This spring and summer we’ve been studying astronomy. We visited our local observatory to see the stars (and Saturn for the first time through a telescope!), read about all of the planets and the sun, and have done notebooking pages about what we’ve learned.
This past week I came across a great activity I hoped would help my kids understand just how vast the solar system is, in a way that even my younger ones could appreciate. So on a beautiful, sunny and breezy day, we trekked out to a local park with some materials in hand.
The 1000 Yard Solar System
This activity uses a scaled down solar system, based around a sun that is 8 inches in diameter. I bought a bouncy ball at Walmart and gathered other items that would approximate the sizes of the planets in comparison.
We used peppercorns for Earth and Venus, a less-than-one-inch stone for Jupiter and an even smaller one for Saturn, two beads for Neptune and Uranus, and three sesame seeds for Mercury, Mars and Pluto, knowing full well that the sesame seeds were actually way too big. I simply needed something they could actually carry and sesame seeds were the smallest things we had!
I gave each child two or three planets and coached (especially the younger ones) to be very careful not to drop them!
We then proceeded to place the sun in the grass at the far end of the field and talk about how big each of our steps would be. One giant step (a yard) in this model would be 3,600,000 miles! We talked about how big the earth is to us, and how long it takes to drive the 500 miles to see Nanny and Gramps in New Jersey; we talked about light years and how long it takes the sun’s light to reach us (8 minutes) in comparison to how long it takes the light of the nearest star to reach us (Alpha Centauri- 4.3 years). When they were fully impressed by the sheer numbers, we began walking out the distances to the planets.
It was ten yards to get to Mercury. Ten groups of 3,600,000 miles!! So my oldest dropped Mercury where it belonged.
We continued on, taking the necessary steps, placing the inner planets in their respective places. My oldest, in charge of the tiniest planets, dropped the sesame-seed Mars. While it was in the air, the breeze took it a foot out of orbit. We laughed about how one foot was actually 1,200,000 miles! I told him he messed up the whole solar system. He was crushed.
When it came time to march to Jupiter, the kids started giggling. It was 95 yards away! So we began the steps and somewhere along the way my youngest lost Uranus in the asteroid belt. Alas, never trust a five-year-old with such an important planet. So far we’d thrown off the whole solar system, and maybe the Milky Way, before we even reached the outer planets.
By the time we got to this point, we could barely see the sun. The bright orange ball was waaaay in the distance and would soon be unrecognizable. Can you see it out by the tree?
We continued on our way, out to Saturn (112 yards) and then out to where Uranus would be if Zachary hadn’t dropped it (249 yards). But we couldn’t even make it that far. We ran into a forest (and I am prone to bad poison ivy) and had to stop.
By this point, the kids were tired of walking and had gained a great appreciation for the vastness of space and how small our little place in it really is. God is amazing!
So the little ones wanted to run back to the sun, and eventually they all collapsed of exhaustion around the bright orange ball.
This was a fantastic activity! We loved getting out into a wide-open space and trying to fathom together how big our solar system really is.
What fun activities have you done lately?
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