Teaching Kids About the Solar System

Some Fun Ways for Kids to Learn About the Planets

Here are a few activities to help kids learn about the scale of the Solar System, and the characteristics of individual planets and moons.

Everyone knows that the Solar System is a big place, and everyone knows that the other planets are different from Earth. What most people, and especially younger students, do not know is the science behind these facts. The following activities are designed to help students around the fourth-grade-level to learn just how much distance is between the individual planets and some special aspects of the various planets and moons. They then get to stretch their creative muscles and design an alien for each planet.

Solar System Model

Many kids think of the planets in the Solar System as being somewhat close to each other. One effective way to get them to understand the massive distances involved in the Solar System is to build a model in which the distances between the planets are to scale. This particular Solar System model will require at least 30 feet of space. If this is not available in a classroom, a hallway would be a good substitute.

For this model, each foot represents an astronomical unit, a unit of distance often used by astronomers when describing the Solar System. A single astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and the Sun and represents 93 million miles. Designate a point to represent the position of the Sun. Mercury would sit about 4.6 inches away, Venus about 8.64 inches away, Earth 1 foot away, Mars 18.6 inches away, Jupiter 5 feet, 2.5 inches away, Saturn about 9.5 feet away, Uranus 19 feet, 2 inches away, and Neptune about 30 feet away. This way students can see for themselves the large distances between the planets.

Solar System Brochure

Now that they have an idea of what the shape of the Solar System is, the students might want to learn more about the individual planets and their moons. One way to get them to learn is to get them to make a Solar System brochure. The idea is for them to make a brochure for ten or twelve memorable spots in the Solar System. This activity both gets them to do research and exercise their artistic sides and might work well as a longer-term project.

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Some examples of Solar System sites that might be worthy of a brochure would be Mars’ Olympus Mons, the largest mountain in the Solar System, or the mysterious geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, or the oceans suspected to be under the ice on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Almost every planet and moon has something that can capture a student’s fancy.

Design an Alien

Now that they know a little about the environments that exist on the various planets and moons in the Solar System, the following activity requires students to think about the effects of those environments. Pick a planet or moon (or a few, if so desired) and, taking into account the conditions existing on that body, have them design an alien for it.

This activity requires students to take into account such things as pressure, temperature, length of day and night, and weather conditions. This can be done as an individual assignment or a classroom activity and can be used as an art project as well.

Fun Ways to Learn About the Solar System

By the time these activities are done, kids will have learned a great deal about the Solar System, and they will have had fun doing it. They will know to have an idea of the shape of the Solar System as a whole and have a lot of information about the individual bodies in it. Teachers may well find themselves learning a thing or two as well.

Astronomy Activities for Kids

Here are a few activities to help kids learn about astronomy and space science while still having fun.

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Getting kids to enjoy learning about science can be a difficult task. It’s always easier for the kids to learn (and for the teacher to teach) if the students are having fun at the same time as learning. The following activities are designed to help students around the fourth-grade-level or so to learn about aspects of astronomy. Certain of these activities could be adapted for various other age levels.

Venus Topography Box

The surface of the planet Venus is completely obscured by clouds, yet astronomers have a very good idea of what the surface looks like. This activity helps kids get an idea of how that happens. First, take a shoebox and use modeling clay to form some sort of irregularly-shaped surface on the bottom of the box. Include things like mountains, ridges, and valleys. Punch holes in the box cover and put it on. Take a stick of some sort (pencil, popsicle stick, etc.) that has regularly spaced markings on it and poke it through the holes, measuring how many markings stick out in different spots. The kids will be able to tell where the topography is higher or lower, even though they can’t see the ground, just like on Venus.

Meteorite Craters

This activity is fun but messy. Be sure to cover the floor with trash bags or blankets first. Take a baking pan and fill it with an inch or so of flour. Put a thin layer of cocoa powder on top of the flour, just enough to obscure the flour. When a rock is dropped into the pan, the cocoa powder will be packed at the bottom of the crater, with the flour forming a spray pattern on top of the cocoa powder layer. This shows very well how the ejecta from meteorite impacts comes from the underneath layers rather than the top.

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This same setup can be used for other experiments as well. One is to take three different-sized rocks and drop them from the same height, measuring the width of the craters each time to determine how the size of the meteorite affects the size of the crater. A similar experiment is to drop the same rock from three different heights to see how much effect meteorite speed has on crater size.

Planet Scales

To give kids an idea of how big the Earth and Moon are in comparison to each other, draw a circle 16 inches in diameter on a paper or chalkboard to represent the Earth. Then have the students draw how big they think the Moon would be on that scale (the proper size would be a circle four inches in diameter). Kids often have widely varying ideas of the relative sizes of the Earth and Moon.

In a similar vein, draw a circle of any size to represent the Earth and have the students guess the relative sizes of the Sun and other planets. Use a planet-scale generator to determine the sizes of all major Solar System bodies relative to any sized Earth.

Fun With Astronomy

Astronomy is an area of science that tends to appeal to extremely wide audiences, both young and old. For younger students, it can be used as a jumping-off point to talk about anything from mathematics to social studies and cultural history, depending on what aspects of the discipline a teacher chooses to explore. Getting kids interested in astronomy, using fun activities like these, is a great way to inspire young students.

Source: Universe at Your Fingertips: An Astronomy Activity and Resource Notebook. Project ASTRO, Andrew Fraknoi (ed.). The Astronomy Society of the Pacific, San Francisco, 1995.

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