Space and our solar system have always been a favorite hobby of mine. Astronomy is one of those subjects in school which has unfortunately become very academic and difficult to fathom, especially for small children. Thankfully, there are many fun and educational activities to ignite curiosity and excitement.
Using Montessori inspired materials can assist you in turning astronomy into an adventure that both challenges and educates children. In this lesson, you will give your kids an experience which requires many of their senses and will pique their interest in space, our solar system, and all the fun things racing around up there.
Being quite comprehensive this lesson has many steps to it. And, as you may have seen in previous posts, I like to be thorough. Therefore, I suggest reading through the entire article and retrieving all the recommended materials for the lesson beforehand. There are many and they originate from a wide variety of resources.
The Big Bang
As logic would have it, we begin this lesson at the beginning, the formation of the universe. As of now, the best, most accepted theory of creation is the big bang, a phrase first coined by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity.
When tackling this lesson, I feel that starting with books is the best way to introduce the topic. The books in this link are just a few of the many which we have found educational and entertaining for our little ones.
Having a conversation, using bright visual pictures, serves to stimulate the imagination and creates a relaxed environment for the kids. If they’re like my kids, they will ask you a thousand questions before you even turn the first page. Reassure them that all those questions and more will be addressed at some point in the lesson.
It all began 14.5 billion years ago.
That’s right, the Universe is that old! And it’s divided into countless galaxies. Within our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are many stars or suns and solar systems. A solar system is a sun with a collection of planets and natural satellites, like moons and asteroids.
You could mention a few of our neighboring solar systems, like Proxima Centauri, before moving on to our own solar system. Having this lesson at night with a telescope would be a real sensorial treat. Show them the difference between stars and planets (stars twinkle, planets don’t), have a star chart in order to find the planets like Mars or Venus.
If you go out of the city, you have the best chance to see the most stars.
And at the right time of the year, depending on where on the planet you are, you may even find the Milky Way. This is a great time to talk about some of the objects astronomers are studying, like constellations, when they look through their telescopes.
What is a nebula?
A nebula is a big cloud of dust and gas floating around interstellar space. In pictures from the Hubble space telescope, they look like giant cotton candies. According to Nasa, these clouds are both the remnants of dead stars and the nursery for new ones.
When a star dies, it’s called a Supernova. The remaining gases and dust from that star create a nebula. Other nebulae (more than one nebula), usually made of helium and hydrogen, have dense clouds clumping together. These clumps create more and more gravity which eventually implodes on itself, getting very hot and giving birth to a new star.
For more information and beautiful pictures of nebulae check out this video:
What are comets?
Comets are truly amazing celestial objects, the most famous being Halley’s comet, which returns every 75 years or so. Also, known as dirty snowballs, comets are leftover debris from stars which had formed billions of years ago according to Northwestern University.
They start out as giant clumps of rock and metal covered by ice. The gravitational forces of the planets pull them around the solar system. When they get close to the sun which they are orbiting, a tail forms due to the melting ice. That tail is what makes them so visible by telescopes and fascinates astronomers so much.
What are asteroids?
Unlike comets, asteroids are just solid pieces of rock. They were formed much closer to the sun than comets and therefore have no ice and no tails. Most asteroids are found in the belt which orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. But some come very close to our orbit and are classified as near-earth-objects or NEOs.
For a great video explaining the differences between comets, asteroids and other space debris, check out this child-friendly video:
Introducing the Solar System felt board
Using a felt board to learn about the sun and planets of our solar system provides a few advantages. The orbits of the planets around the sun are sewn in an oval, 3D shape to show the depth of space and their trajectory. In addition, the felt planets serve as good substitutes for the object cards when introducing the 3 part Montessori cards. The order of the planets is the main objective here.
Some fun facts about the sun
Though not a particularly large one, our sun is actually a star, like the ones we see at night from galaxies far far away. It’s a giant ball of helium and hydrogen gases which fuse together in a gigantic ball of fire. The surface temperature can reach 5,500 degrees Celcius with a core temperature of 15 million degrees Celcius. The gravity from the sun is what created of this solar system and the energy it produces sustains life on this planet.
It is responsible for our weather, seasons, ocean currents and its energy provides food for all plants on the globe. It’s about 150 million kilometers (93m miles) from Earth and is so huge that 1.3 million Earths could fill it. Cosmologists, or scientists who study the universe, estimate its age at about 4.5 billion years.
For more fun facts check about the Sun out this website.
The order of the planets
There are several techniques to learning the order of the planets ranging from songs to mnemonics. If you scour the internet you’re sure to find something interesting for your child. But of all those, I think I like writing acronyms the best.
You can either write one with your child or use the following:
My Very Enthusiastic Mother Just Served Us Noodles!
It speaks to the heart of kids, through their stomach. So, after talking about the sun, simply lay out each felt planet from closest to farthest naming each one while saying “This is Mercury” and so on. When you finish, say your acronym together with your kid until they can do it by themselves.
Important here is to let them make mistakes without negative reinforcement. No “That’s not right” or “You’re wrong”. Say instead “That was good but have a look at your acronym”.
Learning the names of the planets using the 3-part cards
Now we want to reinforce the names of the planets. If you are unfamiliar with using 3-part cards, check out this article. Here is where we can have fun with learning the names with just the set of cards, with the felt pieces or even with other figures which you may have found on Etsy. There are a ton of beautiful pieces to compliment this activity.
By the end of this activity, be sure to mention the fact that we used to have 9 planets in our solar system. But scientists eventually removed Pluto from the list as it was just too small to be considered a planet. Now it is simply referred to as a dwarf planet. But it still orbits the sun like the other planets and is even smaller than our moon.
A solar system scaling activity
After learning about our solar system and all its planets, it’s a good idea to put the size and positions of the planets into perspective. This is a fun activity which will help you with exactly that!
Now it’s time for the moon!
Don’t relax yet! We still have a lot of learning to do! Now that the kids have a good grasp of the vastness of our universe, galaxy and solar system, lets narrow the lesson down a bit.
The moon is something in space which the kids can actually see and study, which makes this lesson all the more interesting and motivational to them. Breaking out the telescope again is the ideal way to start this lesson.
What is the moon?
The moon is just a big rock which, like the Earth, was left over from the debris which formed our solar system at its birth. Technically it’s considered a natural satellite and is the 5th biggest moon in our solar system. Being so large, about one quarter the size of the Earth, it has a big effect on us and may even be the reason why life is possible on this planet.
Since the moon revolves around the Earth and rotates very slowly around its own axis, the same side always seems visible to us. However, the moon goes through many phases during its 28-day cycle based on the position it holds in its orbit of the earth and its relationship to the sun.
The bright side is lit by the sun and the dark is the shadow of the Earth. At times it shines brightly in its entirety and others only a small sliver appears.
Using the lunar felt board
At the beginning of the lesson, it’s a good idea to lay the earth down in the center of the felt board first while explaining the orientation of the moon’s orbit. The arrows indicate which direction the moon revolves around us.
As we did with the order of the planets, we simply lay down the moon pieces starting with the new moon and work in a counter-clockwise motion. Each time we lay down a new felt piece we say aloud its phase: “This is the waxing crescent”.
Explain that waxing means that the bright part of the moon is growing in size until it reaches the full moon phase. From here the bright side becomes smaller, or wanes. Thus, waning phases of the moon begin.
This may take some time for the little ones to grasp, so I suggest modeling each half of the board first. Once they are able to repeat the phases themselves have them practice the whole board at once.
Learning the phases of the moon with the 3-part cards
Here we have a couple of options for integrating the 3-part cards into the lesson, depending on the level of your child’s development. If they are younger, go through the whole process which is described in the 3-part cards article. Or, if they are older, you can start with the laying the felt pieces in a line and match the object and name cards without the control cards.
Other moon phase figures can be used in place of the felt pieces as well. Some 3D printed models have excellent opportunities to work with shadows using a flashlight in a darkened room. It’s a very visual and active technique.
An eclipse is an astronomical event which can be very enticing for kids. The cool thing is you can find out when one will happen, mark them on your calendar and let the anticipation grow!
A lunar eclipse occurs when the shadow of the earth blocks the sun from shining off the face of the moon. According to space.com, there are three types of lunar eclipses: total, partial and penumbral. A total lunar eclipse is exciting as the Earth’s shadow covers the entire surface of the moon.
Why do I see the moon during the day?
Have ever wondered why the most brilliant object in the night sky is sometimes visible during the day? It’s a strange phenomenon, which has puzzled many a stargazer.
The moon is a very large luminous object, which orbits the Earth and is only visible in certain phases of its cycle. But surprisingly, it can be seen nearly every day except when it’s a new or full moon. It also needs to be just above the horizon. Only then is it bright enough that you can even see it during the day.
More to come
This is a long and dense lesson for the kids, so repeating it often is not only fun but also reinforces all the information. Check back in periodically on the site because in the next article you can look forward to a couple of additions to our astronomy set. More toys, more lessons, and more DIY!