Atomic Mobile

Take a look around you. What do you see? Your desk, your hand, a tree out the window. Everything you can name is matter.

What is Matter?

  • Matter  is anything that has mass. It's made of elements.
  • Elements are substances like oxygen or carbon. They can be broken down into atoms.
  • Atoms  are tiny particles that are made up of even tinier particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons.
two girls holding up the atomic mobiles they made

Make a mobile of a carbon atom!

What You'll Need
periodic table printout, wire, pipe cleaners, a scissors, orange clay, blue clay, yellow clay
  • Periodic Table 
    (Click here to get the pdf.)
  • Scissors
  • Wire and pipe cleaners
  • Clay (3 different colors)
  • Thin string, thread, or nylon thread (optional)

To learn how to read the Periodic Table, click here!

What To Do
atom with the nucleus in the center and electrons diagrammed


Atoms are made of even smaller parts: a central nucleus made of protons and neutronsElectrons orbit in spheres around the atom.


Before you start, take a look at carbon on the periodic table. It has an atomic number of 6. That means a carbon atom has 6 protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons. Since carbon is in the second row (or second period), it has 2 electron orbits.

carbon element as shown on the periodic table
Carbon atom with 2 rings around the nucleus, the inner ring has 2 electrons, the outer ring has 4 electrons

Use the clay to make your protons and neutrons in the nucleus. The nucleus should be about the size of a large gumball. (Use two different colors of clay.) After you make the nucleus, put it aside for now.

molding the nucleus with 2 different colors of clay

Now make the orbits. Use a foot long piece of wire or one pipe cleaner to make the first orbit. Bend the wire or pipe cleaners into elliptical shapes and twist the ends together.

attaching ends of wire
attaching ends of pipe cleaner

Make the rest of the orbits for the element that you chose. The orbits should increase in size each time one is added. For the second orbit, use a longer piece of wire, or if you are using pipe cleaners, twist the ends of two pipe cleaners together to make one long one.

making a larger ring out of wire
attaching pipe cleaners to make a longer piece

Now sculpt and attach the electrons for your model by using a different color clay from the protons and neutrons of the nucleus. Try to make your electrons the same size. Remember, a carbon atom has 6 electrons, 2 in the inner orbit, 4 in the outer orbit.

pressing one ball of clay onto small ring of wire
pressing on fourth ball of clay to the large pipe cleaner ring
pressing on the fourth ball of clay onto the larger wire ring
2 girls displaying the completed inner and outer orbits for their mobiles

Cut a five-inch piece of wire and stick it into the nucleus.

poking a straight piece of wire into a ball of clay

Then attach the wire to the first orbit of the atom, making sure that the nucleus hangs in the center.

attaching the wire and ball to the orbit so that it hangs down in the center of the ring

Now cut another five-inch piece of wire or pipe cleaner and attach the inner orbit to the second orbit so that the hoops are connected. Repeat this step if there are more than two orbits in your model.

attaching the inner ring to the outer ring with the nucleus wire

When you're done, hang your model with string, pipe cleaner, or wire. When friends ask, tell them what element it is, like, "Oh, that's just carbon!"

2 finished mobiles

Try This!

Make another mobile! Check out the Periodic Table and choose another element. Write down the name of your element and the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Next, determine how many orbits the atom has. (Hint: The number of orbits equals the period number.) Finally, do some research to find out how many electrons are in each orbit. What did you discover?

Did You Know?

Your model shows the basic structure of the atom you chose. But remember that in a real atom, the electrons orbit in spherical, ellipsoidal, butterfly-like, and other, shapes around the nucleus. Also, the protons and neutrons in an actual atom are about 2000 times more massive than the electrons. And finally, an atom's electron orbits have a radius thousands of times greater than the nucleus. That would be almost impossible to show in a model!

Image Credits:

All Images: courtesy of AMNH