Opening up the solar system to a child

The world in which we live is an amazing place. I wanted to teach my child this. I wanted her to know not just about this planet but about our solar system and indeed the wider cosmos as well. I wanted her to know that the earth revolves around the sun and that the moon is our nearest companion as we go around and around our nearest star. I wanted her to know about our solar system and at a later date I want her to know about our galaxy and others beyond it. The start of this exploration into our space has been surprisingly simple, action-based and fun.


Foto: – “Moon from outer space. Earth on the background” © Jacques70 – ID 2730234.

We first started with just the way we talked about it. In both English and Finnish one says that the sun sets in the evening and rises in the morning. This language is a result of a time before we knew any better, but using this language teaches a child that the sun indeed sets and rises. So instead of this typical phrases I told my daughter that the earth spins. When it is night, our side of the earth faces away from the sun, and when it day, we face the sun. So we are going around and around and the sun stays put. We also talk about the sun being a star like all the little dots in the sky, which are suns as well, but just really really far away.

We also observed, and still do whenever possible, the moon. We talked about it being a companion of Earth as it moves in space. The changes in the appearance of the moon of course interested her, so I explained them detailing how the earth was in between the moon and the sun and shaded the surface of the moon preventing parts of it from being seen. We haven’t gotten around to tides and such as their effect cannot really be seen so clearly here in Finland. But those will come as well.

The first really action-based thing we did together was to imitate the motion of the earth around the sun. She was the sun and I was the earth and I went around her getting light-headed as I went around and around myself. This looked like so much fun so she wanted to be the earth and we swapped. And swapped again and again until it stopped being interesting.

The seasons was another little action-based thing we did. I first talked about how the earth is tilted and our side of earth sometimes leans towards the sun, causing summer, and sometimes away from the sun, causing winter. I explained that when our northern hemisphere leans towards the sun we get a lot more light and that brings summer and in the winter we get a lot less light as we lean away. This we played by her sitting on my lap being the earth to my sun and she tilted away from me and I told her that it was first autumn and then winter and then she tilted towards me and I told her that it was spring and then summer as she was close. We also looked at it with the help of a ball featuring the earth, which is basically a plastic globe ball (it is out of date so not the best globe, but an added bonus is that one can kick it and play quite freely with it as well). We looked where Finland was on that and I showed her how it tilts and moves and talked about the seasons changing. Here, what also helps, kind of, is that we really do get a lot of light in the summer. So we have had many discussions on why she needs to sleep as it is still light outside. And in the winter, well, there is less discussion as she doesn’t have to sleep while the sun is out.

As for the earth being a globe, I wanted her to have that plastic globe and we spend time looking at it every know and then. Also the Finnish language is easy in that way that we say “maapallo”, which directly translated into English is “earth ball”. So seeing earth as a ball comes easier, I think.

These, the sun, moon and earth, have been very easy. The solar system needed a bit more thinking. I wanted her to know about the other planets, because I want her to locate herself in a bigger cosmos than just this one planet and country. Luckily a few things came together well. I found a nice children’s cd about our solar system. Most of it is nonsense but it had a good song about the planets and how they are organised around the sun. So we sung that for a bit. Then we played with the planets. We drew the planets on our pavement. We drew the sun and all eight planets as close to the colors we could with the chalks we had. Of course the dimensions and distances were nothing even remotely in scale, but then again, she is just four. This drawing was fun and I hummed the song we had sung together to remind myself as to what comes after what.

After drawing the planets we played a game of who is first. This works with my daughter in most things and worked here really well. One of us would name a planet and then we would race there and see who was first. Then we would race back to the sun or to another planet. This worked quite well, but even better was when she took her bottle of water to that planet first, so she did not have to try to remember them and run at the same time. This we played a few times before the rain washed our planets away.

Will these have games, explanations and uses of language teach her a wider cosmos, I hope so. In any case we have had a lot of fun and it is a topic that continues to interest her. It gives me great joy to hear her explaining to me how the sun is a star and moon revolves around the earth and the earth around the sun.

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