The concept of the solar system is abstract to children. Standing in their backyards at night, children watch the stars and moon traverse the say. To them, these celestial bodies are revolving around the Earth. Their senses tell them that the Earth is the center of the universe, and everything else moves around it. To teach children about the solar system means teaching them to deny their senses and discover a world outside of what they know to be true. Of course, this is a big challenge, but it’s not impossible.
The first thing children really need to learn about the solar system is the many relationships that exist. These relationships often effect life on Earth, or make it possible. For example, the distance between the Earth and the Sun affects the temperature and the ability for life. 93 million miles is close enough to the heat and energy of the sun to support comfortable life on the planet from single cell organisms to humans. This distance is also far enough away to keep such life from frying in the heat.
Discussing this relationship will open doors to discuss, or teach, at least three more concepts. First, children may discover the immeasurable heat and energy provided by the sun. The sun as the center of the solar system is what gives it its title. And finally, lead into the frozen and fiery planets of the system.
Depending on the age and capabilities of the children, this unit can be very basic or extremely in depth. Either way, a helpful teaching tool is the use of mini project. This type of activity is more effective than worksheets because children can use their imagination and creativity to make the book their own. In turn, the knowledge is made personal to them and they have reason to remember it.
The next relationship to explore is between the Earth and its moon. This will be refreshing to children because their senses haven’t lied to them. The orbit of the moon around the Earth will be easy to teach because children can observe its path with their own eyes. The element that will require more time is the relative size of the moon. It is nearly half the size of the Earth (a relationship unique in this solar system). This comparable size helps the Earth in several ways.
Younger children will benefit from a hands-on project to explain this size comparison. Several objects can help show the comparison rather than tell it, such as a kick ball and a softball compared to a kick ball and a soccer ball. The class can then make Paper Mache models of all of the planets in the solar system that have moons. As the class makes the models it is important that children explore the size relationship, and should be reflected in their models. They will also discover that most of the planets have more than one moon.
Older children will benefit from deeper study of the effects of the size relationship. Two concepts should be highlighted. The relationship affects the ocean tides which in turn affect the Earth’s ecology. The relationship also affects the Earth’s steady spin, which in turn affects climate.
By this point enough of the other planets have been discussed, or at least introduced, so children can now learn all of the names and relative locations. If the class has already made models of the planets with moons, now is the time to discuss their orbit patterns and possibly their elements of composition. Otherwise, the class can start from Mercury and work their way out; taking one planet at a time or breaking into groups and each thoroughly studying one planet.
Learning the order of the planets isn’t the most important aspect of the solar system. Many curriculums, however, emphasize this as a core to learning about the solar system. If this is a requirement in the curriculum, using rhymes, songs, poems, and other mnemonic devices will enhance children’s ability to memorize the names in order.
Finally, it is time to teach children about other elements of the solar system. The asteroid belt separates the smaller, inner planets from the larger, outer planets. This is a good time to review, or introduce, the spacing of the planets. It is also a good time to position the Paper Mache models the children have made.
If the classroom is large enough the sun can be hung in the center of the room and the planets in succession outward. Otherwise, it might be possible for the class to borrow a larger room such as the cafeteria or gymnasium. Other classes may even be able to benefit from this arrangement. One thing to take notice of with this step of the unit is that it is next to impossible to get everything to scale at this level. Rather than focusing on scale and overworking everyone involved, it will be better to focus on relative sizes and spacing.
During this time it may be appropriate to introduce other elements of the solar system as well. Children can make models of each item they discover and place within the larger solar system model. Don’t forget to include comets, meteor, dwarf planets, satellites, the space station, and space junk (yes it really does exist).
At the end of this unit it would be beneficial for children to compile their notes, mini books, and projects into a lapbook or notebook for review and showcasing their discoveries. The children might enjoy an open house or family night to show off their model and showcase their presentations. To make the night interesting children can dress up as astronauts and serve astronaut food. The children can prepare mini presentation to explain each element covered in the unit. Scientific understanding of the solar system has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. It will be fun for children to teach their parents about the solar system.