This is a fun craft/activity to help little kids learn about planets and the stars. There are many ways to make a planetary telescope; this is one simple way that’s easy for busy parents to help their kids make their very own telescope and learn about the solar system.
What you’ll make: (nonworking) telescopes that your kids can use to view the planets, stars, and, well, just about anything else.
What you’ll need: Construction paper or cardstock, tape, hole punch, straight or safety pin, and pictures of the solar system or constellations.
Prep time: 5 minutes, for downloading pictures of the solar system from this NASA web site, or for finding your own pictures in a book, magazine, or newspaper. Set aside a piece of dark construction paper (blue and green work best) and cut a 4″ square of black construction paper for each child. Take the pin and poke holes in the black square. Punch a single hole in the paper if you have a hole punch handy. If you’re feeling really brave, punch the pinholes in the design of one of the constellations… but this totally isn’t necessary (I didn’t think of it — thanks to Kim in NY for the idea!).
The words you use and the way you implement the activity is up to you, of course. The idea is to use the rolled up construction paper to look at the planets, and then tape the black paper with pinholes to the end and look out the window or near a bright light to see the “stars.” In the rest of this post, I’ll share with you a bit of how it went when Widget (age 6) and I did this project with Little Bear (age 4)’s preschool class, just because it was such fun and I want to remember. I’ll spare you the pauses, interruptions, and little kid stories, but just know that there were dozens and it was awesome.
Me: Have you ever been outside late at night and seen the stars? (Most of them had, and they wanted to tell me all about it! After a bit, I continued.) They’re beautiful, aren’t they? Did you know that for a very long time, that’s the best that anyone could see the stars? But people have always wondered about the night sky, and they wanted to be able to see the stars and planets better. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a man named Galileo made a new tool so he could see the stars better. He called it a telescope. (At this, I rolled a piece of paper into a cylinder, lengthwise, and sealed it with a piece of tape. A staple at each end works better but may be sharp.)
This is a tool that scientists use to see the stars and planets better. Would you like one to use today? (Widget handed a cylinder to each child as I talked.) A real telescope has mirrors and lenses (touch eyeglasses to show what a lens is), but this one will work fine for today. Is everybody ready to use their telescopes to see the stars? (chorus of yes)
Does anyone know what our closest star is?
The sun! That’s right, the sun that you see in the sky every day is actually a star, and while it looks warm and friendly to us, when the mommies and daddies who work at NASA made a big enough telescope, they found out that it really looks like this: (show them the real picture of the sun; for very young kids, fold the picture back so that only the largest image shows). What does that look like to you? Do you think it’s cold there, or hot? That’s right, it’s very hot! It’s so hot that it warms the planets in our solar system. Would you like to see some planets now?
Mercury is the planet closest to the sun (show them the picture of Mercury). It is very, very hot on the side closest to the sun, but it has a secret — it turns around (rotates) very, very slowly, so one side is almost always hot — and the other is very, very cold! On Mercury, it takes almost a year for the planet to turn enough so that it goes from day to night and night to day again, so one side is really hot, and the other side is really cold. Does that sound like a fun place to live? (Kids say no.) Let’s get a better look, through our telescopes! (Widget shows the picture to the kids, moving it slowly so that each can get a really good look in turn.)
Venus is the next planet. (Show picture, kids look at it through telescopes while we talk.) It’s still pretty close to the sun. Do you think Venus is hot or cold? (hot) Venus is hot, and it is not a great place to live.
Let’s see. What colors are on this next planet? (Show the picture of Earth; it is blue, green, and white). That’s right. Does anyone know what this planet is? That’s right, Earth! What do you think the blue is? (water) What do you think the green is? (grass, trees, or land) And what do you think these white swirly things are that are way up above the water and the land? That’s right, clouds! Isn’t this planet beautiful? Let’s pretend we’re out in space and we can see it with our telescopes. Ready, set, go! (Show picture as kids look at it through the telescopes.)
And so on and so forth. After Mars (red, hot, dusty, with occasional dust devils; feel free to compare the red color to the look of a rusty nail if your kids have ever seen one – it’s actually very much the same kind of thing), stop at the asteroid belt and ask them what an asteroid looks like. They might be disappointed – and that’s ok – it does really just look like a rock. That’s because it IS a rock.
Then the gas giants – Jupiter, with its swirly storms; Saturn, with its beautiful rings; Uranus and Neptune, which I admit I did together because we don’t know a lot about them yet and the kids were getting fidgety; and icy Pluto, which used to be a planet but now has its own special name: dwarf planet, and it hangs out at the edge of the solar system with lots of other dwarf planets that mommies and daddies have found with great big telescopes … and some that haven’t even yet been discovered.
Encouraging the kids to look at each picture through their very own telescope helped keep even the 3 year olds engaged for this 30 minute activity, and I was very happy with the way this activity came out. It was a fun way to introduce these little ones to the solar system where we live, and I left the black squares with pinholes with the teacher for a craft later in the morning — just tape the squares to the end of the planetary telescope and hold it up to a window or in a well-lit room so that they can see the stars, even if they’re not allowed to stay up late very often to see the real ones. I loved doing this activity with my kids and the kids at preschool, and I hope this helps you do this activity or another one with your kids too!
More kids solar system activities can be found at NASA Kids.