Solar System

Earth & Space Science
Evolution in Living Systems

Objects in the solar system as seen from Earth have various sizes and distinctive patterns of motion.

Benchmark: Apparent Size of Light Sources

Demonstrate how a large light source at a great distance looks like a small light that is much closer.

For example: Car headlights at a distance look small compared to when they are close.

Benchmark: Orbits of Planets & the Moon

Recognize that the Earth is one of several planets that orbit the sun, and that the moon orbits the Earth.


Standard in Lay Terms 

MN Standard in Lay Terms

Understand how light travels and how distance can change how a big light looks.  Also understand that Earth orbits the sun and the moon orbits the Earth.

Big Ideas and Essential Understandings 

Big Idea

  • Earth and the other planets orbit the sun.  When we observe planets from a distance, they appear small because of the great distance.
  • "Students should begin to develop an inventory of a variety of things in the universe.  Planets can be shown to be different from stars in two essential ways - their appearance and their motion." (Benchmark for Science Literacy)
Benchmark Cluster 

MN Standard Benchmarks  Demonstrate how a large light source at a great distance looks like a small light that is much closer.  For example: Car headlights at a distance look small compared to when they are close.  Recognize that the Earth is one of several planets that orbit the sun, and that the moon orbits the Earth.

**Note: Benchmark can be taught in conjunction with Physical Science Benchmarks and related to light and shadows.

The Essentials

(Taken from this page)


NSES Standards:

See this page.

Earth and Space Science, Content Standard D:

As a result of their activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of:

  • Objects in the sky
  • Changes in earth and sky
Developing Student Understanding

As children become more familiar with their world, they can be guided to observe changes, including cyclic changes, such as night and day and the seasons.  By observing the day and night sky regularly, children in grades K-4 will learn to identify sequences of changes and to look for patterns in these changes.  As they observe changes, such as the movement of an object's shadow during the course of a day, and the positions of the sun and the moon, they will find the patterns in these movements.

AAAS Atlas

        See this page and this page and this page.

  • A large light source at a great distance looks like a small light source that is much closer. BSL p. 63 (ID: SMS-BMK-1775)
  • Stars are like the sun, some being smaller and some larger, but so far away that they look like points of light. 4A/E5 (ID: SMS-BMK-0130)
  • The patterns of stars in the sky stay the same, although they appear to move across the sky nightly, and different stars can be seen in different seasons. 4A/E1 (ID: SMS-BMK-0126)
  • The earth is one of several planets that orbit the sun, and the moon orbits around the earth. 4A/E4 (ID: SMS-BMK-0129)
  • The earth is one of several planets that orbit the sun, and the moon orbits around the earth.  4A/4  (AAAS p. 43)

Benchmarks of Science Literacy

See this page.  

By the end of 5th grade, students should know that:

  • The earth is one of several planets that orbit the sun, and the moon orbits around the earth. 4A/E4
  • Stars are like the sun, some being smaller and some larger, but so far away that they look like points of light. 4A/E5
  • A large light source at a great distance looks like a small light source that is much closer. 4A/E6**

Common Core Standards

The following math standards could be tied into Benchmark

  • In the 3rd grade Math Strand of Geometry and Measurement, the standard is Understand perimeter as a measurable attribute of real world and mathematical objects. Use various tools to measure distances.  Students can be made aware of the measurement units used to determine the distance between Earth and the sun and the other planets' distances from the sun.  Identifying a unit of measure for space can help students understand the vastness of the distances of the planets.  They can also use measurement to compare the relative size of the planets to one another.
  • The 3rd grade Standard Compare and represent whole numbers up 100,000 with an emphasis on place value and equality can be addressed within a discussion of planets' distances from the sun.  Students can be exposed to reading and working with large numbers and teachers can address Benchmark Compare and order whole numbers up to 100,000, and expose students to larger numbers.
  • Additionally, the 3rd grade Math Strand of Data Analysis could be included to graph the planets' distances from the sun or the planets' relative sizes, addressing Math Benchmark Collect, display and interpret data using frequency tables, bar graphs, picture graphs and number line plots having a variety of scales. Use appropriate titles, labels and units.

The College and Career Readiness Anchor standards can be incorporated into this standard in many ways:

Text Types and Purposes

1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.  

Students can write about why light changes as it gets closer and further away and justify their ideas with observations. (Benchmark

2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Students can write to explain the Solar System. (Benchmark

3. Write narratives and other creative texts to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Students can write an about imaginary travels through the solar system.  The children's book, The Magic School Bus: Lost in the Solar System by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen is a great launch pad for this activity. (Benchmark


Student Misconceptions 
  • The ideas that "the sun is a star" and "the earth orbits the sun" are counterintiuitive to elementary students and are not likely to be understood in elementary grades.  See this page.
  • Students' grasp of many of the ideas of the composition and magnitude of the universe has to grow slowly over time.  Moreover, in spite of its common depiction, the sun-centered system seriously conflicts with common intuition.  Students may need compelling reasons to really abandon their earth-centered views.  Unfortunately, some of the best reasons are subtle and make sense only at a fairly high level of sophistication.  (BSL p. 62-63)


This vignette fits with Benchmark

Earth Science in 3rd grade develops a basic understanding of the parts of the solar system.  Notice how the teacher focuses on an introduction to the solar system, but does not spend time developing an understanding of the size of planets or distances from the sun.

Mr. Andromeda's 3rd grade students arrive at school to see their classroom decorated with the sun, moon, stars, and planets.  They see planets hanging from the ceiling and a picture of the solar system on their bulletin board.  They look at the morning message on the Smart board and see the inquiry question, "Would you like to vacation on Mars?" along with a T-chart labeled "yes" and "no."  Students record their answers, and then Mr. Andromeda begins the lesson.  He reads aloud The Magic School Bus: Lost in Space and asks questions such as: Is the Earth all alone in space?  How do we know there are other planets?  Are all the planets the same size?  If you answered yes to the morning message, do you think visiting Mars would be like being on Earth?

After reading the book, Mr. Andromeda has students do a think-pair-share to identify the names of the eight planets and he has a student record them on the Smart board.  After listing all the planets, Mr. Andromeda breaks students into cooperative groups of three and assigns them each a planet.  Students then look at grade-appropriate resource books on the planets and make a picture of their assigned planet.  In the meantime, Mr. Andromeda has drawn a sun on a large piece of butcher paper.  As groups finish their planet, they can place it in its appropriate order from the sun.

To incorporate writing standards into the lesson, Mr. Andromeda finishes the lesson by having students write postcards to family members, describing a trip they took to the planet they drew.  They can design an appropriate stamp for the planet they visited, and then add their postcards to the mural.

Lesson adapted from: Martin, R., Sexton, C., & Franklin, T. (2005). Teaching Science for All Children: An Inquiry Approach. Allyn & Bacon. pp. 517-519.


Instructional Notes 

Selected Labs and Activities

Gathering Light: Benchmark

In this activity, the light collector is not a lens or a mirror, but a hole in a cardboard box.  Light enters through the hole and lights up the box.  Users can change the size of the hole and see how the amount of light entering the box changes.  The results show why increasing the aperture of a telescope increases the amount of light it can collect.  This activity is for K-8 and should be modified to be appropriate for 3rd grade

Foss Sun, Moon and Starts Kit Activities:

Activity 3: THE STARS

Students look to the night sky to observe the stars and are introduced to the constellations people have named.  Students engage in simulations to understand why the stars appear to move across the sky during the night and why different stars can be seen from Earth at different seasons.  Students read about the role of telescopes in astronomy research and about star scientists.  (Benchmark  See this page.

Instructional Resources 

Instructional suggestions/options

Accessing your students' prior knowledge of light and the solar system through discussion, graphic organizers or journaling is important.  This aids in understanding your students' knowledge base, linking your instruction with assessing and addressing student misconceptions.

The use of science notebooks is valuable for students to record and organize their observations of the sky, weather patterns and shadows.  Students should use their science notebooks to make drawings of their shadows throughout the year.  They should make diagrams of the solar system and patterns of light.  The science notebook is also a permanent record to show changes over time to use in their analysis of the universe.  To see examples of science notebooks, go to this site

To learn more about the use of science notebooks, see this site

Teaching about space involves many types of diagrams, tables and charts.  It is valuable to explicitly teach and model how to read and interpret these visuals and have students practice making their own.  See McTigue E. & Flowers A. (2011). Science visual literacy: Learners' perceptions and knowledge of diagrams. The Reading Teacher, 64 (8), pp. 578-589. See this page for more information about how to teach about reading diagrams

"No particular educational value comes from memorizing their (planets) names or counting them, although some students will enjoy doing so.  Nor should students invest much time in trying to get the scale of distances firmly in mind."  (Benchmarks for Science Literacy)  See this page.

"Some ideas about light and sight are prerequisite to understanding astronomical phenomena.  Children should learn early that a large light source at a great distance looks like a small light source that is much closer.  This phenomenon should be observed directly (and, if possible, photographically) outside at night.  How things are seen by their reflected light is a difficult concept for children at this age, but is probably necessary for them to learn before phases of the moon will make sense."  (Benchmarks for Science Literacy)  See this page.

Matkins, J, & McDonnough, J. (2004). Circus of Light. Science and Children. 41(5), pp. 50-54.         

This article describes the light-based science circus the authors developed and tested with a fifth-grade class at Blackwell Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia.  For this study of light, the hook was a thought-provoking question related to a misconception many children and adults have about being able to see an object even though there is no light shining on the object: "If you were in a completely dark room, would you be able to see anything?"  The students were divided over the answer.  Several insisted you could see in complete darkness, while others argued you had to have some light.  The authors led them to the second step of the circus by explaining they were going to do some activities that might show them the answer to that question.  The article is packed with information about activities to illustrate the properties of light to students.  (Benchmark

New Vocabulary 


  • Astronomer: a scientist who studies objects in the universe including the stars, planets, and moons.
  • Axis: an imaginary line around which a sphere, like a planet, rotates.
  • Planet: a large, celestial body orbiting a star.
  • Reflect: to bounce off an object or surface.  Light reflects from the Moon.
  • Satellite: an object, such as a moon, that orbits another object, such as a planet.
  • Season: the four times during the year that bring predictable weather conditions to a region on Earth.  The four seasons are spring, summer, fall, and winter.
  • Shadow: the dark area behind an object that blocks light.
  • Solar system: the Sun and the planets and other objects that orbit the Sun.
  • Telescope: an optical instrument that makes objects appear closer and larger.
  • Unaided eyes: looking at something without the use of a telescope or microscope.

Sun Vocabulary:

  • Orbit: to move or travel around an object in a curved path.  Earth orbits the Sun.
  • Star: a huge sphere of hydrogen and helium that radiates heat and light.  The Sun is a star.
  • Sun: the star around which Earth and other planets orbit.
  • Sunlight: light from the Sun. (SRB)
  • Sunrise: the time of day when the Sun is coming over the horizon in the east.
  • Sunset: the time of day when the Sun is going below the horizon in the west.

See this page.

Technology Connections 

Solar System Montage: Benchmark

This is a JPEG image of the planets in the solar system arranged as a montage.  It is part of the GRIN (Great Images in NASA) library of images, which consists of photographs and other illustrations that are browsable by subject, NASA Center, or keyword.

Build a Solar System: Benchmark

This site from the Exploratorium provides directions to make a scale model of the Solar System and gain a sense of the relative sizes of the sun and planets.  The user chooses the diameter of the sun, and the site calculates the diameters of the planets and their distances.  Also, links to many solar-system-related sites are provided.

Amazing Space: Benchmark

Amazing Space is a set of web-based activities primarily designed for classroom usage.  All lessons are interactive and have actual photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.  Each activity has an overview, lesson plan, links to the National Science Education Standards, science background, and other resources and links.  Downloadable worksheets are included.

KidsAstronomy.com: Benchmark

KidsAstronomy.com was created by astronomy buff and elementary school teacher Hiram Bertoch.  The site is kid-friendly, balancing text and tech, interactive, visually pleasant, and content rich; a great learning resource that is fun to explore.


Assessment of Students

1. How does light change as it gets closer?  It gets ___________________. (Level 2: Application/ Benchmark

a. smaller and harder to see

b. thinner and clearer

c. smaller and dimmer

d. bigger and brighter

Correct answer: d

2. Your classmate prints this picture from the Internet to use in his presentation about the Solar System.


Explain to your classmate why this picture is incorrect.  (Level 3: Analysis/ Benchmark




A student's correct answer should include the error in the position of the Earth and the sun.  The student should also recognize that there are planets missing from the diagram (but does not need to be able to name them).

3. Why does the sun appear to move across the sky each day?  (Level 2: Application/ Benchmark

a. The Earth revolves around the sun.

b. The sun revolves around the Earth.

c. The Earth rotates on its axis.

Correct answer: a. The Earth revolves around the sun.

4. Why do stars in the night sky look so small?  (Level 2: Application/ Benchmark



A correct student answer should include that the stars are very far away and a light at a great distance looks small.

5. Why does the sun look bigger than the other stars?  (Level 2: Application/ Benchmark



A correct student answer should include that the sun looks bigger because it is so close to the Earth. 

Ref: Keely, P., Eberle F., & Tugel, J. (2007). Darkness at Night. Uncovering Student Ideas in Science Vol 2. NSTA Press, pp. 171-176.

Assessment of Teachers

  • How does light travel?
  • How does distance change how big (and bright) a light looks?
  • What orbits the sun?  The Earth?
  • Assessment Probes

Ref: Keely, P., Eberle F., & Tugel, J. (2007). Darkness at Night. Uncovering Student Ideas in Science Vol 2. NSTA Press, pp. 171-176.

Keely, P., Eberle, F., & Dorsey, C. (2008). Me and My Shadow. Uncovering Student Ideas in Science Vol 3. NSTA Press, pp. 185-190.


Struggling Learners 

Struggling and At-Risk

Make hands-on drawings and models of the solar system in order to allow students to develop an understanding of the sun at the center of the universe and the relative size of the planets to each other.  (Benchmark

English Language Learners 

The study of the universe is vocabulary heavy with many of the space-specific words having no other context.  Take time to introduce and revisit vocabulary frequently.  Allow students to make picture dictionaries or flashcards with important vocabulary and create a lot of time for practice.  The study of the distance and size of the planets also lends itself well to teaching comparative and superlative adjectives (-er, -est).  For example, Saturn is farther from the sun than Earth.  Mercury is the closest planet to the sun.  The Earth is bigger than Mars.  Jupiter is the biggest planet.

Extending the Learning 

To explore light and engineering, students can make a sundial. (Benchmark 


Many cultures around the world have myths about the sun, showing its importance in our lives.  Share stories and pictures from the Chinese, Aztecs, Egyptians, etc.  This website has resources for sun myths.  (Benchmark

Special Education 

Use total physical response activities to model the solar system.  Take students outside or in the gym, give them a planet and have them "orbit" the sun.  Have another student be the moon and "orbit" the Earth while the other planets are still in orbit. (Benchmark


Classroom Observation 


Administrators should see students observing light directly outside and also in photographs and through models.  They should see students interacting and making observations with light.  They should see students exploring hands-on models of the solar system clearly showing the sun as the center of the universe.


A Flag for Your Planet  Benchmark

In this activity, families choose or are assigned a planet to design a flag for.  The instructions include information about flags here on Earth, and a list of flag references.  Families can gather information about their planet online at www.nineplanets.org, which is similar to what's on the "Planet cards" sold by Family ASTRO.