penny is being dissolved by the vinegar (acetic acid). The reason the pennies were greenish, to begin with, was that the copper on their surfaces reacted with oxygen in the air to create a film of copper oxide on the outside of the penny. This process simply removes that film.
Step 3 – Dump a bunch of pennies into the solution and watch as they react, becoming cleaner before your eyes. Pull them out after five minutes. You can put half of them on a paper towel to dry, and then rinse half of them in water and leave them out to dry separately. After an hour check back to see if there is any difference between the two groups. The rinsed pennies will look just as they did when you pulled them out of the solution. However, the un-rinsed pennies will again be turning green. This is because the residue on the pennies precipitates a reaction between the copper and the oxygen in the air, again putting a film of copper oxide onto the pennies.
This is a great way to introduce the idea that chemicals are all around us, and are constantly interacting. The air is made of a variety of chemicals, and they can react with solids and liquids. For example, you can talk to your kids about what rust is, or how the air they breath in is different from the air they breath out.
Without knowing that a chemical is made of a variety of molecules, which are made of atoms, which interact by means of different bonds, your kid can see how chemistry works. Then, they will begin to understand that matter is made not of immutable substances, but of combinations of substances that can interact, degrade, transform, and recombine to form other substances.
Soon you will be introducing your kid to the periodic table of the elements, where they will likely be drawn towards Unununium, or Uuu, element 111.