Chemistry Resources for Curious Kids

For a year now, my seven-year-old has been in love with chemistry. He has other interests and will participate in other activities, but on an average day, he probably spends 2-3 hours in chemistry-related activities, just because he loves it.

He tells people he’s going to grow up to be a chemist. I don’t know if this is true, or if this interest will wane like astronomy did a couple years ago, by for right now, this is the world we’re living in. I thought I would share some of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) resources in an approximate order of complexity or academic level, in case anyone else shares a similar interest or wants to explore.


We started out with this book. It’s wonderful, as are most of the Basher books. The reading level is upper elementary, and the periodic table is divided into groups based on properties, and then all of these groups and elements are given comic figure status, with short, dynamic descriptions of what they do.

Basher also has a Chemistry book which can be helpful in identifying terminology and how things work, but if you’re going to start with one, I would definitely go for Elements in Style.

At about the same level, ASAP Science has a great updated Periodic Table song.

Quick note: not all of ASAP Science’s videos are G-Rated, just as an FYI.

J was enamored by this point by the Periodic Table. We got him this shirt from Amazon. It’s his favorite, and he wears it as often as it is clean. It’s super soft, for those with sensory issues. We love it.

After he had the basics down, we borrowed and then bought Theodore Gray’s Elements trilogy. These are his favorites. His books are falling apart because he’d read them so much. The writing is at a high school level, but the thing that exudes from these books is someone who truly enjoys what he’s writing about. He includes silly puns and writes intelligently, but not patronizingly. And the photography is gorgeous. There’s also an app, which we don’t have, but I hear it’s pretty cool.

Around this time, we borrowed a bunch of other resources from the library. Our favorite of all the middle-high school general info books was The Elements by Dan Green, who incidentally also wrote Basher’s Chemistry book. His writing is good, and he manages to communicate the vibrant nature of chemistry rather than dry facts to memorize.

A neighbor who had seen J drawing the periodic table on our driveway recommended the NOVA documentary “Hunting the Elements” (Season 39, Epsisode 6). It’s great – very accessible and interesting for kids and adults, and there’s even a segment where Theodore Gray (above) shows off his Periodic Table table and demonstrates some reactions.

Around the time that J started studying Gray’s 2nd book, Molecules, we also picked up The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, which is intended as a study aid for AP or college level chemistry. He has been through it a few times, and each time he seems to pick up more about how reactions work, balancing chemical equations, and other phenomena.

My family also gave J a book for Christmas that’s not exclusively chemistry but does a great job putting everything into perspective. It’s probably geared for grades 5-8 but is accessible for other levels too.

PBS made a fascinating series called The Mystery of Matter, tracing the development of the periodic table. It’s currently available for free on Amazon Prime (April 2018). We skipped about 20 minutes of Episode 3 because atomic bombs and WWII are still too mature for my crew, but we loved how actors dressed as scientists and spoke and demonstrated the equipment used to make their discoveries as it traced the journey from alchemy to the present day.

I was looking for something more practical regarding how molecules form, etc., and that’s when we discovered the Valence card game. We played it for 60 days straight. No joke. It does a great job introducing oxidation numbers and modeling simple reactions. Then we discovered Valence Plus, which has even more elements and combinations, and that is now our game of choice.

Our most recent fascination is powered by Happy Atoms, a molecular building set combined with an iPad app that lets you photograph and “discover” and learn about hundreds and even thousands of common molecules, using the most common elements. I’ve been very impressed with this app and building set. It’s unique in how it models ionic and covalent bonds, and because of its magnets, it’s easy to see whether all of the electron bonds have been satisfied.

These have been our favorites thus far. I will update this post as we discover more great resources.

Some other interesting things we’ve found have been

BrainPop videos – geared to upper elementary, short explanations (subscription service)

Usborne’s “What’s Chemistry All About?” – J asked for this for his good night story tonight. It’s written at a middle school level and has nice, straightforward introductions to terminology and concepts.

Usborne also came out with a Periodic Table Lift the Flap book. We don’t have it, but it seems to be a good intro-level resource.

Kahn Academy has good video descriptions/lectures for various topics, so we have occasionally gone there if there’s a concept he wants to understand that I can’t help him with.

Other good resource lists:

App suggestions:

What about you? Do you have any favorite resources?

A Scooter, a Walker, and a Tricyclist – a tale of processing speeds

This morning, we went for a walk at a beautiful nature preserve. One on a tricycle, one on foot, and one riding a scooter (their choice).

It was a beautiful day as we started down the gently curving mile-long path. 

The scooter glided easily. In fact, more than 50% of his time was spent waiting for others to catch up. Again and again, I reminded him to wait, that I needed to be able to see him, because gliding is easy, almost effortless. It’s easy to keep going.

The tricycle started out slow. She pedaled with persistence and diligence and kept her trike on the middle of the path, but she was, by far, the slowest. And hills were nearly impossible. I had to push her up anything beyond the slightest incline. But she kept going, enjoyed herself, and was proud of her independence.

My walker was the most flexible. She could run ahead to where the scooter waited or could slow down to stay with me and the tricycle. She didn’t really notice the gentle, sloping ground, and her hands were free to touch the fauna along the path, finding juniper berries and various textures of leaves. 

Because we we’re pushing her abilities, she had time to enjoy her surroundings, to notice and ask questions. I held her hand for a bit and even carried her on my back when she was tired.

Cracks and breaks in the path were a hazard to my scooter, who could easily get toppled if he wasn’t paying attention. They didn’t phase the other two in the least.

At one point, we stopped at a scenic overlook with a raised pathway. We stowed our wheels, and suddenly, these three kids whose paces were so disparate were now close to unison. 

Sure, by the end of the path the tallest was slightly ahead, but it was nowhere near the difference seen with the various wheels.

Now, I know that all analogies break down eventually, but they can be useful too, so hear me out.

We’re all outfitted with different brain processing speeds. They’re innate characteristics of how we’re made. They are NOT intelligence. Some of the most brilliant people I know take a long time answering a question, and the opposite rings true as well. 

Someone with a slower processing speed will have the experience of constantly being helped along, pushed, nudged, dragged, pulled to keep up with the group, and will have little experience with downtime in a classroom or group setting. They’re constantly being told to finish things up, save it for later, switch gears to something else & then come back.

Someone with a faster processing speed isn’t showing off or intentionally leaving the group behind. It’s how he’s wired. He may have already passed by that tree, categorized it in his mind, and have moved on – and would be reticent to come back and rehash what to him is already in the past. 

My walker was made for this trip, and we saw that when everyone got down and walked/ran. They were able to run together, adjust their speeds to the group, and have a shared experience which was almost impossible for the tricyclist and required enormous amounts of restraint for the scooter.

Do you know what I said most often to the tricyclist? Let me help you.

And to the scooter? Wait.

And to the walker? You’re right – you found ________________.
So…. what’s my goal with this post? Empathy & understanding for our kids and their innate speeds – not judging someone as less intelligent because she happens to take longer to get there – and understanding for that kid, too, who has to hear “wait” 50x when all he wants to do is keep going. 

5 Steps to Learning a New Skill

Learning something new isn’t easy. As adults, we sometimes forget how hard it was to practice and develop the coordination necessary to swim, ride a bike, or tie our shoes, but at one point, we all went through 5 basic steps of learning a new skill.

I post this because we sometimes think that we (or our kids) should be able to jump from step 1 to step 5, from modeling to independent mastery, but we forget the steps in between that are so vitally important.

So here we go. These steps are largely necessary, though some people may occasionally be able to skip some of them. And they may also take longer or shorter amounts of time to move through.

  1. Modeling. An expert shows a beginner how something is done. A parent reads a book to a child. An older sibling shows a younger sibling how he ties his shoes, narrating the process. A potty training video breaks down the steps with visual cues “potty potty wipe wipe flush flush wash wash”, anyone? Grandma mops the floor while the grandkids watch from a safe distance.
  2. Participation. The expert still has control over the situation, but the learner is allowed to give limited input. This could involve the learner chanting along to the tie your shoes rhyme, a little stirring or pouring while baking cookies, throwing the socks into the washing machine. Rather than one plateau, this is a gradual stage where the learner takes on more and more responsibility until we get to
  3. Self-direction. The expert/teacher is still right next to the learner, but now the learner is in control of the situation. It’s the driver’s ed student finally sitting in the driver’s seat, though the instructor still has a brake pedal and is able to grab the wheel. It’s a 4yo deciding which toys to put away first, but his babysitter right there next to him, helping with the process and finding the missing pieces. The 6yo holding his own shoelaces and going through the rhyme, with helping hands right there to steer the process or catch some slack as needed.
  4. Partial independence. The learner is now in charge of the situation, but the expert/teacher still checks to make sure it was done properly. The mom still checks her 5yo’s teeth to see if he missed a spot. The dad runs a brush through his daughter’s hair just to check that she got everything. The teacher walks around the room, glancing at papers to make sure her students are carrying the ones in their subtraction lesson. The 8yo bakes a cake with her mom in the next room. By this point, students feel confident in knowing what they need to do, but they still need oversight, just in case. 
  5. Full autonomy. The skill has been learned, and the individual can be trusted to accomplish the task without outside help of reminders. You send your 10 year old into her room, and when she comes out everything is clean & put away. It’s time for bed, and you don’t double check that your child has remembered all the necessary steps because you’ve practiced so much that it becomes habit. The kids do their own laundry, no questions asked. You trust their math calculation at the farmer’s market and don’t double check it. This is the holy grail, what we’re working toward.

But so often, we forget that the intermediate steps are vital. And messy. Some may take a long time, and you may have to go back & repeat earlier steps. 

Learning is a process. And as much as we want our kids to have learned, we want, even more, for them to know how to learn. To be comfortable with asking for help and being learners, in those messy intermediate steps. We don’t want to shame them for not moving along fast enough, because that will diminish their desire to try again and learn something new.

So if I could encourage you with anything today, it would be to remember the process and be a willing partner to your kids along the way. 

Homeschooling Reflections

I was homeschooled in the ’80’s. Before it was cool, and before it was even legal in some states.


My sisters and I (4 of us) weren’t primarily homeschooled for religious or cultural reasons, but mostly because we lived in a rural area with mediocre schools and a long bus ride, and my parents thought there was a better way.

We called our “school” Harmony Hollow and even had pencils made with that inscription.

All four of us did eventually transition to public schools once we moved to a different location, but the years we were able to stay home were magical, even though I’m sure, especially for my mom, there were many days she wouldn’t have described it that way.

What I Loved

  • We had time. Lots of time. School didn’t take that long, and then there was the required music practice and helping around the house, and we still had hours to play. We played in the basement playroom, outside in the treehouse and on our 2.5 acre property with a creek in the back, and read. A lot.DS090302100715
  • We went to the library. Every week. And maxed out our book limits. We read, and read, and read. Except for math and science, most of our curriculum was sourced through the library.
  • We went at our own pace. When we were done, we were done. No need to turn over your paper and doodle on the back. No need to be told to find something quiet to do. We could be done.
  • We worked at our own levels. Spelling words, math questions, book reports – they could all be adjusted to our abilities, skipped if not necessary, or enhanced as needed.
  • We were self-motivated. There were no report cards to work towards, no fancy incentive systems with tickets for meeting expectations or participating. It was expected that we would learn for the sake of learning, not for some external reward.
  • We were flexible. Beautiful day? Let’s read outside. Field trip or museum visit? Sure! A couple hours hiking on a local nature trail? Why not!? DS090302095835

What Could Have Been Different

  • One thing that was difficult transitioning to public school (5th grade) is that I’d only been around “nice” kids before. We had church, music, & homeschool friends, but they were typically well supervised and on their best behavior. It took a while to adapt to a public school setting, and middle school girls can be mean. I wish I hadn’t been as clueless, but I don’t know what my parents could have done differently.
  • I wish we’d spent more time throwing a ball around. We were plenty active (dance, running, biking, swimming), but somehow I managed to largely avoid any interaction with ball sports, with the exception of tennis. As a parent, I wish my ball handling skills were better as I seek to work with my own kiddos. At least right now we’re learning together!
  • My handwriting stinks. My mom even got me a handwriting tutor for a while in 3rd grade or so, but it was bad when I got to public school and is still sub-par to this day. Not sure how much of that would have been different with public school, but maybe it would have been better.


I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience as our family now starts on its own homeschooling journey. Even though it wasn’t perfect, I’m grateful to my parents for the opportunity they gave us to be home for a while and all the benefits that entailed. Hopefully, when my kids look back on the experience, they can find the “magic” in our days as well. 🙂

Smartick Math – a review

This isn’t an ad, a paid review, or anything related. My 6yo just finished a free two-week trial of Smartick Math, and we decided it isn’t the program for us.

Recently, at least in the circles I frequent, there’s been a buzz about Smartick Math – how kids ask to do math, don’t complain, stealth learning, etc.

So, since they were offering a free two week trial, I signed my math-obsessed six-year-old up.

We’ve had experience this year with iReady, another online math system that uses diagnostic tests and adjusts the lessons according to competency. I was curious as to how this would compare.

Sign-up was a piece of cake. No credit card required or fine print about cancelling within a certain amount of time to get your money back.

Multiple kids can use the same device, too, which is helpful for families with multiple learners. 

However, we won’t be subscribing to Smartick for a variety of reasons. 

  1. My son didn’t talk about math when he finished a lesson for the day. He talked about how many points he earned. In an effort to “gamify” math, the math wasn’t the goal or focal point. Instead, you earn points to then buy objects for your house and avatar. And this kid LOVES math. He talks about math All. The. Time. 
  2. I wasn’t impressed by the initial placement test. J had never seen one type of question before, and so he was placed at a much lower level than he should have been. Even at the end of every lesson, when they ask the kids to rate the difficulty of the lesson, I didn’t see any adjustment in the level.
  3. We limit screen time, and there are days we don’t have any screen time at all. When J does get screen time, I want it to be for something that he can’t do without the screen – we don’t need to be digitally connected to do math.
  4. The tutorials are optional. Instead, kids just see 15 minutes of questions with very little feedback about why their answer might be incorrect. This might work for some kinds of learners, but not for others.
  5. It compares kids to other Smartick users. No. Just no. That should NOT be a motivator and could actually be demotivating for struggling students.

I’m sure Smartick works for some families and motivates kids who otherwise protest. 

But it’s not for us. 

Brain Under Construction


This is the packaging my 6 year old created for his dad’s father’s day gift. His dad is a particle physicist, so there’s intentionality in this list.

This is how my 6yo rolls. J thrives on new information. Tonight, I asked what he wanted to read for a bedtime story, and he chose an elementary math dictionary, the pages on functions and algebra. We’re not pushing this on him. We’re not hothousing him. I suggested Dr. Frumble’s Bedtime Stories, (aff. link) but he wanted to talk about algebra and to do 78*2*2 in his head.

This isn’t to brag. It’s just the reality of who he is. Like other kids who can ride a bike early, are totally coordinated, musically inclined, socially aware, or have other talents. Everyone has some area in which he or she shines. Some are more recognized and celebrated by society than others.

He started reading at 3, and would sit for hours, reading books and completing worksheets. But that’s time he didn’t spend running, jumping, and socializing with other kids. So we have to make that up now, as those parts of his brain “wake up”, so to speak. It means that we’re practicing some of the same social skills that we are with my 3 year olds, like not taking things without asking. But it’s not wrong. It’s an outgrowth of how his brain works.

He’s asynchronous. Different areas of his brain are developing at rates outside what is typically expected, and because some parts are getting more attention, others have been neglected and are waking up later.


That means that we can be discussing what kinds of metals are best for cars or staples, and the next I’m telling him not to lick his stuffed sheep. (true story)



We live in a state that has relatively strict homeschool reporting requirements, including a comprehensive year-long plan due in the summer before the upcoming school year, with plans and curriculum for each of the required subjects.

While I’m diligently completing this requirement to convince the district that we take home education for our six year old seriously (we do!), I also wanted to write out how we’ll actually spend our time.

We’re doing school backwards. You know those things that get left behind in order to cram in academics? That’s what we’re doing first.

Games. Lots of games. Time to practice winning and losing graciously, cooperative games to work on collaborative communication.  Logic, reasoning and word games. Math games, spatial exercises, strategy games, musical games. 

Socialization. Oh, the socialization. Family relationships, co-ops, old friends & new ones.  Younger and older siblings. Sports teammates, church friends, and neighbors. Random people at the store, library, and museum. Supported socialization in safe settings, play dates. 

Pleasure reading. Reading “just because”. Reading out loud. Shared reading. Re-reading. Easy books. Hard books. Silly books. Backs of cereal boxes. Reading without an agenda, comprehension quiz, or follow-up assignment.

Movement. Team sports. Walks in the woods. Chasing siblings through the backyard. Impromptu dance parties. Improvised obstacle courses. Beach days in September. Sledding outings in January. Shoveling dirt. Shoveling snow. Shoveling sand. Playground visits. Bike rides. Hiking trails. Trampoline parks. Swimming pools. 

Unabashed curiosity. Reading about whatever topic excites us, asking lots of questions. Museum visits and hands-on science experiments. Testing theories and observing the world around us. Watching bubbles caught by wind currents and racing sticks under the bridge. Turning over rocks (carefully, of course!), following rabbit trails, and catching snowflakes.

Those are our priorities, our primary curriculum. 

The other stuff? We’ll get to it too. If we can manage to squeeze it in! 

What about you? How do you balance what your children need with the formal homeschooling requirements where you live? Or if your kids go to school, what do you do with the”extra” time you have with them?