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 spark 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’ll 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 floating 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.
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When tackling this lesson, I feel that starting with books is the best way to introduce the topic. I have all of these books myself and they are all big hits with my boys.
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.
This first book is great for the little ones. My boys wanted to read this book before sleeping every night for at least 2 months! It has nice illustrations and is easy enough info for even a 2-year-old to understand.
We got this book from National Geographic after the boys got a little older and they could get more complex details. The pictures are bright and colorful and they get some great information about many space objects and astronomical bodies.
The Darkest Dark is the true childhood experience from real-life Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. It explores his earliest fascination with space and the NASA missions to the moon. It also has a wonderful lesson for the kids that every parent can appreciate!
This last book on the universe, Space!, is encyclopedic in scope. It is for older kids but covers literally everything a young space-lover could hope to learn about. From solar systems to asteroids to the big bang it’s all in here!
Begin at the beginning: the big bang
As logic would have it, we begin this lesson with 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.
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 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 good 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 or in the Kuiper belt just past Neptune. 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 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, check 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 use the imagination of your child or use the following:
My Very Enthusiastic Mother Just Served Us Noodles!
It speaks to the heart of kids though their stomachs. So, after talking about the sun, simply place each felt planet from closest to farthest from the sun 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”.
Dwarf planets are exactly as their name suggests, planets, but really small. They are considered planets because of their mass and gravity, which are big and strong enough to make them nearly round; and they orbit the sun. There are currently five classified dwarf planets: Pluto, Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. There are other classifications of dwarf planets but these five are the largest and closest to the sun.
The only difference between a dwarf planet and a normal planet is that they don’t have a decluttered orbit as they are all located in one of the two asteroid belts. One of them, Ceres, which is also considered an asteroid, is in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. The others are all in the outer belt, otherwise known as the Kuiper asteroid belt.
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 reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet.
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. There are a ton of beautiful pieces to compliment this activity.
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!
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 sets. And if you’d like to learn about the moon, check out this article for some fun facts and activities.