MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > What sizes are the planets and how do they move around the sun?

What sizes are the planets and how do they move around the sun?

Akbar Rasheed Muhammad
Saint Paul Academy and Summit School
Saint Paul, MN 55104

Based on original activity from Sally Spooner, Sunset Elementary School, Cody, Wyoming


This is a whole class activity in which the class will physically model how the planets move around the sun. I will have the balloons blown up, they will be labeled with the names of the planets, along with different sizes, and colors. Students will see all the planets smallest to biggest and their distance from the sun. The students will learn about vocabulary words: solar system, revolution, rotation, and orbit.

Learning Goals

During the lesson the students will:
Learn the planets' names
Learn the definition of a planet
Observe that planets are different sizes
Observe that planets are different distances from the sun
Define solar system, revolution, rotation, and orbit

Context for Use

This activity is for 8th grade. I would explain this activity indoors then go outside, where there is plenty of room to move. However, it can be adapted for a classroom, too. I would allow about 45 minutes for this lesson since it is an abstract concept to students this age level. I do this activity for my Astronomy unit. I think this activity could be easily adaptable to almost any setting.

Subject: Geoscience:Lunar and Planetary Science
Resource Type: Activities:Field Activity, Classroom Activity
Special Interest: Field-Based Teaching and Learning
Grade Level: Middle (6-8)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Planetary Science

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching Materials: Balloons, string, and globe

Ask students, "Do you know what a planet is?" Have students give their suggestions, then put the real definition on the board. Next ask the students if they know that planets are different sizes and distances from the sun. Explain to the students that they will be planets today and will be modeling how planets revolve, rotate, and orbit the sun.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have the balloons ready to go before class and I have backup balloons prepped just in case. Students love going outside to do this activity. To help students grasp the definitions of rotation and revolution. I will use some student volunteers to come up. One will spin the globe and walk around the student who will be the "sun." This will show rotation and revolution. If students continue to get confused with rotation and revolution have them try to remember that the middle sound of "rotation" has the same vowel sound as "day" and it takes the earth one day to rotate. I will use this activity to show the relationship between the moon and the earth, too.


I have a whole class discussion and I ask the students who think they can come up in front of class and show us what the different vocabulary words orbit, revolution, rotation, and orbit revolution look like with their bodies. So students will physically be demonstrating their understanding. Students will also be asked what the names of the are planets and their distances from the sun.


3. Earth and Space Science
1. The Earth is the third planet from the sun in a system that includes the moon, the sun, seven other planets and their moons, and smaller objects.

Benchmark Compare and contrast the planets and the moons of our solar system in terms of their size, location and composition.

References and Resources