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The Early Years

Earth & Space Science for Young Learners

Natural phenomena that is beyond our unassisted eyesight, whether the moons of a distant planet or a spider’s spinnerets, may still be of interest to young children who can learn about the topic in a developmentally appropriate way, often through play (Evitt 2011). Direct experiences with the night sky introduce children to the Moon, stars, and space. Noticing patterns while observing the Sun, Moon, and stars is part of the Next Generation Science Standards performance expectation 1-ESS1-1 Earth’s Place in the Universe (NGSS Lead States 2013). Children learn about our solar system, a place called “outer space,” and space travel through books such as The Moon Over Star (Aston and Pinkney 2008) and My Rainy Day Rocket Ship (Sheppard and Palmer 2020), television programs, and visits to museums.

Ann Caspari, Early Childhood Education Specialist at the National Air and Space Museum, has been developing programs for toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary aged children and their caregivers for a decade. Now some of Caspari’s and her colleague Diane Kidd’s work is accessible online (see Resources). I spoke with Caspari about her work and asked, “How early should educators begin teaching space science?” I believe that it is not that important for young children to learn about the solar system and that it is better to focus on things that are more easily observable. And yet, as with many other concepts that are difficult to fully understand, young children will no doubt encounter information about the planets and the solar system in their lives. If we do not provide some background information about the solar system through stories, songs, and play activities, they will still develop understandings that are naïve, incomplete, or incorrect. It is better that these understandings do not crystallize too fully before they encounter formal education about the solar system in upper elementary or middle school. When young children begin to notice the sunrise or sunset, the Moon in the sky, or the stars appearing in the evening sky, this is a good time to look up in awe and wonder together and enjoy the beauty of our Earth. The practice of stopping to enjoy the wonder of the amazing place we live in the Universe from a very young age helps to develop an appreciation for scientific phenomena that lasts a life time. As you observe together [over days and weeks], you may notice how the Moon seems to change shape or how the colors of the sunset are different. You may start to see that the positions of the Sun changes over time or that some stars seem much brighter or different colors. Making these observations together, perhaps drawing a picture or singing a song about them is the best way to begin to teach about space science.

See the full interview with Ann Caspari online (see NSTA Connection). When the museum opens again, visit in person!

Resources

Evitt, M.F. 2011. A Web of Learning. Science and Children 49 (1): 63–67. 

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Collections

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Story Time.

NSTA Connection

Download the interview and additional resources at https://www.nsta.org/science-and-children.


Peggy Ashbrook (scienceissimple@yahoo.com) is the author of Science Learning in the Early Years: Activities in PreK–2 and teaches preschool science in Alexandria, Virginia.

Boxes fuel the imagination.

Imagining Outer Space

Objectives

To encourage children to engage in play that incorporates their firsthand experiences with the concept of the universe beyond Earth [outer space].

No use of media can provide the same engagement of the senses that firsthand experiences deliver. Reading books and telling stories about human space travel can help children make sense of their prior experiences with media about space and their firsthand viewing experiences.

  1. Take children outside during the day or night to observe objects in the sky, including the Sun (never look directly at the Sun), Moon, and stars, allowing them to ask any questions they have about what exists past the sky and clouds.
  2. Watch “Flights of Fancy Story Time: Mission to Mars,” an original, illustrated, story about children who are interested to learn about human-built rovers that were sent to explore the planet Mars, and engage in imaginative play about being explorers on Mars. Or read books about children being inventive and repurposing household items to create a rocket ship (<i>My Rainy Day Rocket Ship</i>) and being inspired to build their own rocket as they watch the 1969 first Moon landing of humans (<i>The Moon Over Star</i>).
  3. As you read or re-read the books or use video media (see <a class="sec" href="#SC_12_S1">Resources</a>) to listen to a story or learn more about our solar system, listen to children tell about their experiences and ideas. Young children reveal their ideas and reflect on their observations during group discussions and individual conversations. The open-ended questions you ask to prompt children’s thinking will depend on what book, story, or other resource you share with them. Unless the group has had a shared experience that all can relate to, be sure that some of your questions do not require any prior firsthand experience or use of nonfiction media about space.
  4. Provide drawing materials and other media for documenting first hand experiences and designing imagined space craft.

Provide materials for children to create tools for exploring space (e.g., space craft, suits, air tanks). As they choose materials, ask them to explain what purpose it will serve and why they need it. Children may say, “This bottle lid is a button to push to start the rockets,” or “We need helmets to protect our heads and keep air in for us to breathe.” Children who have had many opportunities to learn about space travel can be asked to share their evidence for their claim—to say how they know what is needed for space travel. For a teacher-led role-play lesson play for an entire class, see Dolenc (2016).

Creating a rocket ship for exploration.

Creating a rocket ship for exploration.

MATERIALS

  • Time to make observations of the sky (day and/or night)
  • Children’s books and stories about imaginary trips into space, and about current or historical space exploration (see Resources)
  • Materials for building a child-size space vehicle and astronaut suits: Cardboard, paper bags, tape, markers, recyclables, blocks, chairs, bedsheets, and any other useful and safe materials.
  • Drawing/writing materials
References

Aston D.H., and Pinkney J.. 2008. The Moon over star. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Dolenc N., Wood A., Soldan K., and Tai R.H.. 2016. Mars Colony: Using role-play as a pedagogical approach to teaching science. Science and Children 53 (6): 30–35.

Flights of Fancy Story Time: “Mission to Mars.”

NASA Mars Exploration Program

Sheppard M., and Palmer C.. 2020. My rainy day rocket ship. New York: Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Exploring the Planets.

Earth & Space Science Teaching Strategies Early Childhood Pre-K

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