Monday, March 7, 2011

The Periodic Table???

My seven year old son is in a state of euphoria. He has discovered the periodic table of elements.

By now, my wife and I are not shocked when Kai is fascinated by things that hold no interest among most other kids his age. After all, it was a year ago that he memorized the Hebrew alphabet all by himself in a few days. And just last week, he was hooked on learning about prime factorization. But even so, this latest one captured our attention.

It all started a few days ago when he received a chemistry kit as a belated birthday present. Science is one of his favorite classes at school, so Kai enjoyed doing the experiments from the kit. The projects prompted some questions, and one thing led to another, and I ended up going online and showing him the periodic table.

Well, that was all it took.

For a boy who loves numbers and letters, discovering the periodic table was akin to discovering the Holy Grail. After all, the table has 118 elements (so I found out), each with its own unique atomic number and letter symbol.

It wasn’t long before he was telling us that hydrogen was number 1 and symbol H, while neon was number 10 and symbol Ne.

He went nuts on the computer, clicking on every link for the periodic table. One of his favorite discoveries was YouTube videos of Tom Lehrer singing the names of all the elements to the Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance.

He also found a great website that had a dynamic periodic table. Clicking on every element brings up information for that element, as well as pictures and video of scientists talking about and demonstrating the element. Now, the thought of scientists talking about elements may sound boring to you, but my son wanted to watch each one.

When we went to the library on Saturday, he asked a librarian to help him find a book on the elements. Shockingly, there were none in the little kids’ section so she had to direct us to the area for older kids. We got the simplest book I could find, though it was still more appropriate for high school kids than first graders.

Back home, he had Mom make flash cards of all of the elements. His most prized possession is now a set of 118 laminated cards.

Through all of these cards, books, websites, and videos, I was wondering how much of the information he was actually retaining, and was glad that he appears to be learning more than just the numbers and symbols. Kai now knows that neon is one of the noble gases, that hydrogen is the lightest element, and that carbon has the highest melting point.

Still, it is not always easy dealing with Kai’s obsessions.

For instance, he wanted to do the same experiments that the scientists were doing on the videos he was watching. The experiment with hydrogen, for example, involved filling up a balloon with hydrogen, and then exploding it into a ball of flame.

Never mind the fact that I didn’t have any hydrogen handy, we were not about to explode anything in our house. But none of my explanations could stop Kai from continually asking me to do the experiments. And, after that, the experiments in his new chemistry kit seemed too tame to interest him any longer.

He also was annoying when he asked me and Mom what our favorite elements are. Okay, that may not seem so annoying. But when he repeatedly asked us what our 117th favorite elements are, perhaps you can understand why we started to lose our sense of bemusement over the whole thing.

However, there were some side advantages to all of this. At the skating rink on Saturday morning, Kai was giving his volunteer helper a hard time about trying something new. I told him that if he did not skate nicely, he would have no periodic table for the rest of the day. The mothers of the other kids, as well as the teen volunteers, thought it was funny that a seven year old would be motivated by the loss of periodic table privileges. But, that is my son.

So, what is next? The Pythagorean Theorem? The theory of relativity?

Frankly, I’d be happier with a week of no incidents at school. But that would be too much to ask for now, wouldn’t it?

Here is one version of The Elements song:


  1. On the plus side, he is learning a lot! It's at least a productive perseveration sort of thing. As for the incidents, I don't know what to tell you :-(

    Is Kai's school year round? What does he do in the summer? If you lived in NY I'd snag Kai for my summer camp!

  2. Yes, at least this obsession seems productive.

    Kai goes to summer school, though it's only half a day in the morning and they don't teach a lot of new material (mostly just reviewing things they already know).

  3. I've enjoyed catching up on your blog. He is one amazing boy... I don't know, I think he'd be bored being a NASA scientist with that brilliant mind of his. You and Rika are such wonderful parents - you truly are helping Kai bloom.


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