The giant-size wonders of outer space and astronomy such as asteroids, pulsars, planets, supernovas, globular clusters and black holes fascinate many children. But relative distance in the solar system is so immense that it is difficult for children to wrap their minds around the sizes involved. A solar system model helps translate the abstract into a concrete, observable representation that children can comprehend. Kits with presized styrofoam balls, wires and stands are available at craft stores. But if kits are not your style, there are many creative and fun ways to make a solar system with a child that entertain while educating young minds.
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Edible Solar System
An edible solar system craft pulls triple duty -- entertainment, education and the satisfaction of a snack at the end as a reward for all the hard work. Use a large paper plate or cut a giant circular platter out of poster board. Frosting acts as the "cement" to hold the sun, planets and asteroid belt in place. Place a giant yellow or orange jawbreaker in the centre for the sun. Diagram the planetary orbital paths around the sun in frosting. Place each planet on its corresponding orbit. Use a single candy sprinkle for Mercury, Mars and Pluto; M&Ms or Skittles for Venus and Earth; a malt ball for Jupiter, a jelly bean for Saturn; and red hots for Uranus and Neptune. Liquorice ropes can form the rings of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Dice a Milky Way chocolate bar and sprinkle a ring of the pieces between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter to represent the asteroid belt. For a healthier option, use honey instead of frosting, pieces of fruit for the planets and chopped nuts for the asteroid belt.
Solar System Mobile
A mobile can serve as an ongoing reminder of planetary order. Cut a 12-inch diameter disk out of heavy cardboard and punch a hole at dead centre. Use a compass to draw concentric circles to represent the orbital paths of the planets. Leave a gap between the fourth and fifth orbits for the asteroid belt. Punch one hole on each orbital line, evenly distributing them around the disk so the mobile will balance. Create paper models of each planet and attach them to lengths of string or yarn. Thread the opposite end through the hole in the corresponding orbit to show the order in which the planets lie from the sun, adjusting the lengths so that all planets line up along the horizontal plane. Tape the strings in place along the top of the support disc. Cut a cardboard ring to fit in the gap between Mars and Jupiter. Cover the surface with small bits of gravel and glue in place. Tie three lengths of string around the ring and attach the opposite end to the underside of the support. Attach a hanger on top of the disk to display the solar system for all to enjoy.
A living planet model is a good way to help an active child demonstrate distance and size in the solar system through movement activities. You will need a large open area of 1,000 yards and preferably nine children to serve as the planets. If you have more, they can be the asteroid belt. Give one child a rubber playground ball, basketball or soccer ball and have him stand at one end as the sun. Assign three children to be Mercury, Mars and Pluto and give them each a tiny seed bead. The children representing Venus and Earth get a peppercorn; Jupiter, a whole walnut in the shell and Saturn, an acorn. Uranus and Neptune get a peanut in the shell. Explain that a pace is one long step. Starting at the sun, take 10 paces and have Mercury take her place. Nine more paces to Venus and another seven to Earth. Continue pacing off each planet's position relative to the preceding one: 14 paces from Earth to Mars, 95 from Mars to Jupiter, 112 paces to Saturn, 249 to Uranus, 281 to Neptune and 242 to Pluto. Any remaining children can scatter themselves in the space between Mars and Jupiter and pretend to be asteroids. By this time, you will need a megaphone to ask all the "planets" to hold up their representative object to demonstrate how small even the largest things in the solar system are in comparison to the vast distances of outer space.
Glow-in-the-Dark Solar System
A large heavy piece of black or dark blue cloth can serve as the back drop to a glow-in-the-dark solar system. You will need fabric paints in several colours that glow in the dark, and a diagram of the solar system for reference. Paint a large sun in the centre. Draw the orbital paths for each planet circling the sun. Let that dry and then paint in each planet on its correct orbit, adding details such as the rings of Saturn, the eye of Jupiter, the planetary moons and the asteroid belt. Insert metal grommets on the top edge to hang on a wall or tack to a ceiling for an overhead view of the solar system.
Solar System Necklace
A wearable solar system makes a conversation piece for a child to show off her knowledge of astronomy. Slide a large yellow bead on a short length of beading wire for the sun. Make a wire ring, slide a seed bead on for Mercury and wrap the ends of the straight piece around opposites sides of the ring. Make nine more wire rings in increasing-size concentric circles. Represent Mars and Pluto with seed beads, Venus and Earth with slightly larger round beads. Uranus and Neptune are each a medium-size bead, Jupiter the largest (except for the sun) and Saturn slightly smaller. Slide several brown, grey or black chip beads on the uneven chip on the fifth ring from the centre to resemble asteroids. Twist the ring ends to seal or use a crimper. Lay the rings out concentrically in order from closest to farthest from the sun and loop a single wire a few times around each ring in succession to connect them. Hang the solar system pendant on a ribbon or chain to wear.
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- National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Edible Solar System Student Guide; 2001
- Enchanted Learning; Solar System Model; 2010
- National Optical Astronomy Observatory; Thousand-Yard Model; Guy Ottewell; 1989
- Make Play Dough; Glow in the Dark Solar System; 2011
- Make Play Dough; Solar System Scavenger Hunt; 2011
- Make Play Dough; Solar System Necklace; 2011
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Edible Solar System Teacher Guide; 2001
- American Museum of Natural History: "Our Dynamic Planet: Edible Earth"
- Cornell University; Incredible Edible Solar System; 2005
- Scholastic, Inc.; Making Models of the Solar System; Ruth Manna; 2011
- KidsAstronomy.com; Our Solar System; 2009
- KidsAstronomy.com; Make a Solar System; 2009