Home Planetarium Nine Planets for Kids
One of the best ways to teach kids planets and stars is to make it very hands on, give them a chance to discover and experience the facts for themselves. If you are teaching a unit on stars and planets, the ideal would be to take them outside and let them make direct observations. But since the night sky is not accessible during school hours, and you would need to wait months to cycle through the stars to capture all the seasons and you’d still miss a few months for summer vacation), a home planetarium provides the next best thing to real life.
The great thing about a home planetarium is you don’t have to go anywhere to visit a real planetarium. You can create your very own home planetarium in your own home or classroom. You will need a dark room and a star projector. There are some commercially available star projectors online. If you are up for the challenge, you can save some money by making your own.
You will need some sort of enclosed container in which you can poke holes. Some have used oatmeal boxes to make their first home planetarium; others have cut up a cardboard globe. However you go about it, the point is to poke small holes into it in the reverse of the actual pattern of the stars (because you are working on the negative image).
Print off a page that shows the major constellations and their relative size and positions. You can turn this over, mark the star locations with marker then tape it to the outside of your projector. Once you’ve taped on go ahead and punch a hole where each star is. Use a small, sharp nail (and a hammer, if you need it).
Now, you need to light the inside of your projector so the light shines through the holes. A good flashlight will do nicely. Position it inside the projector such that it will not move and no extra light will leak out. Duct tape sealing the edges of any openings should be effective at sealing in the light.
You can make multiple projectors to show the different positions of the stars throughout the year, or if it is big enough, you can plot all the stars on one projector and rotate it to show the different views as the year “progresses.”
Children will enjoy helping to make the projector. With proper supervision, even quite young students can get involved.
Once the projector is constructed, a “viewing” can be held. Any darkened room will work; though one with a domed white ceiling is best. Clear the floor of desks and chairs and invite students to bring pillows to lie back on the floor during the short presentation. Use a laser pointer to point out the various stars and constellations as you name and discuss them. Conclude by having volunteers take turns with the laser pointer finding various constellations, stars, and planets as you name them.
Here’s another idea for a hands on activity for teaching kids planets. Make a living model solar system to compliment the home planetarium! You can create a model of the solar system with a small desk lamp in the center of the room and students holding appropriately sized balls (pea, ping pong, tennis, baseball, softball, basketball, beach ball) at various distances across the classroom. Discuss how little brightness reaches the farthest students versus the glare on the closest ones and how that would affect conditions on other planets. It makes for a memorable event and a fun way to teach kids planets.