The Eat Breathe Move school program introduces children and adolescents to the surprising fact that the food we eat turns into the carbon dioxide we exhale.

These chemical reactions happen inside every cell of our body and provide all the energy we need to think, move and grow.

The unidentified gap in health literacy

Most adults never stop to think where the carbon atoms in exhaled CO₂ come from. The video below was filmed at Bondi Beach on 24 August 2019 and reveals the extent of this surprising gap in our health literacy.

Even health professionals can harbour surprising misconceptions about how human metabolism works. In a 2014 survey of 150 doctors, dietitians and personal trainers, most thought that the weight people lose is converted to energy. Only three respondents correctly identified carbon dioxide and water as the metabolites for fat metabolism (Meerman & Brown 2014).

Eat, Breathe, Move aims to close this gap by introducing students to one of the most important facts in all of science – any organic matter we burn is converted to the carbon dioxide and water. This is true for the wood in a fire, the petrol in cars, the coal in the power station and the food we put into our body.

This central concept provides an ideal springboard for lessons in science and health and physical education.

(Meerman 2019).

Curriculum links and the teachable moment

Eat Breathe Move is fully mapped to Australian Science and Health and Physical Education Curriculum (v9).

The program provides suggested lesson plans, however, some teachers may simply use the knowledge and resources provided to augment their existing program. Professional development is provided to help teachers identify the teachable moments when students learn that the food they eat turns into the carbon dioxide they exhale.

Spiral Curriculum

Eat Breathe Move is a spiral curriculum that revolves around four main concepts which complement and reinforce each other:

Concept 1 Everything is made of atoms, including people, animals and plants

Concept 2 Plants use the energy in sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into food and oxygen

Concept 3 Humans and animals obtain energy by converting food and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water

Concept 4 Humans and animals need to eat specific kinds of atoms (minerals) and molecules (vitamins) for optimal health


Health and nutrition misinformation Adults and young people are increasingly using social media to access and implement health and nutrition information. Unfortunately, most young people lack the skill to assess the accuracy and credibility of these sources of information (Kreft et al 2022).

The spread of medical misinformation via social media is well documented (Wang et al 2019) and can lead to physical and psychological harm (Horsburgh & Barron 2019)

Children also regularly encounter health and nutrition information via advertising, food packaging, social media and listening to adult conversations.

They hear words such as, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, protein and antioxidants, however, most will probably never learn the scientific meaning of these terms.

Accelerating the curriculum While respiration and nutrition are covered in the Australian science and health and physical education curriculum, the sequence in which these concepts have traditionally been, and are currently, taught fails to connect the dots between the digestive system and the lungs.

Learning about atoms and molecules provides tangible explanations for the metabolic fate of food and oxygen.

Understanding that food provides all the essential building blocks that make up the human body provides a clear rationale for consuming a wide variety of foods as part of a healthy diet.

Knowing how atoms are absorbed by and excreted from the body provides a clear rationale for the benefits of physical activity – the more we move, the more we breathe.

Identifying plants as the ultimate source of all our food, oxygen and energy provides a clear rationale for sustainable environmental practices.


Health literacy is a strong predictor of healthy adult eating patterns (Cha et al 2014). Numerous studies have investigated children’s understanding of food and nutrition (Schultz & Danford 2016), however, none identified carbon dioxide as the major waste product of metabolism. The impact of teaching primary school students this concept is therefore unknown.

A four year pilot study by Bundaberg health and physical education teacher, Nick Bigg, has provided encouraging results and indicates that children are:

A) fascinated to discover that food turns into carbon dioxide

B) eager to learn more about food, nutrition and physical activity

C) continuing the conversation about food, nutrition and physical activity with their families at home, and

D) more motivated to engage in physical activity as a result (Bigg, 2023)

Figure 2. Health and physical education teacher and Eat Breathe Move ambassador, Nick Bigg (left), and Eat Breathe Move founder, Ruben Meerman (right)
Student comments and parent feedback from Nick’s pilot study

The following comments and anecdotes were supplied by Bundaberg health and physical education, Mr Nick Bigg:

A mum of a Year 6 student approached me and said,

“I don’t know what you’re teaching them in PE but my daughter and I spent 20 mins in the cereal isle of Woollies comparing nutritional tables on cereal boxes.

Oh my god. I never realised.

We both eat plain oats and fruit for breakfast now.”

A father of a year 2 girl who is a paramedic caught me after school one day and said,

“We were eating dinner last night and my daughter just started telling us all about atoms and molecules and that we have to breath out the carbon in our food otherwise it stays inside us.

This turned into a lengthy conversation and now she wants to exercise with me on the weekends.”

Year 6 student said to me, “My Dad always has a 600ml coke with dinner.” I said, ‘How do you feel about that?”

Student said, “I think you should get your energy from what you eat not from what you drink.”

I said, “That sounds great.”

Student said, “I’m going to show Dad how much sugar is in that drink.”

I said, “How are you going to do that?”

Student said, “Don’t you divide the grams per serve by 4 and that tells you how many teaspoons of sugar there is?”

I was explaining how the weight from food energy leaves your body through CO2.

As I scanned the class I caught the teacher aide looking at me with her jaw on the floor and a look of bewilderment on her face.

A student came to my door before school and showed me a page of number problems his mother had written for him to solve.

Each number problem was based around working out how many grams of sugar were in certain packaged foods he liked to eat.

I said, “Wow, that’s great.”

He said, “Did you know that there was 11 grams of sugar in one of those small packets of smarties.”

I said, “I did not.”

He said, “I’m never eating them again.”

I was introducing a nutrition table to a Year 3 class. One student had all the answers and knew all about it.

I said, “How do you know this stuff?”

Student said, “You taught this stuff to my sister earlier in the week and we went through the pantry at home finding out how much sugar is in the food we eat.”

A parent came to speak to me before school concerned about what was being taught in HPE.

Parent said that child had come home and said that if they eat too much sugar then the body will store it as fat.

Awkward silence.

I said, “So what was the problem?”

Parent said, “Now my daughter won’t eat iceblocks or drink softdrink”

Resources and suggested lessons

Learning Approach Eat Breathe Move uses physical models called Sticky Atoms (Figure 2) and the Concrete → Pictorial → Abstract (CPA) learning approach to introduce primary school children to the concept of atoms and molecules (Bruner 1966).

Figure 3. Sticky Atoms were invented in Brisbane by retired physics and chemistry teacher Ian Stuart

Spiral Curriculum Eat Breathe Move uses a spiral curriculum that revolves around four main concepts which complement and reinforce each other:

Concept 1 Everything is made of atoms, including people, animals and plants

Concept 2 Plants use the energy in sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into food and oxygen

Concept 3 Humans and animals obtain energy by converting food and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water

Concept 4 Humans and animals need to eat specific kinds of atoms and molecules for optimal health

Accelerated Curriculum Atoms and molecules are ‘big ideas’ that are essential for critical thinking about molecular biology, metabolic process, health and nutrition. Taking an Understanding by Design approach to curriculum development would therefore imply that atoms and molecules need to be taught at the beginning of the learning journey (Wiggins et al 2005).

The science curriculum is underpinned by Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Therefore, atoms and molecules are traditionally not introduced until high school, however, University of Southern Queensland researchers have demonstrated that primary school children are not only capable of grasping these concepts, “they can, they want to and they relish the intellectual challenge of doing so” (Haeusler & Donovan 2017).

Lesson 1: Food under the microscope

Objective: Students discover that big things can be made up of lots of tiny parts and learn scientific language to describe and discuss their macroscopic and microscopic world.

Procudure: Students learn how to use and focus a handheld microscope with 100x magnification by looking at printed images and discover that different colours can be made by the combinations of tiny dots of just a few colours.

They compare the power of magnification of the microscope with that of a magnifying glass and discover that the microscope makes objects appear much bigger than they really are.

Figure 4. Handheld microscope with 100x magnification

Once students master the microscope, they observe beach sand and discover that some grains are actually pieces of shell and others are tiny crystals of quartz that look like tiny diamonds.

Next, they observe 1) table sugar, 2) caster sugar and 3) icing sugar and discover that these crystals are look similar to quartz, and can be crushed into smaller and smaller pieces. They discuss if it is possible to keep breaking the crystals forever or if there is a limit to how small they can be made. How would we find out?

Next students observe 1) table salt and 2) evaporated salt flakes and discover that the same chemical substance can take different looking forms. They discuss what happens to salt crystals after we eat them.

For the remainder of the lesson, students are invited to look at anything they can find in the classroom including the carpet, insects, a human hair, a friend’s skin, tissue paper, a cotton bud, etc.

Class discussion: Looking at projected photographs of the sugar, salt and sand crystals, students discuss what they think happens to each of these substances after we eat them. They are amazed to learn that most of the atoms in the sugar crystals are eventually exhaled as carbon dioxide, whereas the atoms in the salt are excreted mostly in urine, sweat and to a much less extent, tears. Most students will correctly deduce that the quartz crystals in sand are indigestible and would be eventually be excreted from the bowel.

Figure 5. Photos taken with iPhone through the eyepiece of the 100x telescope in Figure 4: Table sugar, caster sugar and icing sugar are the same substance with the same chemical formula, C₁₂H₂₂O₁₁ and are merely different sizes of sugar crystals. Table salt and salt flakes are two forms of sodium chloride and both have the same chemical formula, NaCl. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, with the chemical formula NaHCO₃.
Lesson 2: The periodic table

Objective: This lesson introduces students to the concept that everything in the world is made of just 92 kinds of atoms. Every student receives their own personal copy of the periodic table to keep.

Students learn that:

  • An element is a substance made of just one kind of atom
  • A compound is a substance made of two or more kinds of atoms chemically combined together
  • A mixture is a substance made of two or more substances that are physically combined together

Students are introduced to the long-form of the periodic table as well as the traditional medium-long form layout which appears in textbooks and on high school laboratory walls.

Figure 6. The long-form periodic has no unexpected gaps and is less confusing for students learning about atoms, elements and the periodic table for the first time.

Procedure: The lesson begins with a recount of the previous microscope lesson. Photos of the sugar, salt and sand crystals (taken with a smart phone during the microscope lesson prompt the class discussion.

The crystals all looked very similar, but do these substances taste the same? Are they made of the same substance? What exactly are the different crystals made of? The answer is atoms.

What is the periodic table? Students either A) watch a prerecorded video about atoms and the periodic table or B) listen and watch as the teacher explain these concepts using the provided Microsoft Powerpoint or Apple Keynote slide presentation.

After the introductory video or slide presentation, students received their own copy of the periodic table to keep. Teachers may ask students to scan the periodic table for any elements with names that they have heard of before, such as silver and gold.

Figure 7. Medium long form layout with elements 57–71 and 89–103 separated from the main table to make better use of a standard-size textbook page

Learning the language of chemistry: The teacher may either lead a class discussion, or students may do their own research, about why some elements only have a single capital letter as their symbol while others elements have a capital letter followed by a lower case letter.

The answer is that the periodic table has 118 elements but there are only 26 letters in the alphabet. The number of possible combinations of two letters increases the number of choices for chemical element symbols to 676 (ie 26 × 26).

Students will notice that symbol scientists use for many of the elements are completely logical symbols, such as H for hydrogen, element number 1, and He for helium, element number 2. Helium needed a second letter because H was already in use by hydrogen, and the logical choice was e, because that’s the second letter in helium’s name.

While many elements have logical symbols, others have completely unexpected symbols, such as Ag for silver, Au for gold and Hg for mercury. These symbols were derived from the Latin names of those elements, argentum (silver), aurum (gold) and hydrargyrum (Latin for ‘liquid silver’) .

English speaking children are usually delighted to learn that the symbol Pb, for lead, derives from its Latin name, plumbum, which is also where the job title plumber comes from.

Another question that may arise about element symbols is why some elements were given priority for the single letter symbol. For example, S is the symbol for sulfur and silicon has the symbol, Si, but silicon is element 14 and sulfur is element 16. Why did silicon miss out on being S and why was sulfur not endowed with the symbol Su? This question, and many others, can be readily answered by consulting the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) interactive online periodic table.

The RSC periodic table provides the history the and year of discovery for all 118 elements. Sulfur can be found in its native state in nature and has therefore been known to humans since prehistoric times. The bible mentions sulfur (brimstone) fifteen times and is famous for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Silicon was discovered by Johan Berzelius in 1824.

History of the periodic table (HASS connection)

Who discovered the periodic table? A question that naturally arises when studying the periodic table is, who discovered it, when, and how?

The shape of the periodic table was discovered by at least 6 scientists over a period of around seven years, however, most of the credit, however, goes to the Russian chemist, Dimitri Mendeleev.

Mendeleev didn’t just discover the periodic table but also used it to predict the existence of elements that had not yet been discovered in 1861, when he published his work. Those elements are now known as scandium (element 21), gallium (element 31) and germanium (element 31).

The other five scientists who made major contributions were 1) Wolfgang Döbereiner, 2) Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois, 3) John Newlands, 4) William Odling, 5) Gustavus Hinrichs and 6) Lothar Meyer.

Who invented chemical notation? A second historical (HASS) question that may not occur to students is, who invented the idea of using two letters for the element symbols? In other words, who invented the modern system for chemical notation?

The two-letter notation was devised by another famous chemist called Johan Berzelius. This notation was one of the ‘big ideas’ that completely revolutionised how scientists communicate with each other about their research and discoveries.

A third (HASS) historical question that now arises is, what symbols did scientists use before Berzelius invented the modern system?

Prior to Berzelius’s innovative notation, scientists used symbols devised by another famous English scientist called John Dalton. Dalton is credited for discovering atoms.

Lesson 3: Eating the periodic table

Objective: Students learn that some of the elements of the periodic table are essential for life. Therefore, to grow strong muscles and health bones, humans and animals must eat some of these atoms regularly.

Procedure: The lesson begins with a class discussion about the concept of “healthy” versus “unhealthy” food. Students may be familiar with “everyday” and “sometimes” foods. What substances do “everyday” foods have that “sometimes” foods are lacking?

Students may recall the words “vitamins” and “minerals” and some may recall specific examples of these, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and potassium.

Ask the students if they know the difference between a vitamin and a mineral? Why do we call vitamin B-12 by that name, “vitamin”? Why don’t we call magnesium, “vitamin magnesium”? The answer to this word teaser will become clear during, or after, Lesson 4: Making Molecules. Minerals are atoms that the body cannot live without. Vitamins are organic molecules that the body needs but cannot make.

Using the periodic table students received in the previous lesson, they now try to identify as many of essential minerals as they can. Ask students if they know of foods that contain these minerals? Common examples are potassium, which is famously found in bananas, however, many other foods are also good sources of this element. Iron is famously found in spinach, however, many other vegetables and animal meats also contain this element.

Next, students complete the provided worksheet, colouring each element according to the guide provided.

Each student then chooses an essential element to study. They use the Royal Society of Chemistry’s interactive period table to find A) physical properties (solid, liquid or gas) B) melting point, C) boiling point, D) common uses and E) biological role of their chosen element. In addition, they report who discovered their element, where, and in what year.

Figure 8. Eating the periodic table colouring activity

Lesson 4: Making molecules

Objective This lesson introduces students to physical models of atoms called Sticky Atoms and the distinction between concept of atoms and molecules. They learn how scientists represent molecules in three common forms of chemical notation, called 1) a ball and stick diagram, 2) the structural formula and C) the molecular formula.

Year 1 and 2 Eagleby State School students learning about atoms and molecules and chemical notation with Mrs Kelly Kemp

Procedure Students work in pairs and begin by opening their box of Sticky Atoms to examine and manipulate the models. Student will immediately observe that Sticky Atoms are colour coded; hydrogen atoms are white, carbon atoms black, nitrogen blue, oxygen red, fluorine yellow and neon grey.

This famous code is called the CPK colour scheme and is named after the three scientists, Robert Corey, Linus Pauling and Walter Koltun, who invented it.

Students will also notice that almost all the atoms have at least one filament with a magnetic tip.

They compare and contrast the number of magnetic tips each kind of atom has and notice that A) hydrogen and fluorine atoms all have one magnetic tip, B) oxygen atoms have two, C) nitrogen atoms have three, and D) carbon atoms have four, but E) neon atoms have no magnetic tips.

To help students comprehend the distinction between atoms and molecules, the teachers instructs students to hold one hydrogen in each hand, raise their arms, and say, “two hydrogen atoms”.

Students then bring their hydrogen atoms together so they form a bond and say, “one hydrogen molecule”.

Figure 9. Sticky Atoms are coded according to the Corey-Pauling-Koltun (CPK) colouring convention

The teacher explains that the number of magnets represents how many bonds each type of atom can make with other atoms. Therefore, every hydrogen atom in the universe can only make one chemical bond with another atom. Every oxygen atom can make two chemical bonds. Nitrogen atoms can make three chemical bonds and carbon atoms can make four.

Some students may recall from the periodic table lesson that neon is an inert (un-reactive) gas. The reason neon gas is inert is because neon atoms cannot form any chemical bonds with other atoms. This is true for all the “noble gases” in the far right column of the periodic table. Students may wish to guess and discuss why the German chemist, Hugo Erdman, coined the name “noble gas”.

Figure 10. Molecular models of four physical substances made with Sticky Atoms and three increasingly abstract forms of notation used by scientists to represent them, demonstrating the Concrete Pictorial Abstract (CPA) approach used throughout the Eat Breathe Move program
Lesson 5: Photosynthesis – how plants make food

Objective In this lesson, students use Sticky Atoms to learn that plants convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen.

Figure 11. slide from the presentation provided to teachers for this lesson

Procedure The teacher performs a whole class demonstration using Sticky Atoms and the provided Microsoft Powerpoint or Apple Keynote slide presentation to explain how carbon dioxide and water molecules enter the plant via the leaves and roots.

Next, students work in pairs to construct a glucose molecule using Sticky Atoms. Students will quickly discover that there are many ways to assemble the 24 atoms required to make one glucose molecule.

The exact arrangement in space of all the atoms in the glucose molecules made by all plants was discovered in the 1880’s by a famous German chemist called Emil Fischer (Hudson 1941). Fischer won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discoveries in carbohydrate chemistry.

If time permits, each pair of students teams up with another pair to construct a fructose molecule which they will then “react” with their glucose molecule to form a sucrose molecule, better known as sugar, the most delicious carbohydrate.

Alternatively, to save time, the whole class can come together as a group and observe as two volunteers work together to make a sucrose molecule on the floor, with the teacher’s guidance.

At the conclusion of the lesson, students receive a colouring exercise to complete and display at home so they can explain what they have learned to their families and friends.

Figure 12. Student colouring activity provided for this lesson
Lesson 6: Macronutrients – making carbohydrates, fat and protein

Objective In this lesson, students use the skills they have learned to make models of famous molecules with Sticky Atoms. Students learn the naming convention used in organic chemistry before making some of the most important molecules in food.

Procedure This teacher-led lesson can be split into two individual lessons depending on age, ability and time restrictions.

Students apply the skills they have learned in the previous lesson to construct physical models of molecules.

Students follow the teacher instructions to make the following molecules and complete the provided worksheets:

The first six hydrocarbons:

1) Methane CH₄ an odourless, flammable gas also called ‘natural gas’
2) Ethane C₂H₆ an odourless, flammable gas emitted by fruits when they ripen, which can cause other fruits to ripen
3) Propane C₃H₈ an odourless, flammable gas also called ‘liquified natural gas’ (LNG)
4) Butane C₄H₁₀ an odourless, flammable gas which readily liquifies under higher and is used in butane lighters and cartridges
5) Pentane C₅H₁₂ a flammable, colourless liquid with a petroleum-like odour
6) Hexane C₆H₁₄ a flammable, colourless liquid with a petroleum-like odour

Two-carbon organic molecules:

7) Ethanol C₂H₆O a colourless, flammable liquid with a strong smell produced by yeast and, also, in tiny amounts by many other organisms
8) Ethanoic acid C₂H₄O₂ a flammable liquid with a pungent odour, also called acetic acid, but better known as vinegar which is ~97% water and ~3% ethnic acid

An amino acid:

9) Ammonia NH₃ a toxic, flammable gas with a pungent smell
10) Glycine C₂H₅O₂N a sweet, crystalline solid and the simplest amino acid in nature

A protein molecule:

5) Poly-glycine (C₂H₃O₁N)n a poly-peptide produced by linking many glycine molecules together – each pair of students makes one glycine molecule before moving to the floor to cooperate with the whole class to perform a “condensation reaction” (scientists categorise chains of less than 50 amino acids as polypeptides and chains of more than 50 amino acids as protein)

Australian Curriculum Links (v9) and professional development

Building teacher confidence and capacity

Eat Breathe Move professional development workshops give teachers the knowledge, confidence and resources to include these concepts in their teaching practice.

The program uses physical models called Sticky Atoms and follows the Atomic School curriculum, both invented and developed by retired Brisbane high school teacher, Mr Ian Stuart.

Teachers who implement these resources are usually amazed to see how much children enjoy learning about atoms and the periodic table.

Year 1 Bangkok Patana School students explaining atoms and elements

The Alphabet of the Universe

The Atomic School curriculum treats atoms like the letters of the alphabet.

Letters are the building blocks of words. Atoms are the building blocks of matter.

This analogy makes the periodic table the Alphabet of the Universe.

Letters can be combined to make words. Atoms combine to form molecules.

Words can be arranged into sentences. Molecules can be arranged to perform chemical reactions.

Sentences can be combined to tell stories, craft poems, compose letters, write laws and instructions and more. Chemical reactions have combined and evolved to form living things.

In this analogy, biology is the most amazing story every told using the alphabet of atoms.

Primary school teachers are experts at teaching young children to read and write. It is therefore not surprising that primary school teachers can also confidently teach children the Alphabet of the Universe.

The five level model of human body composition

Eat Breathe Move professional development workshops introduce teachers to the five level model of body composition (Wang et al 1992).

This model divides the human body into five levels of increasing complexity. The levels are 1) atoms, 2) molecules, 3) cells, 4) tissues and 5) whole body.

Figure 13. The five level model of human body composition (adapted from Wang et al 1992)

While the model was originally developed as a tool for organising biological information about the human body, it also provides a fantastic framework for teaching and learning about food and nutrition.

Understanding how each level’s building blocks provide the foundation for the levels above helps teachers identify how these concepts fit into the science and health and physical education curriculum. The model also provides a powerful tool for navigating the health and nutrition information teachers and students encounter via traditional news sources, social media and in conversations with family and friends.


Bigg, N, Health and physical education teacher, Oakwood State School, personal communication

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