Are your children interested in learning more about the physical sciences? We’ll be adding a series of activities to explore:
- Astronomy (today)
- Earth Science
Astronomy is the study of objects and processes that occur out in space. Astronomy covers the moon, planets, the solar system, asteroids, comets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, etc.
Let’s start our study with near objects.
(Photograph by Tim Peake of the European Space Agency Image Credit: ESA/NASA)
Begin by observing the moon on a clear night, which will raise a child’s interest and start the questions flowing. Check the newspaper for the weather, phase of moon and local times when the moon will rise and set.
Try to find an area away from lights and look at the moon. Take a pair of binoculars or a telescope with you, if available (The moon is bright, so don’t stare at it with binoculars for too long).
Activity 1. Making Craters
The most obvious features on the face of the moon are the impact craters. Children can create and study craters using a simple model.
- Powdered cocoa or cornmeal
- Unbreakable pan
- Marbles and/or rocks
- Candy sprinkles (optional)
- Newspaper or garbage bags (optional)
Find a level surface, preferably outside or indoors where a bit of flour won’t cause a mess. Cover the surface with some newspaper or flat garbage bags to help with clean up. Fill a large pan (preferably unbreakable, such as aluminum or plastic) halfway with flour. If you want, you can also add a thin layer of candy sprinkles to represent other minerals present under the surface. Finally, gently add a thin layer of cocoa powder or cornmeal.
Have your kids drop various round objects into the flour. The results should be some interesting craters and splash patterns, which are the patterns of debris shot out of the crater with impact.
This video from NASA gives more complete details.
1. Outreach Resources from Night Sky Network, which include the following activities to download (may have to provide some information for access) :
- Does the moon rotate?
- Observing the Moon
- Why does the moon have phases?
- Why do eclipses happen?
2. World Space Week Heinlein Teacher Kit (direct link to .pdf)
3. Geology.com has an interactive map of the 50 largest impact craters on Earth.
The Solar System
The next step into astronomy is to study the planets and other objects in the solar system.
Activity 2: Make a poster or model of the solar system.
One simple way to study all the planets is to create a mobile or poster of the solar system. How complicated a project this can be will depend on the age and interests of your child. Use your imagination and move beyond Styrofoam balls (which can be expensive).
- Salt clay or model magic
- Paper maché
- Yarn/string (see video below)
How to make decorative balls out of yarn that could be used for a solar system model:
You can also purchase model kits made of various materials.
Exploratorium has a calculator to determine the relative sizes and distances for a scale model.
The European Space Agency has an excellent set of lesson plans complete with full color images of objects in the solar system to download: Our Solar System
The McDonald Observatory has a lesson on making a scale model of the solar system (direct .pdf link) to download (as well as many related lessons)
When the mobile/model is completed, ask some questions. Why do we have night and day? What is an eclipse? Why do we have seasons? A sophisticated model can help answer some of these questions.
Activity 3: Outdoor Solar System Scale Models
Take a field trip to an outdoor scale model of the solar system. Wikimedia has a partial list of scale models found throughout the world.
In Arizona try:
- The Solar System Walk at the Environmental Education Center in Chandler, Arizona
- Display around the observatory at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Gilbert, Arizona.
- The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Do you know where there’s a scale model of the solar system to explore? Please leave a comment.
Books about planets and the solar system
It might seem like it would be difficult to study something as large and complex as the the universe, but there are actually many potential hands-on activities.
- Take a trip to a planetarium.
- Study dust
- Make your own galaxy
- Scale model of a black hole (advanced)
- Constellation Detective (direct link to .pdf)
- Build your own telescope, for example using this kit from Home Science Tools (I am not affiliated with this company)
Want to learn more? Khan Academy has video lessons about stars, black holes and galaxies.
Lists of related children’s books at Science Books for Kids:
Children’s books about stars and the universe.
For National Poetry Month, try our list of Poetry Books about Space