Build Your Own Solar System

Graphic showing orbits of the outer solar system.
Capturing the massive scale and vast distances of our solar system can be challenging. These activities will help.

Creating a scale model of the solar system with your students is a great way for them to experience the vastness of the solar system and the relative sizes and locations of the planets and other solar system objects. Below are links to several classroom-tested activities and resources for background information. Some of these can work in a classroom. For others you will need to go outside and use a football or track field or a quiet street.

 
How Much Space Do You Have?
Help Me
Classroom
Schoolyard
Park
Neighborhood
Computer

Alternatively, take a field trip to an existing solar system scale model. See if there is one near you on our scale model exhibits page.

Model size and distance: Some scale-model activities that can work in the classroom are accurate for size of the planets but do not correctly scale the distances between planets. Other activities are accurate with respect to the distances, but the sizes are not to scale. These can lead to misconceptions unless you do both activities together and discuss each model's limitations. Of course, it is best to use a scale model that is correct for both size and distance, but you may not have the space.

Engage Grades 5 and Up: Note that these activities are appropriate for 5th grade or older students who are able to explore the geometry of Sun-Earth-Moon relationships in three dimensions. Many children under Grade 5 are not able to fully conceptualize the Earth's spherical nature and their relationship to it, and so they are unable to create an accurate mental model. Even with older students it may be advisable to begin with scaling activities that are in their experience before doing these scaling activities.

Questions about classroom approaches or activities? Classroom ideas to share? Let us know.