One of my children has been a microbe enthusiast since she was two or three, so it’s been a regular topic in our house for many years. We’ve read and reread loads of books about microbes, but even with all of our discussions about bacteriophages and tardigrades, it can be hard to make time to use a microscope. It’s exhilarating, though, to dust off your microscope, collect some samples, and have a look.
I’ve divided Tiny Things into two separate posts. This half focuses on the very tiniest things: atoms, molecules, cells, DNA, and microbes. The bridge, in part two, will be micro animals like tardigrades, and that will be followed by small animals, seeds, babies, and dollhouses (an enjoyable hodgepodge). Find part two here.
What Kids Will Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- use a microscope to look at cells (including their own)
- make cell models
- collect DNA from a strawberry and from themselves
- build a home for bacteria
- experiment with chemical reactions
- observe photosynthesis in a jar
- use carbon dioxide to extinguish flames
- create microbe trading cards
- try a variety of foods created with the help of microbes
- grow mushrooms
- do an experiment about farting
- and more
(Designed for preschool and elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable for older children and adults, too.)
- See Inside Atoms and Molecules, Rosie Dickins and Shaw Nielsen [Amazon | Usborne] — A really solid and fun introduction to atoms, molecules, and elements for kids. It has loads of flaps to lift, and it’s organized well, it’s written clearly, and it’s interesting enough that you really could just sit down and read the whole thing. There’s an engaging lift-the-flap Periodic Table at the end, too.
- Cells: An Owner’s Handbook, Carolyn Fisher [Amazon | Bookshop] — This is my favorite book on cells, particularly for preschoolers. It reads smoothly like a story — here, we’re guided around by a friendly cell living on “the derrière of a Boston terrier” — and the illustrations are beautiful. This book focuses mainly on the cells in the human body and includes big, clear illustrations of cells and information on how cells divide. It has just the right amount of text and explanation for elementary-aged readers.
- Enjoy Your Cells, Fran Balkwill and Mic Ralph [Amazon | Bookshop] — This more comprehensive guide to cells is better suited to kindergarten or even first grade+, simply because there’s quite a lot of text and more advanced terminology. This book covers reproduction pretty thoroughly (with some rather strange talking sperm) and goes into quite a lot of detail about DNA and the many types of cells within the human body. It’s not nearly as engaging as the Carolyn Fisher book, and the illustrations look a bit dated, but it’s got quite a lot of useful, in-depth information.
- Grow: Secrets of Our DNA, Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton [Amazon | Bookshop] — A masterful book about DNA for children, written simply and briefly enough that even preschoolers can understand much of it. It’s clear and gorgeously illustrated, and you can read through it in just a few minutes. Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton are a brilliant team (see their book Tiny Creatures below, too).
- The Bacteria Book: The Big World of Really Tiny Microbes, Steve Mould [Amazon | Bookshop] — For younger children (preschool through elementary school), this is an excellent text for studying microbes. Although it’s called The Bacteria Book, it also covers viruses and fungi in a lot of detail and has some information about protozoa, archaea, and micro animals, too. Along with the basics, kids can learn here about the role of microbes in food, animal behavior and appearance, and the spread of disease. Thorough and clear, with a mix of big photos, illustrations, and goofy-looking microbe characters.
- Do Not Lick This Book, Iran Ben-Barak and Julian Frost [Amazon | Bookshop] — This ingenious book manages to make learning about microbes an interactive experience for kids. The main character is Min, a microbe who lives in this very book. Pick her up by touching the page and then take her on a journey by touching your teeth, your shirt, and your belly button. Extreme close-ups show each of these locations in fascinating, startling detail, and along the way, Min picks up some other microbe friends, too. It’s a great way to demonstrate how microbes travel from place to place (and how germs spread). Really fun.
- Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes, Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton [Amazon | Bookshop] — This beautifully illustrated book explains microbes in a way that even preschoolers can grasp and enjoy. It discusses not only various types of microbes, but also how many microbes replicate themselves, what kinds of changes they make in the world, and how many of them live on us — all in clear text that reads like a soothing story. It’s a wonderful example of science writing for kids.
- Gut Garden: A Journey Into the Wonderful World of Your Microbiome, Katie Brosnan [Amazon | Bookshop] — This book has a handy overview of microbes at the beginning, but after that it focuses almost exclusively on the microbiome. Kids can learn a lot about eating and digestion, the immune system, and research into microbes and illnesses possibly related to our microbiome. The research behind this book is very good (it’s very similar to much of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes), and it has an even-handed approach to microbes (whether certain microbes are “good” or “bad is a complicated question) and to probiotics (it acknowledges that we don’t really know the extent to which they’re helpful, if they are). Unlike The Bacteria Book, this book has no photos but is beautifully illustrated, with microbe characters adding information in speech bubbles at the sides of the pages.
- The Element in the Room: Investigating the Atomic Ingredients That Make Up Your Home, Mike Barfield and Lauren Humphrey [Amazon | Bookshop] — This extraordinary book about the Periodic Table is framed as a mystery: help Sherlock Ohms track down all of the elements in the world around you. It begins with an overview (of atoms, the Big Bang, and the Periodic Table itself) and then delves into each of the elements. All of the profiles of the elements come with a checklist of where to find them, and many have simple experiment suggestions, too. The experiments are described very briefly, so you might want to look them up online — but they’re all easily findable. There is also a series of brief comics pages sprinkled throughout the book. A motivated first-grader could read this book alone, but it’s complex and detailed enough that it would be useful for much older children (and curious adults), too.
- The Elements Book, DK Smithsonian [Amazon | Bookshop] — Like most DK books of this type, this book on the elements is filled with big, color photos. For each element, it provides a small summary and photos of places where the element can be found, along with assorted trivia. After a few pages of useful explanatory material at the front (see inside an atom, an introduction to the Periodic Table), it’s primarily an attractive and useful reference book, with big pictures to inspire curiosity and browsing — not a book most people would want to read from front to back in a sitting.
- Nano: The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small, Dr. Jess Wade and Melissa Castrillón [Amazon | Bookshop] — This extraordinarily beautifully illustrated picture book explains nanoscience to children in simple language. It’s wonderfully written, walking children through the concepts of atoms, elements, and materials before exploring some of the ways scientists are using nanotechnology (and specifically the nanomaterial grapheme) to solve problems. Maybe you’d never wished for a picture book about nanotechnology, but you’ll appreciate it once you’ve read it. Even many preschoolers could enjoy this, and it’s not too simple either, for older children (and grown-ups!).
- All in a Drop: How Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World, Lori Alexander and Vivien Mildenberger [Amazon | Bookshop] — This extraordinary chapter book must be one of the most engaging science biographies on the market for kids. Leeuwenhoek’s life was unusual and fascinating: with no training in science, he nevertheless crafted the most powerful microscopes in the world and was the first person to see microbes. The book excels at conveying the wonder of his life and what he observed — all explained in simple, engaging language alongside beautiful watercolor illustrations. Kids can learn so much from this book: about microbes, experiments and the scientific process, germ theory, and the construction of microscopes. Leeuwenhoek kept his methods and microscopes to himself during his lifetime, and the book thoughtfully considers his contributions to science at the end (he discovered and identified many things, but did his secretiveness delay progress, too?). A truly fascinating book.
- The Mushroom Fan Club, Elise Gravel [Amazon | Bookshop] — Elise Gravel is a fan of mushrooms and mushroom-hunting, which she says is like a treasure hunt organized by nature itself. That feels about right. There’s something exciting about spotting a mushroom, and this book captures a lot of that thrill. All the mushrooms here are engagingly cute, with eyes (and Gravel acknowledges that she’s not a professional mycologist), but the types of mushrooms she catalogs are real. Some of the facts she mentions are so intriguing that you might be inspired to look up more (a mushroom that turns blue when you touch it?).
- Fungarium, Katie Scott and Ester Gaya [Amazon | Bookshop] — As with all the Welcome to the Museum books, this book on fungi is giant and visually stunning. Although some of the text might be too dense for the youngest readers, motivated elementary readers might love reading it (and it makes for good reading for adults, too). But everyone should love the gigantic, vibrant illustrations, many of which seem almost to glow from the page. One of the most fascinating spreads is about fungi, fungi that infect and sometimes even control insects. It’s a great resource and so intriguing that you might well find yourselves researching fungi you discover in this book.
For many of these activities, you’ll need access to a microscope. I have used the Omano JuniorScope [Amazon], but for much less money you can also try the Foldscope.
Atoms and Elements
Watch: Powers of Ten
Read: “What is an atom?,” “Inside an Atom,” See Inside Atoms and Molecules, Rosie Dickins and Shaw Nielsen [Amazon | Usborne]
Watch: Just How Small Is an Atom?
How Small Is an Atom? Spoiler Alert: Very Small (This video is largely the same as the previous one, but it’s a little more overwhelming and complicated, so skip it if you’re not invested)
Look: Universe in a Nutshell app (zoom from human scale down to the scale of atoms, then down to the scale of protons and neutrons)
Watch: A Boy and His Atom: The World’s Smallest Movie
Moving Atoms: Making the World’s Smallest Movie
Activity: Balloon levitation
The bag here really must be a produce bag — this does not work well with a regular grocery bag. It can be quite tricky, so I would suggest trying it out beforehand to see if you can get it to work well enough. Here is another, much easier variation on a static cling experiment with a balloon, along with a very clear explanation of how this works.
Read: “The First Mystery: The Big Bang,” “Xe Marks the Spot: Periodic Table,” The Element in the Room, Mike Barfield and Lauren Humphrey [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: The Elements — They Might Be Giants
Read: “Getting in a state,” See Inside Atoms and Molecules 6
Activity: States of matter experiments with water
Whether or not you follow all the directions in this guide, it’s a useful step-by-step for how to investigate states of matter with water. Kids will feel ice cubes and heat them, and they’ll also pour liquid into cups of various sizes. These are really simple activities and might not seem impressive, but they’re wonderfully clear and quite interesting to children, too. The guide also recommends a snack that incorporates three states of matter: a root beer float.
Activity: Mix salt or sugar and water to make a solution
Read: “Reactions and uses,” The Elements Book, DK Smithsonian [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: The Chemistry of Baking
Activity: Compounds and chemical reactions
For a hands-on demonstration of chemical reactions, you can either bake muffins or bread or make play dough, using these great video instructions from the Royal Institution. Find the printed instructions here.
Activity: Candle chemical reaction
Light a candle, then put a jar over it (combustion is a chemical reaction that needs oxygen — use up the oxygen, and it stops). Try using several different sizes of jars and time how long it takes for the flame to go out. Why does it take longer with some jars than others? Here is a handy illustration of the process.
Read: “Hydrogen,” The Element in the Room 10
And/or “Hydrogen,” The Elements Book 20
Activity: Submerge a 9V battery in water and light hydrogen on fire
This sounds pretty intense, but actually the fire from the match only slightly flares (so look closely!). Of course, use caution, as always, around fire. For this, you’ll need the battery and something like an electric wire cap. Full instructions here.
Read: “Oxygen,” The Element in the Room 19
Activity: Produce oxygen bubbles through photosynthesis in a cup
You can do this with a simple leaf of spinach in water, but here’s a more impressive demonstration.
Read: “Carbon,” The Element in the Room 16-17
Look: “Carbon,” The Elements Book 142-3
Look: Make pencil markings (layers of carbon are weakly bonded and rub off easily)
Activity: Carbon dioxide fire extinguisher
Create carbon dioxide in a glass and then pour the gas over a series of lighted candles. This is an easy activity with a big pay-off. Full instructions here.
Read: Nano: The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small, Dr. Jess Wade and Melissa Castrillón [Amazon | Bookshop]
Cells and DNA
Read: Cells: An Owner’s Handbook, Carolyn Fisher [Amazon | Bookshop] or Enjoy Your Cells, Fran Balkwill and Mic Ralph [Amazon | Bookshop] (the former is my favorite and is simpler but still comprehensive; the latter is also good and has lots of detailed information)
Watch: Cell Division Time Lapse (in a frog egg)
Activity: Make cell diagrams
Cells have a lot of parts, and those parts have names that will be very unfamiliar to kids, so spending time making a cell is a helpful and pretty fun activity to do together. This video has instructions for making cells out of construction paper and also for making cell paintings with crayons and watercolors.
Look: A cell you don’t need a microscope to see
You don’t need a microscope to see some cells. Crack and egg and look at the yolk: that’s a single, very large cell.
Activity: Examine cells from a flower stem, an onion, or celery
Make a very thin cut of a tulip stem (for example) or a stalk of celery. You can also use a piece of onion skin by carefully peeling off one thin layer of the onion (to see how to remove this layer of the onion, you can go here). Then mount your specimen on a slide with some water. Our onion layer, pictured to the left, folded over, but we went with it and it was fine! (Despite what many guidebooks advise, I found it wasn’t necessary to dye any samples we took.)
If you have a rock collection, you might also enjoy looking at some items from it with your microscope (pictured here: an agate slice, an opal, and petrified wood).
Activity: Look at your own cheek cells
Here is a video instruction for how to gather cheek cells.
Activity: Look at a pencil shaving (from a pencil sharpener) under the microscope
Read: Grow: Secrets of Our DNA, Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Extract DNA from a strawberry
It’s wild that you can do this at home and that it’s so easy. In the picture to the right, the white clumps in the clear layer of liquid are DNA. Pull it out with a bamboo skewer and pop it on a slide to look at under a microscope. (Or if you don’t have a microscope, simply knowing that you’re extracting DNA is cool enough as it is!) Full instructions here.
Activity: Try extracting your own DNA
In my experience, this was much trickier than working with the strawberry, and the DNA in the solution was much less noticeable than the DNA from the strawberries in the previous experiment. But why not try it anyway? (Children might have some trouble swishing the water around in their mouths well enough, so you might want to collect your own DNA for this instead of theirs.)
Watch: Seeing the Invisible (story of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek)
Read: All in a Drop: How Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World, Lori Alexander and Vivien Mildenberger [Amazon | Bookshop]
This is a longer chapter book, but I highly recommend spending a few days working through it. I’ve found that even a preschooler can enjoy this one a lot (but it’s perfect, too, for elementary students). It’s spectacular, a masterpiece of a biography for kids.
Read: “What Is a Microbe,” “Meet the Microbes,” The Bacteria Book: The Big World of Really Tiny Microbes, Steve Mould [Amazon | Bookshop]
Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes, Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton [Amazon | Bookshop]
Do Not Lick This Book, Iran Ben-Barak and Julian Frost [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: How to Identify Microbes
(Or almost any video from the wonderful YouTube channel Journey to the Microcosmos.)
Read: “What Is a Virus?,” “Catching a Cold,” and “Fighting a Virus,” The Bacteria Book 34-39
Watch: Flu Attack! How a Virus Invades Your Body
Or Cell vs. Virus: a Battle for Health (more complex)
Read: “What Are Fungi,” The Bacteria Book 44-45
The Mushroom Fan Club, Elise Gravel [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Fungi: Why Mushrooms Are Awesome
Fly Agaric Growing and Dying Time Lapse
Shaggy Inkcap Fungi Time Lapse
Glow-in-the-Dark Mushrooms: Nature’s Night Lights
Read: “Micro Chefs,” The Bacteria Book 50-51
Activity: Inflate balloons using yeast
Simple and easy. Find the full instructions here.
Activity: Make a quick and healthy bread with yeast
This bread recipe is extremely simple and delicious, and kids will find it easy to help make this.
Activity: Grow mushrooms
You can find lots of mushroom grow kits, but we’ve had luck with these [Amazon | Back to the Roots]. They’re all edible, too.
Activity: Try to capture mushroom spores
Put a mushroom cap under a glass and wait two days. Check it after two days for little specks. If you find some, put them on a slide and examine them under a microscope.
Read: “Growing and Dividing,” “Where in the World,” The Bacteria Book 16-18
Bacteria in Animals
Watch: Nature’s Cutest Symbiosis: The Bobtail Squid
Anglerfish use bacteria for their bioluminescence
The Grain Weevil’s Bacterial Body Armor
The Stinky Shield of the Hoopoe Bird
Read: “The Bad Guys,” “Your Body’s Defenses,” “The Story of Antibiotics,” The Bacteria Book 24-29
Activity: Microbe trading cards
You probably can’t force this activity, but if you have children who are really into microbes (and some of us do), making microbe trading cards might be pretty exciting. There are so many varieties! The Bacteria Book by Bob Mould (see above) has loads of examples of microbes, so it’s a good place to start when making your trading cards.
Watch: The Beneficial Bacteria That Make Delicious Food
Read: Gut Garden: A Journey Into the Wonderful World of Your Microbiome, Katie Brosnan [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: How Bacteria Rule Over Your Body – The Microbiome
A Baby Iguana’s First Meal Is… Poo?
Watch: Are Silent Farts Worse?
Activity: What combinations produce gas?
This great experiment simulates the production of gas within the intestines. Kids can observe four glasses with microbes and food to see which ones produce enough gas to blow up a balloon.
For more information about the microbiome and how diet changes it, I highly recommend Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes [Amazon | Bookshop].
Read On, Grown-Ups
- I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, Ed Yong [Amazon | Bookshop] — Ed Yong recently won a Pulitzer for his work covering the COVID pandemic in The Atlantic. Several years before, he wrote this fascinating book about microbes and microbiomes. It’s not a dense, extremely technical read, and there’s plenty in here to astonish or make you rethink your view of life (and your life choices). Yong’s repeated assertion that we are all walking ecosystems, and that the creatures around us are, too, is thought-provoking, and he examines loads of these mini-ecosystems in detail: aphids, squid, mice, and humans, too, of course. There’s quite a bit here about the efficacy of prebiotics and probiotics, and some of the most exciting parts are about the future of research into microbes (eliminating the dengue virus, treating and preventing illness, and making hospitals safer).
- What Is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology, James Nurse [Amazon | Bookshop] — Nurse, who won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work on cell reproduction, entertainingly guides readers through important concepts in biology (the cell, the gene, evolution, chemistry, and information) and ultimately tries to define what life is. The book is an excellent primer on basic ideas in biology, and it has the quality of a comfortable chat with an accomplished and enthusiastic expert. Nurse explains things remarkably clearly and with a sense of infectious wonder and awe, sprinkling in fascinating details from his own research into yeast cells (research that proved to be extremely important for biology as a whole). Near the end of the book, he briefly tackles a variety of ethical issues and other interesting questions (are viruses alive?). It’s a slim book, a quick read, and a very enjoyable way to refresh your knowledge of biology — and probably learn a bunch of new things for the first time, too.
- Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake [Amazon | Bookshop] — If you read Robert Macfarlane’s exquisite Underland, you might remember charismatic Merlin Sheldrake from the particularly fascinating chapter on mycorrhizal networks. Now he has his own book about fungi, exploring, for example, how plants and fungi partner (and how fungi impact a plant’s flavor and appearance), how we might view lichen as ecosystems, and how innovative approaches to cultivating and using fungi might help solve environmental disasters and help prevent colony collapse disorder in bees. Sheldrake’s chapter on psilocybin in mushrooms and the mind-altering states they induce is appropriately mind-bending and wild (are mushrooms speaking through us?), and his exploration of radical mycology is eye-opening and exciting. Although it doesn’t make for quite as compelling reading as Macfarlane’s book, Sheldrake’s is still quite interesting itself. And while it’s exhaustively researched, he’s willing, too, to depart from strict scientific conventions, to speculate and use imagination — and this approach gives the book a thought-provoking and poetic tone that’s really delightful.
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