Introduce the properties and behaviour of atoms as the smallest parts of elements and a basic unit of matter using this lesson plan for 11–14 year olds

In this activity, students watch a simple demonstration and carry out a practical task in small groups to develop their thinking about atoms as a basic unit of matter.

Learning objectives

Students will be able to describe that:

  • Matter is made of atoms too small to be seen with the naked eye.
  • Atoms are the smallest parts of elements.
  • An atom retains the property of the element.
  • Particles can move.

Sequence of activities

Demonstration and introduction

Introduce the topic and the purpose of the session, using a 1 kg bag of rice. Ask the students to guess how many grains of rice there are in the bag. After a few suggestions, give a clue – that there are about 1000 grains in 25 g. (1 million grains would be 25 kg, so 1 kg is 1 million / 25 = 40 000.)

Say that rice grains are ‘small’ and ask, ‘how much smaller are atoms?’

An alternative introduction is to use the book Powers of Ten (see ‘Practical notes’ below).

Activity 1: It’s a small world!

Give each student a copy of the worksheet It’s a small world!. Organise the students into pairs and support them with prompts as they complete the worksheet.

Allow about 15 minutes for the task.

Plenary 1

In a plenary:

  1. Take their responses to question 1 (the number of hydrogen atoms in 1 cm is 1.35 x 106).
  2. Develop class lists of items that can be seen with the naked eye and those that cannot.
  3. Introduce units for measuring small items, in particular the nanometre.

Introduce the next activity, to find out more about what atoms are like. Carry out the demonstration ’Atomic paper clips’.

Allow about 5 minutes for the demonstration.

Activity 2: Atomic paper clips

Give each student a copy of ‘Atomic paper clips’. Arrange the students into groups then circulate and support as groups:

  1. Discuss answers to the questions.
  2. Reach agreement on the answers (this is important).
  3. Elect a spokesperson to feedback their answers to the class.

Allow about 15 minutes to complete the task.

Plenary 2

In a plenary:

  1. Select groups to give their responses.
  2. Review these responses using positive feedback and further questions.
  3. Reinforce the idea that atoms are very small.
  4. Reinforce the idea that atoms retain the property of the element, but the subatomic particles do not.

Activity 3: Tasty particles

Introduce the next activity, to find out more about how atoms behave.

Explain that they are going to add sugar and lemon juice to water to see how the taste changes. Give each student the worksheet ‘Tasty particles’ and give each group a set of equipment. Supervise and support as groups:

  1. Carry out the practical task.
  2. Agree on answers to the questions.
  3. Elect a spokesperson to feedback answers to the class.

Plenary 3

In a closing plenary:

  1. Ask the spokespersons for their responses.
  2. Review these responses.
  3. Reinforce the idea that particles (atoms) can move through water and that not all particles are the same.
  4. Ask students to write down on the reverse of this worksheet what they have learned about atoms in the session.


Take in the sheets and give written feedback indicating the scientific correctness of their answers, together with support where further development of their thinking is needed.


These tasks develop students’ thinking about the nature of matter. Ideas are considered through peer discussion and reflection, which should help make the ideas clearer. Plenary feedback enables the teacher to assess the extent of their understanding.

The group activity requires cooperation and care, as well as good discussion to answer questions.

Post-task reflection and subsequent teacher feedback supports students as they develop their ideas.

Practical notes



  • 1 kg bag of rice
  • Philip Morrison and Phyllis Morrison, The Office of Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten. New York: Scientific American Library, 1994

For the ‘Atomic paper clips’ demonstration

  • A pile of paper clips, about 100 small ones
  • A sheet of fool’s gold or aluminium foil

For the ‘Tasty particles’ activity

  • One glass or plastic drinking cup, with rings marked around 1/3 and 2/3 up the side of the cup
  • Drinking straws
  • Tap water
  • About 20 drops of lemon juice, enough to taste in water
  • About 10 g sugar (1–2 teaspoons, there is no need to measure this accurately)
  • One dropping pipette

Other equipment

  • Eye protection


For the ‘Atomic paper clips’ demonstration

Time required: 10 minutes

  1. Place the pile of paper clips and the gold/aluminium side by side.
  2. Start with the paper clips.
  3. Divide the paper clip pile into roughly half, making two smaller piles.
  4. Repeat the division until there are two paper clips and then finally, to one paper clip alone.
  5. The single paper clip represents an atom.
  6. Now split the paper clip into two pieces. Invite names for these, such as ‘hook’ and ‘centre’.
  7. Now turn to the gold/aluminium sheet.
  8. Tear the sheet into two halves.
  9. Repeat the tearing until the pieces cannot be torn any smaller.
  10. As the piles and gold/aluminium are torn apart, ask students to answer the questions on the sheet.

Health, safety and technical notes

Principal hazard

  • Drinking in a laboratory.


It’s a small world!

Small items we can see:

  • 0.5–3 mm – pin head, sand grains, specks of dust, tiny flies / insects, holes /weaving in cloth
  • 3–5 mm – insect larvae, creases in skin, shapes of fingerprints, crystals of salt and sugar, drops of liquid, eyelashes

Small items we can’t see:

  • 0.1 mm – details of salt crystal shapes, mites, details on a silicon chip
  • 10–100 µm – cells, bacteria (variation depending on species)
  • 0.3–1 µm – bacteria, viruses, DNA
  • 1 nm – molecules, atoms
  • 1 pm – atomic nuclei
  • 0.1 fm – the matter in a proton


  1. About 0.5 mm.
  2. Our eyes are not sensitive enough.
  3. Atoms.
  4. They are very small.

Atomic paper clips

  1. One paper clip.
  2. Yes.
  3. Names for the paperclip might be hook, centre. Parts of an atom are proton, neutron and electron.
  4. No, the paper clip is not useable. A broken up atom would not be useable as an atom.
  5. An atom of gold/aluminium.
  6. We can’t use our hands to tear pieces that small.
  7. Yes.
  8. We need to use a very powerful microscope.
  9. Yes.
  10. No.

Download the activities

‘It’s a small world’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document

‘Atomic paper clips’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document

‘Tasty particles’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document