University of Virginia
Physics Department

Mapping Out the Periodic Table

A Physical Science Activity

2003 Virginia SOLs



Students will


Motivation for Learning

Driving Question

How can we describe the periodic table in a way that is familiar to us? What sorts of things distinguish parts of the periodic table from each other? What things make them similar? We can think of the periodic table as a city and the elements as people who live in the city. Each element (as each person in a city) is very distinct and has its own set of properties. Students can make this analogy and will hopefully have a better understanding of the periodic table and the elements that make it up.


Background Information

This activity is designed to help students understand the organization of the periodic table and to see the relationships among various elements from various parts of the periodic table. The students will be introduced to the concepts of groups and periods on the periodic table.


Student Activity




  1. Assign each student an element - use 5 elements from each of the following groups: alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, halogens, noble gases, and either the carbon, nitrogen, or oxygen group. (You may adjust this any way you need to depending on the size of your class. You may also want to include all three of the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen groups, so you may cut down the number of elements from each group.)
  2. Have each student gather information about the element to which they have been assigned. Students should use their textbooks, the periodic table, and any resources you may have gathered from the library. This information should include things like atomic number, atomic mass, the group to which in belongs, physical and chemical properties, and uses of the element. This information should be displayed neatly with color and pictures on a poster. Students should be able to complete these in approximately 30-45 minutes.
  3. When each student is finished, tell them that they are going to get together in groups with other people from their "neighborhood" (the people they live with on the periodic table - those elements in the same column that have similar properties). Assign each group (or neighborhood) to a particular place in the room. The students should then get together with other members of their group. Assessment: Walk around and see if everyone is in the correct group. If not, ask questions until they realize what group they should be in.
  4. Each person in each group should give a general description of his or her element, then the group should discuss the similarities among them. These similarities should be written as a list of properties for their particular neighborhood (or group).
  5. Each group should then pick a spokesperson to come to the front of the room and share the list of properties. This spokesperson should also show the rest of the class where the neighborhood is on the periodic table so that the other groups can see where they are in relation to that.
  6. Ask students if elements that are closer to each other have more similar or less similar properties than those farther away from each other. Guide students to see that elements are placed on the periodic table based on similar properties.
  7. Discuss the fact that elements are lined up in rows because they have similar properties within that row also. These rows are called "periods." Groups share more similar properties than do periods, however.
  8. Break students up into pairs (two elements that are not in the same group). Have them show each other where they are on the periodic table. Each student should write directions for how to get to the other person's house. Do they have to travel left or right and/or up or down to get there? Which family do they follow? What neighborhoods do they have to go through in order to get there?



  1. Have students write a story about their city from the point of view of their element.
  2. Have students make a "neighborhood" portrait with pictures of uses of the elements in that neighborhood.
  3. Have students come up with different analogies they could use to describe and map the periodic table.


Students with Special Needs

All students should be able to participate in this activity.

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



  1. Give students properties of a group and have them identify the group.
  2. Have students write directions for how to get to an element on the periodic table (which row it's in, which neighborhoods you have to go through to get there, etc.). Have the students exchange these and identify the element.
  3. Have students write a brief paragraph describing the major changes in properties of elements as you move across the periodic table.
  4. Ask students how the properties of their element changes if one atomic number is removed.