The solar system is vast and complex, but that doesn't mean it should be inaccessible for students. Even young elementary schoolers can grasp basic concepts about outer space, like the concept of planetary orbit and the relationship between the Earth, the Sun, and the moon. The following solar system games and activities will help you get your students hooked on outer space.

## Modeling Planetary Orbit

This activity from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics helps children in grades 2 and 3 understand how planets orbit around the Sun. It also provides a hands-on demonstration of the terms *revolution*, *rotation*, and* orbit*.

First, students should create models of the planets using balloons. Use a large punch balloon to represent the sun and balloons of eight different colors to represent the planets.

Using a large, open area such as the gym or an outdoor location, mark the orbits of each of the planets with string or chalk. One child will hold the yellow punch balloon and stand in the center representing the sun. Eight other children will be assigned different plants and stand on the line representing their planet’s orbit.

Each child will walk his or her orbit line around the sun as a teacher explains the concepts of *orbit* and *revolution*. Then, the children representing the planets will be instructed to turn in circles as they walk their *orbit* lines to represent the rotation of their planets. Warn them to be careful not to get too dizzy!

## Recreating the Solar System

Another abstract concept that is difficult for children to understand is the vastness of space. Enable your students to visualize the enormity of space by creating a scale model of our solar system.

Explain to the students that you’re going to make a human scale model of the solar system. You may need to explain the concept of a scale model. For your model, one step will equal *36 million miles*!

The teacher should play the role of the Sun. Give each student (or group of students) a planet, and instruct them to take a certain number of steps away from you, representing the true distance of that planet from the Sun. For example, the student representing Neptune should take 78 steps away from you. The child holding the Uranus model will take 50 steps in the same direction as Neptune.

Continuing to follow the same path, Saturn will take 25 steps, Jupiter will take 13, Mars will take 4 steps, Earth will take 3 steps, Venus will take 2, and, finally, Mercury will take only 1 step.

## Modeling the Night Sky

The McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin features an activity to help students in grades K-5 understand the objects they see in the night sky with this activity that features constellations. Using the printable provided in the pdf file on the McDonald Observatory site or creating your own for the constellations of the zodiac, students will explore the night sky and understand why the constellations are not always visible or always in the same location in the sky.

Give one of the figures to each of 13 students. These students should stand in a circle facing inward in the following order: Gemini, Taurus, Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricornus, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus, Scorpius, Libra, Virgo, Leo, and Cancer.

Choose two other students to represent the sun and the Earth. The student representing the Earth will walk around the sun in one revolution (which you may want to remind students takes 365 days). Have students note which constellations are visible depending on the Earth’s location on its orbit around the sun.

## Who Am I?

Prepare a set of index cards featuring key solar system terms. Include terms such as meteorite, asteroid, asteroid belt, planet, dwarf planet, and all of the names of the planets in the solar system.

Pass out one card to each student and instruct the students to hold their card on their forehead, with the term facing outward. No one should look at his or her own card! Next, invite students to mingle around the room and ask each other questions about themselves, such as, "Does anything orbit around me?" in order to figure out the word on their card.

## Scale of the Planets

In addition to understanding the vastness of our solar system and each planet’s distance from the sun, students need to understand the relative size of each planet. To demonstrate this, The Lunar and Planetary Institute highlights an activity that uses fruits and vegetables to illustrate the size of the sun and each of the eight planets to help children in grades 4-8 comprehend the relative size of the planets and other objects that orbit the sun.

Use a giant pumpkin to represent the sun. Then, use fruits such as mangoes, oranges, cantaloupes, plums, limes, grape, and blueberries to represent each planet. Peas, beans, or grains of rice or pasta can be used to represent the smallest celestial bodies.

## Planet Toss

To help young children learn the planets in their order from the sun, play Planet Toss. Label 8 buckets or similar containers with the names of each planet. Mark off a circle for each player to stand in and label it the sun. Place the buckets in a line in order of their position from the sun. Because this game is for young children (Pre-K through 1st grade) do not worry about scaling the distance. The point is simple for children to learn the names of the planets in order.

One at a time, let children take turns trying to toss a bean bag or ping pong ball into the buckets. Have them start with the bucket labeled Mercury and move on to the next planet each time they successfully toss the object into a bucket.

## Planet Jumble

Planet Jumble is another activity to help young children in Pre-K and kindergarten learn the names of the planets in order. In this activity from Space Racers, you will print out photos of the sun and each of the eight planets. Choose 9 students and give one of the photos to each child. You can either tape the photos to the front of the students’ shirts or have the children hold the picture in front of them.

Now, have the students’ classmate direct each of the 9 children where to stand, placing the sun first and each of the eight planets in correct order from the sun.

## Solar System Bingo

Help students in grades 5 through 7 learn vocabulary associated with the solar system. Create a set of bingo cards using the table feature in a word processing program or by purchasing blank bingo cards. Fill each with the vocabulary terms students are learning, making sure that the names in squares are random so that each student has a different card.

Call out the definitions for the terms. Students who have the matching term should cover it with a bingo chip. Play continues until one student has five terms covered in a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal row. Alternately, play can continue until the first player has his or her card completely covered.

## Planetary Debate

This activity from Windows to the Universe is suitable for students in 7th through 12th grades. Pair students in groups of two and assign each a planet, dwarf planet or moon. Give students at least a week to research their planet or celestial body. Then, have two pairs of students debate one another in tournament style with the winner of each debate advancing to the next bracket.

Students should debate and defend their planet or moon against the others. After each debate, classmates will vote on which planet (or moon) they’d rather visit. The winning team will advance until an ultimate winner is chosen.

## Earth and Moon

Help young students understand the role of gravity in a moon’s orbit around a planet with this activity from Kids Earth Science. You’ll need an empty thread spool, a washer, a ping pong ball, and string for each student or one of each to demonstrate to the class.

Cut a piece of string 3 feet long and place it through the spool. The ping pong ball represents the Earth, the washer represents the moon, and the string simulates the pull of Earth’s gravity on the moon.

Tie one end to the washer and the other end to the ping pong ball. Instruct the students to hold the sting with the ping pong ball on top of the thread spool and the washer hanging below it. Instruct them to slowly move the spool in a circle, forcing the ping pong ball to turn in a circle around the thread spool.

Ask them to observe what happens to the ping pong ball as they increase or decrease its spin around the spool.