It takes many years for children to grasp the basics of understanding simple astronomical events.
For instance, when did you as a child, first realise that the Sun does not travel across our sky, but that it is the rotation of the Earth that makes it appear this way? When did you first notice the patterns of the constellations in the night sky, and did you ever learn any of their names?
A basic understanding of the dynamics of the world our children live on, and its place in the cosmos can be achieved through simple, enjoyable, interactive and above all MEMORABLE activities and projects.
Astronomy is such a wonderfully eye-opening field of study, and children find the very idea of the ground they stand on moving through space almost irresistibly fascinating. Basic stargazing too can be very enjoyable for children and adults alike.
Here are two very simple yet educational and enjoyable project ideas for teaching children some of the basics of astronomy and where the Earth they live on fits into the bigger picture of our solar system and the universe. These can be adapted for multiple children in a classroom environment, or equally as a one to one teaching project.
Project 1: Why do we have day and night?
What you will need for this project is a beach ball, a tennis ball or similar for each child, some green and blue paint, a torch, and preferably a darkened or dimly lit room.
First, in the classroom environment, have the children make a large ball into a Sun (a blow-up beach ball would be ideal to give a sense of scale for the latter part of the project). During the making of their Sun, the basics that the Sun is essentially a ball of fire and produces lots and lots of heat and light can be taught, and the children could paint bright yellow flames on it.
As homework perhaps, involving parents/guardians/carers, or at school if necessary, ask the children to each make a model of the Earth, using a tennis ball or similar. They could paint on it in blue and green, indicating land and oceans, and draw or stick a small picture of themselves onto it, showing where on the Earth they live.
When all of the children have their individual Earth in school, ideally in a cleared, darkened classroom, or the school hall or similar, the teacher can begin to describe how the Earth moves around the Sun, this can be demonstrated by having the children walk around the Sun holding their Earth. Now describe how the Earth itself spins one time around every day, and have the children move their Earth around to simulate this as they walk.
The teacher, perhaps with one child first, with the others watching, can then walk with the child, pointing the torch as if it were the light from the Sun, onto the child’s Earth. The teacher can then show, with the aid of the picture of the child on their Earth, how sometimes the child is in shadow as the Earth spins, and sometimes they are in the light of the torch, or Sun.
For older children, this project could also be used to teach the idea that the Sun does not move across our sky, but it is in fact the Earth’s rotation that makes it appear this way.
Project 2: Stars and Constellations
This project is best completed in winter months when it gets dark early. For this project you will need a large area of wall or perhaps even ceiling covered in black paper or card to simulate the night sky, white paper or card that can be cut into circles to simulate stars, glue or sticky tape. Ideally, but not absolutely necessary, is a night sky map for the time of year you are working in, indicating the position of the constellations in the early evening sky.
In the classroom or at home, the children could paint paper or card black, and help to stick the paper to the wall or the ceiling to simulate a large area of night sky. Each child should also have one piece of black paper or card kept for themselves for later.
When the night sky is completed, get the children to cut out lots of circles of white card or paper which will simulate stars in the sky, and while doing this, explain how each star is actually similar to our Sun, but that they appear only as a small point of light because of how far away they are.
When this is done, give each child the name and a picture of one of the constellations that appear in the night sky, remembering only to use those that appear in the night sky of the hemisphere of the Earth that you are teaching in.
Now, the children can stick their stars to their piece of black paper or card, in the pattern of their constellation, and when done, stick their constellation onto the large night sky background. If you are going to be accurate, then the constellations could be positioned per the night sky map for the time of year, but this is not absolutely necessary for the fun of the project.
An interesting homework addition to this project can be to have the children, with the aid of parents/guardians/carers and perhaps the internet, look at the night sky at a set time, and see if they can find their constellation, and perhaps talk about how it got its name from its pattern.