What is an Atom? - Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Lauren Scott

Lauren has a Master's degree in special education and has taught for more than 10 years.

This lesson will introduce you to the atom, which is the smallest building block of everything in our universe. You will learn about the basic structure of atoms and how they form different substances.

Building Blocks

You can't see atoms, but they make up everything around you: your chair, your desk, the birds outside -- even you! Atoms are the foundation of matter, which is everything that makes up the universe around us. Each kind of atom makes up a pure substance called an element. You may have heard of oxygen, lead, and gold. Well, these are all examples of elements. Can you believe that a pure gold necklace is made up of billions of gold atoms?

The Structure of an Atom

If you look inside an atom, you find tiny particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons. Atoms of each element have different numbers of these particles. Protons and electrons have electrical charges. You can think of this as being similar to a battery, which has a + (positive) and - (negative) sign. Protons are positively charged, which you can remember by noticing that there is a P in proton and a P in positive. Electrons are negatively charged. And like their name suggests, neutrons are neutral, meaning they do not carry any charge at all.

Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus of an atom. Electrons spin around the nucleus.
atomic structure

Protons and neutrons form the center of an atom, called the nucleus. Electrons spin around outside the nucleus in spaces called electron shells. These aren't shells like you'd find at the beach, though. That's just the name given to the different layers of space the electrons occupy. Each electron shell carries a certain number of electrons. The farther from the nucleus, or center of the atom, you go, the more electrons that can fit in each shell.

Atomic Bonding

Atoms don't naturally break down into smaller parts. Additionally, they may exist on their own, but they also bond, or stick together. Bonded atoms can form all kinds of things. Sometimes, bonded atoms may be packed together so tightly that they can barely move. Imagine being stuck in a tiny elevator that is really crowded. When this happens, the atoms form solids, like rock.

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