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How to Explain DNA to Kids

The Secret of Life - the DNA double Helix
The Secret of Life - the DNA double Helix

DNA Made Simple

DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid and is one of the two types of nucleic acid found in our cells. The name describes what the molecule is.

DNA is beautifully intricate and works in complicated mechanisms to control the cell.

As a teacher, I am a strong believer that you can teach anyone, anything. The younger the student, the more likely they are to retain it. So, let us take a look at how you would explain DNA to a six-year-old.

Did You Know?

DNA is a nucleic acid (i.e. it is made up of strings of nucleotides bonded together) that has a backbone made of phosphate and deoxyribose

Cells—The Building Blocks of Life

We are all made of trillions of cells. There are around 2.5 billion cells in one of your hands, but they are tiny. So tiny that we cannot see them. If every cell in your hand was the size of a grain of sand, your hand would be the size of a school bus!

Each cell has its own job, just like humans do. Some cells help us detect light and see, other cells help us touch, some cells help us hear, other cells carry oxygen around, other cells help us digest food by secreting enzymes. There are over 200 cell types in the body - that is 200 different jobs!

But how does each cell know what job to do ? Well how do we (humans) know what job to do? Someone tells us. Our cells are also told what to do, but not by a person or a computer! Our cells are told what to do by a very special molecule called DNA.

Fun Fact

If every cell in your hand was the size of a grain of sand, your hand would be the size of a school bus!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The alphabet rungs will only pair up in a certain way - just like a jigsaw puzzleThe DNA Double HelixComputer animation of DNA showing what it looks like in real space - not quite as slim as the last one!
The alphabet rungs will only pair up in a certain way - just like a jigsaw puzzle
The alphabet rungs will only pair up in a certain way - just like a jigsaw puzzle | Source
The DNA Double Helix
The DNA Double Helix
Computer animation of DNA showing what it looks like in real space - not quite as slim as the last one!
Computer animation of DNA showing what it looks like in real space - not quite as slim as the last one! | Source

DNA—Life's Instruction Manual

DNA is a record of instructions telling the cell what its job is going to be. A good analogy for DNA as a whole is a set of blueprints for the cell, or computer code telling a PC what to do. It is written in a special alphabet that is only four letters long! Unlike a book or computer screen, DNA isn't flat and boring - it is a beautiful curved ladder. We call this shape a double helix. The letters of the DNA alphabet (called bases) make up the rungs, special sugars and other atoms make up the handrail.

The rungs are very special. Each one has a name, but they prefer to be called by their initials: A, T, C and G They don't like to be by themselves so they always pair up with a friend. But they are very choosy about their friends:

  • A and T are best friends and always hang out together
  • G and C are best friends and always hang out together

Another way of looking at it is that A, T, G and C are like jigsaw pieces. A and T fit together, C and G fit together. You cannot force a puzzle piece into the wrong place!

Four Letter Alphabet

Think of all the words you can spell. I bet there are loads. But each word is made using the same selection of letters. Yes, sometimes we leave letters out, sometimes we repeat letters, but we always have the same selection of letters. Depending on how we arrange the letters of the alphabet we can make new words. The same is true in the four letter alphabet of DNA.

If you look at a length of DNA, you can read out the letters all in a row:

ATGCGTGGTCAGTCGATATATGGCCCC

These letters make up words that are always three letters long. These are called codons.

ATG CGT GGT CAG TCG ATA TAT GGC CCC

These words make up sentences that the cell understands. These sentences are called genes.

[ATG CGT GGT CAG] [TCG ATA TAT GGC CCC]

Each sentence tells a cell to make a special molecule called a protein. These proteins control everything in a cell. In this way, DNA is like the boss of a company, and not the brain of the cell. It issues instructions, but doesn't do very much of the actual work :) These proteins help each cell do its job. Each gene makes one protein, and only one protein.

Build a lego tower 10 blocks tall. Use only 4 colours. How many combinations can you make? This is how DNA can store so much information with just 4 letters in its' alphabet
Build a lego tower 10 blocks tall. Use only 4 colours. How many combinations can you make? This is how DNA can store so much information with just 4 letters in its' alphabet

Just Four Letters?

How can four letters make something as complicated as a human body? Let us take a trip back to my favourite childhood toy—Lego.

Give a child 80 pieces of one colour and ask them to build a tower. No matter how they try, they can only make one possible combination of colours.

Now give a child a box of Lego with 20 lots of 4 different colours and ask them to make a tower. The size is still the same, but the combination and order of colours is different each time they build. The possibilities are endless...well not quite, but still quite large.

Remember it is the sequence of letters (order of the colours in this analogy) that stores the information. Each set of 3 letters is a word. With four different letters, there are 64 possible three-letter-words. Imagine how many combinations of these words there are in a sentence just 100 letters long!

DNA Elegantly Simple, Wickedly Complicated

I hope this has shown you that the basics of DNA are simple and straightforward. Whenever you are trying to convey complex ideas to young children, analogies are your friend. Just make sure they know what the analogy means, and they are not just saying "DNA is like Lego" or "cells are like buses."

Let me know if this was useful, and please comment and give feedback.

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Comments 56 comments

sms2011 profile image

sms2011 4 years ago from Stockton

I once heard someone explain DNA as being like a cake recipe book in a library. You can take the book out of the library and even unravel it by taking out the pages. You follow the cake recipes inside the book but when ever you make the cake it never turns out quite the same way twice. When you've finished you have to return the recipe book to the library because that is where its stored. Made sense to me at the time


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 4 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

I like that with just one exception - the copying of DNA is remarkably accurate (equivalent of copying out encyclopaedia britannica several times with no mistakes) and Protein synthesis is even more accurate. If this weren't true, the organism would swiftly die. Variation, both inter and intra species, is caused by quite different processes - namely crossing over and random assortment of chromsomes during meiosis and then recombination during fertilisation. But I like the storage and pages part of the analogy


KrystalD profile image

KrystalD 4 years ago from Los Angeles

AWESOME job TF! This really answered my question thoroughly! This came up when I was studying the ocean with my students. We found out that every living organism in the ocean had its own unique DNA but that they can be grouped by their similarities.

One inquisitive student wanted to know more about DNA! I came equipped with a print-out of your article today and shared with the class. Lo and behold, they were fascinated! When we wrap up this study we have decided to move on to a study of DNA. I was even planned a trip to CalTech Poly where we will look at DNA using microscopes!

I never thought I would get this kind of inspiration from hubpages and I thank you for your willingness to share your knowledge!


Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 4 years ago from London, UK

Very useful to know. I like the way you explained. I'm sure a little one will ask me at some point.... I'll just print this out. Cheers.


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 4 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

Thanks for the praise, Krystal. I really enjoyed writing a hub knowing that someone was looking for that answer - it was lots of fun! Let me know if there are any other topics you want covering.

I am so pleased my hub was helpful to your class! Don't forget to check out the links because they can really help understanding - certainly the animation does.

Lady_E Thanks for your positive comment.

Both of these have made my day!


knottlena profile image

knottlena 4 years ago from Connecticut

I am so blown away by the way you wrote this, I am nearly speechless. Thank you for the excellent read.


StellaSee profile image

StellaSee 4 years ago from California

I liked the lego analogy you use here. I think I'll be thinking about this article when I take my molecular biology class! Thanks for sharing!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is a useful and interesting hub, TFScientist. You've described some good ways to explain what DNA is to young children!


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 4 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

Thank-you, AliciaC. I am a firm believer that with the right tools you can teach anyone anything. I am glad you found it interesting. Thanks for stopping by!


sarahmoose profile image

sarahmoose 4 years ago from Nottingham, England

I found this resource really useful. I tutor GCSE students in science, and a couple of students struggled with the theory. When I used this, they said it all made sense, so thank you!!


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 4 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

@sarahmoose: I'm delighted that you found it useful, and that your tutees said it made sense. The more this information gets passed around the faster we shall show the world that science isn't mysterious or inexplicable but straightforward.

Thanks for stopping by!


CJacksonSmith profile image

CJacksonSmith 4 years ago from Dudley

Very Nice, I wish you had taught me about DNA would have understood a lot sooner!


pinkhawk profile image

pinkhawk 4 years ago from Pearl of the Orient

Wow! This is very educational, wish I could explain things like this... thank you for this useful article. ^_^!


Sciencewiz 4 years ago

Hi! Thanks so much for this, I always taught that DNA was confusing, but it really isn't! I just had one question, does each cell contain equal amount of DNA, and how does DNA get into cells?


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 4 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

DNA doesn't get into cells, it builds cells around itself. And yes, apart from the sex cells which have half the DNA, all of your somatic (body) cells have the same compliment of DNA


Sciencewiz 4 years ago

Thanks a bunch!


sania 4 years ago

hi this gives me a good information for science in year 7


lana 4 years ago

I'm a parent , and it took me so much time to find a simple way to explain DNA for my 7 years daughter . finally this explanation for DNA is soooooo great thanks a lot .


Sylvia Austin 4 years ago

Hi,I'm a parent that has been looking for an easy way to help my nine year old explain his DNA double Helix science project, this is perfect Thank you so much.


Doug,Leicester 3 years ago

Been watching ,struggling with that brilliant TV series with physycist Brian Cox.He is slightly over my head but your child learning section has helped an 80 year old get a handle on DNA.Thankyou so much.I shall now read more advanced articles.


Ramzie 3 years ago

What an amazing thing! DNA is made from inside the cell.


sebastienrivas 3 years ago

Hello,

Thanks a bunch for breaking everything down and making it possible to understand for children and for adults too!

Although I still have a question.

If A is paired with T and C is paired with G (jigsaw combination). Why can we find "GT...GG...CC and a single letter C" at the end of the sentence formation AT GC GT GG TC AG TC GA TA TA TG GC CC C?

Thanks,

Seb


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 3 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

Because they don't pair along the line like that, they pair up in opposite strands. For example, a typical DNA strand could read

AAACTGCCGCGGTTATTATATTCGCGA.

The strand does not pair linearly. The OPPOSITE DNA stand (remember DNA is a double helix with two strands wrapped around each other) would read:

TTTGACGGCGCCAATAATATAAGCGCA.

These strands are read in groups of three to form words which are then made into proteins by the cell's construction workbench-the ribosome.

Take a closer look at the last diagram above to clear this up.


Brian W 3 years ago

Thanks so much for this resource! I'm a scientist in America who has to regularly communicate my research to a general audience, and today I faced a new challenge in trying to explain DNA to a group of 4-year-olds. This article provided me with some good talking points and I think that they learned some good stuff about their DNA.

Just to correct a small typo from one of the author comments above, the last letter in the OPPOSITE DNA strand should be a T, not an A. So, for the strand reading

AAACTGCCGCGGTTATTATATTCGCGA

the complimentary strand would read

TTTGACGGCGCCAATAATATAAGCGCT.


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 3 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

Thanks for the correction-I can't seem to edit the comment though! I'm glad you found the information useful


pookieface12 3 years ago

thx fo the info... i neeed it for my essay... thx again!!!!


pinkpaki22 3 years ago

wow this really came in handy for my science fair thank you :)


DR RAMA 3 years ago

It was fantastic


denisefenimore 3 years ago

Awesome job! It's not just for kids either. Really helped me understand DNA in a simple manner.


Elderberry Arts profile image

Elderberry Arts 3 years ago from Surrey, Uk

This is great, thank you. My 6 year old son asked about DNA today and this is perfect for explaining it to him.


mariam mamdouh 3 years ago

really amazing ,, thanks you


Jibin 3 years ago

Beautiful explanation... Thank you


Emily 3 years ago

Can you tell me who owns the double helix icon that gives the chemical bases that is on this page? I would like to use it for a book I'm writing. Thank you.


Dennis A. Rivera 3 years ago

I'm a science teacher in Ecuador. This helped a lot, thanks so much


innmnmn 3 years ago

awesome


Monika 3 years ago

Wow thanks, it's veeeery useful, but you can pass this part with gene coding one and only one protein (alternative splicing).


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 3 years ago from Peterborough, UK Author

@monika

I am well aware of alternative splicing, capping and such. This is an explanation for kids around six, and answered a specific question i was asked. It doesn't need to be accurate to degree level.

I'm glad you like the article. I've since sold a version of it on!


jimmytrust 2 years ago

Nice. Simple and sweet. Good for adults like me who are not interested in a biology degree. Lol.

     

“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"

I understand someone famous said those words.

Keep the good work. Maybe something for teenagers


pop 2 years ago

I think your right when you say you can teach almost anyone nearly anything if you know how to teach I was doing self study about the difference between Prokaryotic Cells and Eukaryotic cells halfway through first year and BELIEVE ME when I say I wasn't very hard working or intelligent


arthur 2 years ago

hello, I'm brazilian and I want to use your post as inspiration for a science fair, just use your way to explain the DNA, I'll share your page e show the source of the explanation, your page, I just wanna say thanks for inspire me and I hope your permition to use some of your informations


arthur 2 years ago

contact with e-mail arthur-fortes@hotmail.com


Rebeccasutton profile image

Rebeccasutton 2 years ago from Rock Hill, SC

Much needed hub! I am an adult and this helped :) Wish I had it last semester. Thanks!


kashaf 2 years ago

Thanx for beautifull knowledge but i can't understand the that sentences


dcraig 2 years ago

haha peeps


Spencer 22 months ago

I'm 11 and totally understand DNA now thank you so much


Jainmonika.ba@gmail.com 18 months ago

My kid asks how come I have your DNA and Dads DNA when I was not in his tummy . He insists on searching on net , how to explain ?


merpity derp 15 months ago

merpity derp


poop 15 months ago

boring


TheNamesAreGood 14 months ago

people put more funny names


Ifty Ahmed 12 months ago

"With four different letters, there are 64 possible three-letter-words". - you may want to check the math here - i think with 4 different letters, there are only 24 3-letter words possible. But I could be wrong....


Sheena 10 months ago

I am really impressed by your way of explanation . Thanks!


Cc 9 months ago

As a physician,cancer researcher thank you for the wonderful article. I can't believe how easy it made it to explain molecular biology to my eleven year old nephew. I wish he (and some medical students) had you as a teacher. He especially liked the Legos!


Keara 8 months ago

Good explanation, but I was a little distressed by the part of the analogy that says people know what work to do because "someone tells us." That statement makes people sound like robots and that we do not make decisions on our own. Maybe this is lost on me because I work for myself, but this paints the picture of a chain of people telling other people what to do and everyone following blindly. Something to think about when discussing this concept with children! Humans have free will... :)


sujit karna 7 weeks ago

The topic of DNA is really very complicated and for a teacher it is very difficult to explain.Your explaination is very simple and easily

understandable.


Jacquelyn 6 weeks ago

love your explanation. Since i am a student this really helped me get a better understanding of DNA. i will definitely use this in my project.

thx


Mary 4 weeks ago

Thanks for making Biology easier!

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