Atom Building Game

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Students will be able to learn the internal structure of an atom using a game board.

Big Idea

Teaching the inside of an atom is so much more fun when it's a game.

NGSS Background

MS-PS-1: Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.

DCI: PS1.A - Structure and Properties of Matter: Substances are made from different types of atoms.

Sci & Eng Practice 2: Developing and Using Models

CCC: Energy and Matter

Games can be effective resources for teaching the atom. The many participles that make up an atom and how they interact can be a confusing puzzle for students (MS-PS-1). Before a student can understand how matter behaves they first need to know the structure of the atom (PS1.A). Knowing that the atomic number represents the number of protons in the nucleus, that a stable atom has a set atomic mass, and a neutrally charged atom has the same number of electrons as protons are just some of the details this game will teach and reenforce (SP2).

I use this game as an ending activity to my Atomic Structure Unit. Using it only once though defeats the true power this game has with students. I bring this game back out every 3-4 weeks as a review to keep the structure of an atom fresh in my student's minds. This lesson is disguised as a game, but its true purpose is to have students verbalize the internal structure of an atom and encourage discourse among their peers.

Game Set-up

20 minutes

This is one of the few commercial products that I feel does a better job than any teacher made resource. The Atom Building Game teaches students about the structure of an atom using competitive game strategies. It retails for about $100 and is available from Frey Scientific CPO Science.

If this cost proves prohibitive, I know of a teacher who used a large sheet of felt (24" x 24"), drew a 14" circle at the center to represent the nucleus and surrounded it with 16", 18", 20", and 22" circles to represent the electron shells. In place of marbles they used fuzzy craft balls to stand in for the particles (protons, neutron, electron). Be creative!

To begin, I review with the students the contents in the box. The game board represent the atom's structure such as the nucleus (center) and the electron shells (rings). I refer to the box as a pizza box (resembles a take-out pizza box). We discuss how the contents fit into the box and how it should look once we are done with this activity.

To start this game the empty box (pizza box) must be set on the floor and leaning up against a desk (its a big box that takes up too much room on a desk and could be stepped on if it were flat on the floor). The game comes with three types of marbles that are used to represent the proton, neutron, and electron.


  1. red marbles - protons
  2. blue marbles - neutrons
  3. yellow marbles - electrons 

Before I allow my students to play the game we practice using the board by building several practice atoms. I explain that the protons and neutrons are placed in the center of the board and the elections are placed in the electron shells making sure the closest shells (lowest energy levels) are filled before any electrons are placed in the further shells.

The first atom we build is a helium (He) atom with two protons (red), two neutrons (blue), and two electrons (yellow). I roam the room making sure the helium (He) atoms are built correctly. Make sure the two electrons are only occupying the first electron shell, students have a tendency to place the electrons in any shell.

We then build large atoms, such as lithium (Li), carbon (C), and magnesium (Mg). The atoms you build with your students are  entirely up to you, keep in mind that as the atoms become larger it becomes increasingly difficult to spot check for accuracy, misconceptions about atomic structure may be inadvertently introduced.

Before you actually engage your students with the game rules you can take an opportunity to show the students how ionic bonding works. Have half the class build sodium (Na) atoms and the other half build chlorine (Cl) atoms. The lone valance electron on the sodium (Na) atoms, which causes sodium to become positive atom, can be handed to the chlorine (Cl) atoms, which in turn causes it to become a negative atom. Sodium (Na+) will now be magnetically attracted to the chlorine (Cl-) atom. You could move the two opposing game boards side-by-side to simulate the magnetic attraction of ionic bonding.

Student Game

25 minutes

The rules given here for this game are variations from the rules published by CPO.

Students build correct atoms. Atoms are considered correct IF:

  1. The atomic mass matches the number of protons in the nucleus. 
  2. The electrons match the protons. 
  3. The atomic mass (neutrons added to the nucleus) is correct. 

TIP: CPO has provided an alternative periodic table which list all the possible atomic masses for each individual atom instead of an average (like all other periodic tables). When a student decides to build an atom the atomic number determines the proton count, which in turn determines the electron count (protons = electrons). A student would add neutrons to the nucleus until the atomic mass is correct.

Game Rules

  1. Print out a copy of Atom Building Game Score Sheet and CPO Periodic Table for each student.
  2. Evenly distribute the three types of marbles (red/proton, blue/neutron, yellow/electron) to each player. 
  3. Decide who is going first (Player 1) then move to the right (Player 2, 3, ...).
  4. Player 1 writes their name down on Atom Building Game Score Sheet on the first line, Player 2 writes their name on line 2, etc...
  5. Continue writing names to create multiple turn cycles (see Atom Building Game Score Sheet photo below for examples). TIP: Each player should have an identical score sheet. This reenforces the skills needed to understand the structure of an atom.
  6. Player 1 builds an atom and announces that atom to the group, while recording all the facts about the atom they built (name, symbol, atomic number, proton count, neutron count, atomic mass, and electron count).
  7. Other players either accept that atom by saying "this atom is correct" or challenge the atom by saying "I challenge this atom".
  8. If a challenged atom is build incorrectly then the offending player takes all the marbles on the board and play starts over.
  9. If the atom is build correctly then that player asks themselves four 'Scoring Questions' and receives a point for every 'YES" they can answer.
  10. Play continues to Player 2.
  11. The game ends when a player has used all their marbles - this player receives 15 bonus points.
  12. Tally all the points.
  13. The student with the most points wins.

 Scoring Questions

  1. Did you build a new atom (new atomic number)?
  2. Is the atom stable (protons = neutrons)?
  3. Is the atom neutrally charged (protons = electrons)?
  4. Did you play five or few marbles?

Atom Building Game Score Sheet