Prepping for solar system fun

L has become increasingly interested in astronomy, and in particular, her love of They Might be Giants has fueled an interest in the solar system. We were trying to help her understand the concept of scale in the solar system, which is certainly a tough sell to anyone! We decided to use a solar system walk on our street (which happens to be a long, fairly straight walk) to help her conceptualize this idea.

For our purposes, it was less important that the specifics be exactly right and more important that she grasp the idea of measurement and empty space. We decided that we would use one foot (12″) as 1 million miles for the space between the planets/objects. We took with us a chart listing how far away each object was from the sun as well as from the object before it. We also had a measuring tape and a piece of chalk.

When we got to the stop sign where our street intersects with the main road, we drew the sun. We made the sun a circle with a diameter of about 10″ on the sidewalk and labeled it “Sun”. Then, we used the measuring tape to walk 36 feet from the Sun. It was immediately apparent to L that it was a long way to Mercury as our measuring tape ran out at 20 feet! My husband had to stand at 20 feet while we walked to him, then measure 16 feet past that to make our mark for Mercury. Mercury was the smallest dot we could make. We then walked 31 feet past Mercury to make Venus’s mark, which was again tiny. We continued through Earth (which was 26 feet past Venus). Then, we got to walking to Mars. Mars is 49 feet past Earth. We realized that it was going to be an issue to keep using the measuring tape, so we decided to make a proxy measure.

We measured a rectangle of sidewalk. The sidewalk rectangle was approximately 5 feet long. We then talked about skip counting and how we could skip count to the numbers we needed to get to:

  • 10 rectangles to Mars
  • 68 rectangles to Jupiter
  • 80 rectangles to Saturn
  • 182 rectangles to Uranus
  • 200 rectangles to Neptune

We also decided to put the asteroid belt about halfway between Mars and Jupiter. Mars, Uranus, Neptune, and the individual asteroids were represented by chalk dots as small as we could make them. Jupiter and Saturn were dots of about 1 inch in diameter.

We stopped along the way to look back and see where the sun was. Pretty quickly it became clear that we couldn’t see the sun at all! We talked about the temperature on different planets and how this walk made those temperatures make sense. We talked about the word “space” and how the solar system was mostly full of… space.

We walked and walked and walked… Mars… Asteroid belt… Jupiter… Saturn… Uranus… and then we ran out of sidewalk!! We thought about where Neptune would be – and then realized that if we were going to put Pluto on our walk at all, it would be near our favorite Indian restaurant! Wow. This walk really helped L visualize the idea of how much space there really is!

Right about when we put Mars on the ground, L decided that she should teach this lesson to her daddy’s students. Remember, he teaches sixth grade science. We talked about that idea and decided that it was a good one. I asked her about how to get daddy’s students more involved. She decided that she could write each object on a card and write facts on the card. When we got to each object on our walk, one of daddy’s students could read the facts out loud. That seemed like a pretty solid lesson plan!

A few days after our walk, L started prepping her lesson materials. She now has completed her cards. She wrote the objects’ names on the fronts of the cards and dictated the facts to me. She consulted some of her space books and remembered other facts. We decided that two facts per object seemed about right.

Her cards

Her cards (note the exclamation marks after Jupiter)

Some of my personal favorite facts are:

  • “After the sun and moon, Venus is the brightest object in the sky. It can sometimes be seen even when you can’t see the stars”
  • “Earth has a very thin atmosphere. It makes the right environment for life.”
  • “Asteroids are large lumps of icy rock or metal moving around the sun. Most of the asteroids in the solar system are found in the asteroid belt.”
  • “Uranus is the only planet that doesn’t rotate with its axis up and down. Its axis is sideways.”


Now we are just waiting for a Monday/Wednesday/Friday that is both (a) not raining and (b) flexible in both his school schedule and ours. Hopefully this week will be the winner! She’s excited, and I know his students are, too!

And, we’ve been using Time for Kids, too – here are some of the pages she’s adored!

Reading comprehension about Sally Ride

Reading comprehension about Sally Ride

Comparing the planets (1)

Comparing the planets (1)

Comparing the planets (2)

Comparing the planets (2)

Earth's moon and Mars's moon

Earth’s moon and Mars’s moon

Comparing all the moons

Comparing all the moons

She adores these! And I feel good about them knowing that she’s working her science and math and reading and writing… and they’re quick and easy to prep! So much of what we do requires A LOT OF PREP work on my part, particularly compared to how quickly she flies through it. Things like this give me enough time to (start to) catch my breath!