University of Virginia
Physics Department

Making Atoms Come to Life

A Physical Science Activity

Adapted from: Farin, S. (1997). Acting Atoms, Science Scope, 21:3, p. 46.

2003 Virginia SOLs



Students will


Motivation for Learning

Driving Question

How can we make a model of an atom? Atoms are much too small to be seen, but experiments on the behavior of atoms have allowed us to understand that an atom is made up of protons and neutrons in the nucleus and electrons in various orbitals around the nucleus. Because the atom is so small and the electrons move so quickly, it is difficult to know exactly how an atom looks. However, we can develop models to help us understand them better.

Background Information

This is a game that allows students to demonstrate their understanding of atomic structure. It can serve as a strong reinforcing activity to information learned previously about the parts and structure of an atom. The model presented has shortcomings as noted in the procedure section and they should be explained to students before starting. 

Additional Background Information

Additional Websites
Note: Due to the Frames Layout of this page, these pages may be more easily viewed by opening them in a new window (Right-Click on the link and choose "open in new window")
Interactive Periodic Table
The Visual Elements Periodic Table
Chemical Elements
The Pictorial Periodic Table
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Additional Physics Tutorials

Student Activity




  1. Explain the shortcomings of the models that will be constructed such as:
    1. Atoms are three dimensional, but the models will only be two-dimensional.
    2. Atomic masses are not integral values on the periodic table because those values are weighted averages of all the possible atomic arrangements. For the game, however, the atomic mass should be rounded to the nearest whole number.
    3. Electrons within the atom are nearly randomly distributed and constantly moving very quickly. In the game, electrons will be still and spaced evenly apart within the energy levels.
  2. In a box labeled "Electrons," place the fifty 5 cm squares of construction paper. In a box labeled "Protons," place fifty 10-cm squares of one color. In a box labeled "Neutrons," place the remaining fifty 10 cm squares.
  3. Divide the class into two teams and clear a large space so there will be enough room for the team members to assume their positions as parts of the atom. Note - Competition is not required for this exercise. This activity also works well when the class works together or in smaller, non-competing groups.
  4. On a large piece of construction paper or on the board, write the symbol, name, atomic number, and atomic mass of an element as it appears on the periodic table. This will be the first atom the teams will construct. (Be sure to choose atoms so the total number of protons, neutrons, or electrons needed does not exceed the available number of squares.)
  5. Tell the students within their teams to calculate the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons for the atom. One student should serve as the team leader and retrieve the needed number of "electrons", "protons", and "neutrons" from the labeled boxes.
  6. The teams should construct the atom by having one person represent each of the electrons. One or several team members can represent the nucleus. The paper squares should be distributed to the appropriate individuals within the team by the team leader. The electrons should be spaced around and from the nucleus in a manner similar to the Bohr model.
  7. When a team has completed the atom, the leader should yell "Stop" at which time everyone on both teams must freeze where they are. A representative from the team must then explain the model and the process used to determine the number of component parts and their placement. The opposing team then decides if the model is correct. If it is deemed right, then the next element is presented. If it is incorrect, both teams must continue working as before.
  8. Continue the activity with other elements from the periodic table to offer students an opportunity to practice a variety of electron configurations. This will also allow other students to serve as team leaders.



  1. Integrate the use of ions into the above exercise.
  2. Students pick an element to research using web and library sources.
  3. Students produce a power point presentation on their element.
  4. Students post their element presentation to a class web page as part of a "Cyber Periodic Table."


Students with Special Needs

Students who may not be able to move readily about the room could remain stationary and provide an anchor point for the atomic models. They can also direct construction of their team's model.

Click here for further information on laboratories with students with special needs.



  1. Have students rotate responsibilities within the teams to assess individual understanding of atomic structure.
  2. Have students draw on a map of the classroom where individuals should be positioned if they were to direct the construction of an atomic model for a different element.