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Classroom PlanetariumClassroom-Planetarium

  • Subject: Space Science
  • |
  • Grade(s): K-5
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will:
1. Understand the relationship of the nine planets in our solar system to the sun by creating a three-dimensional representation.
2. Understand the planets’ relative distance from the sun and their approximate size in relation to the Earth.


For this lesson, you will need:
round balloons, different sizes
tempera paint and paint brushes
fishing line (or strong string)
construction paper
newspaper torn into strips about one inch wide
space paste (see instructions below)
S-clips to suspend models from ceiling tile frames (large paper clips bent into L shapes or strong loops of tape will work as substitutes)


1. Before you begin the activity, you will need to create a batch of “space paste.” You can do this by mixing papier-mâché mix (or flour) and water to make a thick paste. Use about one part mix (or flour) to three-quarter part water.
2. When the paste is ready, divide your students into nine groups. Assign each group a planet. Provide each student with a copy of thePlanet Information Sheet. Ask your students to fill in the chart using information they gather from library books, the Internet, or the TLC Elementary School documentaryAstronomy.
3. While they are working, turn a class bulletin board into a huge sun using construction paper. Invite any students who finish their research early to add solar flare designs to the sun.
4. Give each group a balloon. Explain to your students that all of the balloons should not be blown up to the same size. Stress that approximate size is all that is necessary, but that the big planets should be noticeably larger than the smaller ones—especially Pluto.
5. Provide each group with a long piece of fishing line. Ask them to tie the line around the end of their balloon.
6. Provide each group with a supply of space paste and newspaper strips. Instruct them to dip each strip into the paste, gently pull it through their fingers to wipe off extra clumps, and then paste it onto balloon. They should use many layers, working until the balloon is covered completely. Encourage them to apply extra layers to make their balloons seem as round as possible. (The planets aren’t perfect spheres, so they don’t need to worry too much about roundness.)
7. Allow the balloons to dry. While they are drying, students should decide how they are going to paint the surface of their balloons. Which colors will really bring out the physical landscape? When the balloons are ready—which might not be for a while—have students paint them.
8. While the painted planets are drying, meet with each group to determine where its planet should hang in relation to the sun image. You can use these approximations for distance from the sun: Mercury—58.9 million km, Venus—108.2 million km, Earth—149.6 million km, Mars—227.8 million km, Jupiter—778 million km, Saturn—1,427 million km, Uranus—2,870 million km, Neptune—4,500 million km, Pluto—5,900 million km. When the group has chosen a location, affix the dried planet model to the ceiling using the fishing line and the S-clips. Attach the appropriate Planet Information Sheet to each model.
9. When the project is complete, you might want to invite other classes to come visit.

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Begin by leading the class in creating a web of planet facts to tap students’ prior knowledge of astronomy topics. When the web is as big as it’s going to get, share some basic planet facts with your students: Mercury is closest to the sun, Venus is the hottest planet, Earth is mostly water, Mars is red because of rust, Jupiter is the largest planet and has a spot, Saturn’s rings are made of ice and rock, Uranus spins like a bowling ball, Neptune’s blue color is methane, and Pluto is the smallest planet. After sharing this information, provide your students with pictures of the planets, then have them paint balloons—you can inflate them and cover them with paper ahead of time—to reflect what they have learned.

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Discussion Questions

1. Have you ever noticed how the moon is a different shape every night? Half of the moon is always lit up by the sun, but the half that’s lit isn’t always facing directly toward us. What if you were a moon creature looking at the Earth night after night? Would the Earth be a different shape every night too? Why?
2. Did you know that gravity is weaker on the moon than on the Earth? If you’re standing on the moon, it’s a lot easier to move around and lift heavy objects. Think of your favorite game or sport. How would it be different if you played it on the moon?
3. Uranus is different from the other planets. It spins like a bowling ball instead of like a top. Can you think of a reason why it does that?
4. Believe it or not, Pluto is actually smaller than the Earth’s moon! Some astronomers say it’s not really a planet. They think it used to be a moon that circled Neptune, but that it somehow got away. What do you think? Is Pluto a planet or a lost moon?

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Have each group present an oral report to the class about its model and research. Students should explain their model. Why did they make their choices (color, size, and distance from the “sun”)? They should also share everything they learned and recorded on their Planet Information Sheet. This will allow you to assess student understanding of the information. It will also allow other students in the class to learn about the planets they did not research.

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This is Some Field Trip!
Have your students make picture books about a trip they took with their classmates to one of the other bodies in the solar system—the moon, the sun, or one of the planets. Illustrations and text should teach their “readers” about astronomy. They can share their work with a younger class.

Outer Orbits
Students work individually or in groups to design a board game that takes players through the solar system as they move around the board. The path from START to STOP could spiral out with stops on each planet. On each planet they could be asked a space science question. Each student or group can decide on specific rules of play.

Moon Mania
Provide students with a chart on which they are to draw the way the moon appears each night for a month. As students come in each day and share their observations, tell them the name of the phase of the moon they saw. When the full moon is approaching, ask them to predict what the next phase will look like. Repeat for the new moon.

Space Mail
Students design postcards from the planets and the moon, complete with a commemorative stamp. They should write a short message to a friend at home on Earth explaining how their space vacation is going—the sights they have seen, what the terrain looks like, and how long it will take them to return.

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Suggested Readings

Stars & Planets
David H. Levy. U.S. Weldon Owen Inc., 1996.
This reference contains lively and interactive text with amazing space trivia. Along with the story of our universe, it contains historical sidebars about space exploration and famous astronomers. You’ll enjoy the four-page foldout, exciting photographs, and large-scale illustrations.

The Kingfisher Young People’s Book of Space
Martin Redfern. Kingfisher Publications, 1998.
This guide to the universe sets engaging text against two-page spreads of stunning photography taken from space. Your interest will rise as you learn about the big bang, time travel, and the impossible questions of the cosmos.

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Comets and Shooting Stars [PDF]
Find information and additional activities on this topic at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab website.

Ask the Space Scientist
This site allows students to ask astronomy questions of an expert in the field and view archives of previously asked questions on the Earth, the moon, the solar system, the cosmos, and everything else.

Amazing Space
The activities and lessons you will find inAmazing Spaceare interactive. The site is filled with stunning photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope as well as many high-quality graphics, videos, and animations designed to enhance student interest.

Astronomy for Kids
This is a very good site for researching astronomy topics. It is well organized, and it contains many facts useful for student-conducted research. It also features a section with weekly astronomy questions that allows students to e-mail their responses.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    axis
Definition:A straight line about which a body or a geometric figure rotates.
Context:Planets spin, or rotate, around their axis.

speaker    fusion
Definition:The union of atomic nuclei to form heavier nuclei, resulting in the release of enormous quantities of energy.
Context:Fusion occurs when four hydrogen atoms are squeezed together to form two helium atoms.

speaker    nebula
Definition:Any of numerous clouds of gas or dust in interstellar space.
Context:A nebula is a giant cloud of gas and dust swirling around in space that will pull together, go through a chemical reaction called fusion, and produce the core of a new star.

speaker    satellite
Definition:A celestial body orbiting another of larger size.
Context:Planet Earth has one satellite, the moon, revolving around it.

speaker    solar system
Definition:The sun and the group of celestial bodies held by its attraction and revolving around it.
Context:The sun, the center of our solar system, has nine planets orbiting it.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:3-5
Subject area:science
Understands essential ideas about the composition and structure of the universe and the Earth’s place in it.
Knows that the Earth is one of several planets orbiting the sun and that the moon orbits the Earth.
Knows that planets look like stars but over time appear to wander among the constellations.
Knows that astronomical objects in space are massive in size and are separated from one another by vast distances (e.g., many stars are more massive than our sun but so distant they look like points of light).

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Jesse Kraft, an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia.

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