Guide to Teaching Kids About Cells

Guide to teaching kids about cells

Cells are the building blocks that create life. Ever wondered what makes up your skin, organs or muscles? Fasten your seatbelts. You are about to see a world that is all around you, and yet so small that you probably have never seen it.

If you're wanting to teach your students or your kids at home about the amazing world of cells, all you need is a little creativity to make learning about this incredible topic fun and interactive. For inspiration in your teachings, check out these ideas.

How to Teach Kids About Cells

To understand the parts of cells and what they do, first, teach kids about cells and what they are. Don't be afraid to incorporate the scientific names for the parts of cells into your discussion. Repeating these names and the cell types will help to learn them.

Young kids can learn the names of cell parts, too, even if they are complex. Think about the types of dinosaurs a young child can say that many adults cannot!

What Are Cells?

All living things have cells. These tiny building blocks work together to create simple bacteria as well as more complex organisms, such as people and animals. Cells types are categorized based on complexity and include prokaryotic and eukaryotic:

In complex organisms — such as plants, animals and people — cells are made up of several organelles. These are the parts of the cell that perform various functions and allow for the cell's independent operation. The cells also have different shapes to assist with their functions, such as blood cells compared to fat cells. However, they all share similar parts that allow the cell to do general tasks, such as create energy and protect itself.

Most lessons on cells focus on eukaryotic cells.

What are cells?

Parts of the Cell

Teach the parts of the cell to kids by first understanding them yourself. Here is a simple list of the various organelles and a brief description of their functions you can use for enriching your lessons and activities:

  • Plasma Membrane: The exterior of the cell, the plasma membrane is a flexible wall that keeps the contents of the cell inside while still allowing for materials to move through the membrane.
  • Cytoplasm: All organelles inside the cell float in the cytoplasm.
  • Nucleus: The nucleus provides the brains of the cell and runs all other cell operations. It contains the nucleolus as well.
  • Nucleolus: The nucleus holds the nucleolus. The nucleolus makes ribosomes, which are where the cell creates proteins.
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum: Also known as the ER, this membrane transports materials throughout the cell. Rough ER contains ribosomes to make proteins while smooth ER makes fats, also called lipids.
  • Golgi Body or Complex: Lipids from the ER move to the Golgi body where they get delivered to the plasma membrane.
  • Mitochondria: Mitochondria make energy for the cell's operations. Some people call these organelles the powerhouses of the cell.
  • Lysosomes: These cell organelles help the cell get rid of waste.

Both plant and animal cells have all the above organelles, but plant cells differentiate themselves from animal cells with the addition of some other parts.

Differences Between Plant and Animal Cells

The most significant differences between plant and animal cell organelles are the cell wall, vacuoles and chloroplasts.

Plant cells have a rigid cell wall surrounding the plasma membrane. This wall gives the cells their rectangular structure and helps plants stand upright without the need for an internal reinforcing structure, such as bones or an exoskeleton.

Chloroplasts in plant cells generate energy through photosynthesis. The process takes sunlight and water and converts them into energy for the cell and plant. Animal cells do not have chloroplasts.

Plant cells also have a single, large vacuole. This function of this organelle is to store water and sap. The vacuole increases and decreases in size depending on the amount stored in them. When plants lack water, the vacuole shrinks, making the cell cave in on itself and causing the plant to droop. Animal cells can have vacuoles, but they are smaller, more numerous and have a different function.

Animal cells, as well as microorganisms, also have exterior protrusions that help them to move:

  • Cilia: The cilia look like tiny hairs on the outside of animal cells, and there are many of them.
  • Flagella: The flagella is a long, single projection that acts like a whip to propel the cell forward. Cells have either cilia or flagella.

Plant cells do not have cilia or flagella.

Chloroplasts in plant cells generate energy through photosynthesis

Cell Experiments for Kids

Get kids excited to learn about cells and their functions through hands-on experiments and activities. From games to more traditional lab activities and model building, you will have plenty to do to teach kids about cells.

1. Think Small

For early elementary school children, you may need to explain that cells are so small you cannot see them without a microscope. Because it can be difficult for youngsters to envision such small items, have a microscope handy along with prepared slides. Onion skin is an excellent specimen to show plant cells. For animal cells, use dyed cheek cells from your own or a student's cheek:

  • Show the students the prepared slides before they look at them under the microscope. Ask them to guess how many cells are on each slide.
  • Place one slide under the microscope and adjust the viewer until you can see the outlines of the cells. Give each student a chance to look through the microscope at the cells. Point out that each slide contains numerous cells.
  • Repeat the process with the second slide.
  • Have students draw pictures of what they saw under the microscope and guess what the cells do. Finish with an explanation of the cell and its organelle functions.
  • Ask the kids how big the largest cell is. Answer by showing them an ostrich egg, which is the largest single cell and 10,000 times larger than the cheek cells they saw.
  • Give kids unlabeled pictures of plant and animal cells for them to label and color. While they work, ask what differences they notice between the cells. For very young kids, you can give them labeled pictures for them to color while you go over the names and functions of the cell parts.
Think small when teaching kids about cells

2. Make Models

Have kids make models of cells using cut pieces of construction paper, felt or foam. You can even encourage kids to get creative and make three-dimensional models with modeling clay. Another option is to use corn syrup in a zip-top sandwich bag to suspend buttons, pipe cleaners and other craft items for a see-through version of an animal or plant cell.

Provide the kids with plenty of crafting items and diagrams of the cell so they can design their own. As long as they stay consistent with the pieces used for the cell parts and select parts that somewhat resemble the organelles, they cannot create a wrong model. The point of the project is to encourage fun and creativity. Don't forget to have the kids make a key, so others will know what the parts represent on their models.

If you want to incorporate a snack or meal into your lessons, use pizza toppings to have kids make a cell model. The round crust serves as the cell membrane of an animal cell, while the sauce and cheese act as the cytoplasm. You can use a piece of ham or Canadian bacon for the nucleus. Use pepperoni for mitochondria, pepper strips for the ER, olives atop the pepper strips to denote the ribosomes on the rough ER, a meatball or mushroom for the nucleolus and onion strips for the Golgi body. Once the kids finish adding toppings, bake the pizza and let everyone enjoy after it has cooked.

A variation on making a pizza cell is to use candies atop cookie dough or a peanut butter-covered slice of bread to make a sweet alternative.

3. Cell City Project

Making a cell model is a fun, hands-on way to help kids remember what the cell parts are. It's an ideal activity for kids of all ages, too, but for older kids, you will also want to incorporate activities, such as the following, that help them learn the functions of cells.

The parts of the cell have similar functions to the services in a city. Extend this analogy to help kids learn what the organelles do by having kids make a model city and label various buildings as cell parts.

  • City Hall: The mayor in City Hall runs the city, the same way the nucleus runs the cell's operations. Label City Hall as the nucleus.
  • Power Plant: Mitochondria generate energy for the cell the same as a power plant creates electricity for a city.
  • Garbage Facility: Lysosomes remove waste from the cell in the same way garbage collectors get rid of the city's waste.
  • City Limits: The cell membrane limits the extent of the cell just as the city limits indicate the edge of the city.
  • Post Office: The post office delivers mail throughout the city, the same as the ER transports materials throughout the cell.
  • Package Delivery Service: Sending packages to the city limits or beyond may start with a trip to the post office, after which the containers move through a delivery service to their destination. This delivery system mimics the movement of lipids from the ER to the Golgi body to the cell membrane. The package delivery service acts like the Golgi body of the cell.
  • Pharmacy: Ribosomes create protein for the cells to keep it healthy. Pharmacies make medicines for people in a city to keep them fit. Just as cells have numerous ribosomes, cities also have multiple pharmacies in many cases.

Make the city on a large poster so everyone can add to the picture. Have kids make buildings out of paper or use small cardboard boxes for the buildings. You could also create structures with modeling clay or use any other creative means of making recognizable city buildings you can label with cell parts.

Cell City Project

4. Play Bingo

Playing bingo serves as a fun way to reinforce lessons on the functions of the cell parts. This way, you can reward kids for paying attention to the lessons as well as keep their interest during the game:

  • Have students make bingo cards with different cell parts. Choose a three-by-three design to ensure students can fill in eight spaces on the board with distinct components of the cell. They will not use all the parts on a single card. Leave the center as a free space.
  • Create a stack of cards that list out the functions of those cell parts.Include elements from both plant and animal cells to give the students more options for their bingo card spaces. A greater variety in the bingo cards students use will make the game more fun.
  • Give students tokens, candies or pieces of paper to cover individual squares on their bingo cards.
  • Draw from your stack of function cards and read out the operation. Wait for students to cover the square on their bingo cards with the organelle that performs that function.
  • Reward the student who gets three squares in a row with a small prize like a sticker or piece of candy. After each round, let the kids clear off their boards to play again. You may even have the winner read the function cards for the next round.

5. Matching Game

Kids who know how to play card games like the concentration that's required. You can incorporate cards into teaching them about cell parts, too. A stack of index cards, some markers and a little time are all you need to have kids create their own card game to reinforce cell functions:

  • Using index cards, kids write either the role of a cell part or the name of an organelle. To make matching and learning the functions easier, have the kids use the same color for the organelle and its corresponding job.
  • One kid lays all their cards face down on a surface to start the game.
  • Taking turns, kids flip over pairs of cards trying to match cell parts with their functions. Should the organelle and function not align, the student turns the cards back over, and their turn ends. If the student finds a matching pair, they remove the cards and take another turn.
  • Play continues until both students have turned over all the cards.
  • The kid with the most cards at the end wins.

Keep these cards close at hand for an impromptu game of cell organelle concentration whenever you have a few spare minutes.

Dive Into Learning Throughout the Year

Don't let the educational fun stop when school lets out. After school and summer science programs get your kids excited about learning and give them a fun, safe diversion during their free time. If you live anywhere in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware, explore our summer camp programs and after-school program options at Science Explorers. We make learning science fun and interactive!

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