Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Astronomy for young children - colour the solar system model.

As a mother of two young children, and an astronomer I am interested in how to present astronomy to very young children. I have some small amount of experience in this area. As a graduate student I collaborated with a 2nd grade school teacher (that's year 2, or 7 year olds) to develop a 6 week mini-course on "Understanding the Sky". The material we developed can be found here (MS Word Documentation). This experience was very educational for me in terms of what concepts young children can grasp.

A couple of weeks ago I put some of this back into practice when I visited Meon Junior School in Portsmouth (UK), and talked with two groups of 35 Year 5 students (10 year olds). They had recently been learning about the Sun and the Moon, so I decided to talk about the solar system as a way of introducing the idea of the scale of the universe.

I developed a solar system model for this visit. This was inspired by the model described here. And made heavy use of this Solar System Scale Model Calculator.

Here's the version I coloured in and cut out to use to demonstrate in the class. Just to be clear this is an accurate scale model - you can fit the Sun and all the planets on a single sheet of A4 then, cut them out and space them over a bit more than half a mile for the proper orbits. We could only fit the Sun, Mercury, Venus and (with some squeezing) the Earth in the classroom. I think that really impressed the kids.

Here's the version you can colour in yourself. 

And here are the instructions for placing the planets.  
The kids were really impressed that the nearest star would be all the way in California. 

All in all though I think the most important moment was when I was being introduced to one of the groups and a little boy said "You're not really a scientist are you?". I said "Yes, I am a scientist." It was also lovely to meet one little girl who in her free time writes reports on astronomy. She showed me her black hole report which was really impressive. 

This activity could have been done while I was there, but in the end the kids had so many great questions that I just talked to them for the whole hour (honest!). I couldn't even answer all their questions before having to leave. 

My daughter (who's 4) coloured in the planets and cut them out for herself. She demanded to have her own colouring sheet when I showed her what I was doing. We haven't yet placed the planets to scale around our house/neighbourhood, but once the weather warms up we may do that.  I may report on how well that goes. I think she's too young to understand the concept.... but we'll see. 


  1. Our grandson is just coming up to 5; he's interested in astronomy so I'll pass this on to his parents. We're thinking of buying him a telescope for his birthday, probably the 'Skywatcher Infinity' (one of the 'Ten Best' according to the Independent paper,

    Thank you for the post


  2. I'm glad this was useful. I'm not an expert in amateur telescopes at all, but I would guess at 5 he'll still struggle with using any telescope, so it might be worth waiting a couple more years for that purchase. I know that when I do public observing the young children usually cannot see through the telescope well and get more frustrated than anything else. Perhaps better would be a book or DVD about astronomy - or a poster about astronomy, or a model he can make with you?

  3. I just did this activity with my homeschooled 11 yo twins. They're really bright kids and have studied loads of other astronomy stuff, but this activity still got a 'wow' out of them! We only got to Jupiter, but the kids loved it. Thanks so much!

  4. That's great. Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. Astronomy is a mystery to me, I have always looked at the sky and it's Creator with awe! Here is my chance to at least start, together with my kids. I wanted to look at document you created "Understanding the sky", but it doesn't exist/isn't there. It would be great to read it, so I can start understanding the sky and helping my 3, 7, 10 year old's understand too! So is there a possibility to get that link working?