Phases of the Moon for Young Children

Recently I went in to my daughter’s primary school and spent the afternoon running an activity for the 60 children aged 6-7 in her year group. They had been studying the Solar System and I’m happy to offer my services as an expert of all things astrophysics. I ended up delivering a lesson which introduced the key science skills of observation, spotting patterns and making a prediction as part of the topic of the phases of the moon.

Misconceptions and Remedies

There are many common misconceptions regarding the Moon which children arrive with at secondary school. It never ceases to surprise me how many 11 year olds don’t think the Moon is ever visible by day, despite the fact that they have all seen it! This is easily fixed with a few reminders of times they have seen the Moon outside, often it is actually in the sky during the lesson, or photos can be shown with the moon in daylight.

They have no grasp of the relative sizes, distances or position of the Moon with respect to the Earth. I have often spent a lesson with tennis balls and plasticine blobs getting the students to make scale models with the Moon 30 times the Earth’s diameter away. I always discuss how the photos we commonly see of the Earth-Moon as a pair are doctored to bring the Moon much closer – this really does need explaining to students.

Typical Earth-Moon image:

Actual Earth Moon separation:

Students without fail believe the Moon orbits the Earth’s equator. In fact the Earth is tilted by 23 degrees to the ecliptic and the Moon is a further 5 degrees above that. Reminding students of the Earth’s own tilt is often enough to get them to realise the Moon must alternate its position above and below the equator. They also benefit from discussion about the locations where solar eclipses occur to further realise the Moon can’t stay over the midline of the Earth. This nicely introduces the idea of the ecliptic plane of the Solar System and the various orbital tilts that planets have. The idea of planetary alignment and paranormal events is quite common in science fiction and fantasy shows on TV, conjunctions are never perfectly aligned however and you can explain why.

So there are some significant gaps in the children’s understanding of our Earthly relationship to our nearest neighbour in space. In an attempt to get the children thinking about what they could see of our Moon with their own eyes, I planned a Phases of the Moon lesson.

Lesson Plan – Outline

AIM: to introduce the names for the phases of the Moon and to recognise the shapes associated with the names. To observe the shape of Moon over the course of a week and predict what it would look like the following week. More able students will be able to offer an explanation in terms of the shadow face/illuminated face of the moon and our position with respect to those two hemispheres.

TIMING: 45 minutes

5 minutes: Elicitation and questions

20 minutes: Copy and name the moon phases, practise naming the phases

10 minutes: Observe the “moon” in pairs

10 minutes: Discuss conclusions and explain observation task

LOCATION: A room large enough for 30 children to sit and with space to walk around the illuminated ball (see below). Curtains or blinds will be needed to darken the room.

APPARATUS: One large inflatable gym ball, roughly 60cm in diameter, with a stool to sit it on; a bright torch positioned to shine straight onto the ball from the side; some A4 pictures of the Moon printed from NASA’s website and therefor publicly useable (all NASA pictures are usable for educational purposes). A worksheet and pencil each.

ORGANISATION/BEHAVIOUR MANAGEMENT: The children need to sit and write on their sheets for part of the lesson. They sat on the floor or a bench in 3 rows. Ideally I would give them clip boards to use next time. When pairs of children are observing the ball the remainder of the class needs to be kept busy. During this time one teacher practised the shapes and names with them again which worked well.

Lesson Plan – Activity Details

ACTIVITIES:

  1. Elicitation and questions: Firstly students are seated facing the front and asked what they know about the Moon. Do they know what it is made from? How can we see it? Does it always look the same? Why do you think that? How do people on Earth find out about the Moon?
  2. Introduce vocabulary: Following this the students are given a pencil and worksheet, the teacher holds up a picture of the Moon and asks for the name for its shape (full moon, gibbous moon, half moon, crescent moon, new moon). Some students will know some of the names. They copy the word down and sketch a picture of the moon in that phase. Repeat until all 5 are done.
  3. Memorise shapes: The students put down their pencils and worksheets and try to make the moon phase shapes with their arms or bodies (depending on how much space you have). The teacher leads by saying a phase and the children have to find a way to make themselves resemble the shape.
  4. Observe the shadow face/illuminated face: in pairs, the students come and look for the dividing line between the bright face and the shadow face of the gym ball “moon”. They look from the front, side and behind and link the shape of the bright surface that they can see to the shape of the Moon at different times of the month.
  5. Observation experiment: The rear side of the worksheet has a chart where the children can write the day or the week, whether they could see the moon (due to cloud cover), was it visible at day or night and what shape it had. They go away and complete this during the week – realistically in children aged 6-7 most will do 3 or 4 observations out of a possible 7.
  6. Make a prediction: The final task on the worksheet is to make a prediction about what shape the Moon will have in a few days time. The students are using the pattern they have seen in their observations and linking it to the order of the phases introduced in the class activity.

 

FOLLOW UP: It was left to the class teacher to follow up this activity throughout the week with reminders and a discussion on their results the following week. The vocabulary of the phases of the moon can be easily incorporated into their continued work on the Solar System topic; in written work describing a trip to the moon, in art work, as part of maths learning about shape (sphere, hemisphere, crescent etc) and fractions (whole, half, quarter).

Evaluation

So how do I think it went? I have never taught science to such a young group of children before and on the whole they were interested and well behaved.

The worksheet seems to be pitched at the right level, most students could read it and understood what to do however some students needed to be shown where to draw the picture and where to write the word. Some students took a little longer to write than others and there was discussion about how best to show shadow and a New Moon which was interesting, eventually they solved these issues for themselves.

The A4 pictures of the moon phases were large enough to be seen be everyone as I sat in front of the group.

They enjoyed standing up and making moon shapes with their arms over their heads, a big circle for a full moon, D shape for half moon, banana shape for a crescent and so on. If I had thought this through a bit more I could have taken them to the centre of the hall (we were in the main school hall) and made a bit more of this.

Some children really wanted to touch the ball and trace the line between the shadow and bright side, so if I repeated the lesson I would take some plasticine or a coil of rope for the ball to sit in so it didn’t wobble around so much on the stool.

The one thing I felt needed improving was the time when I showed the illuminated big ball to the pairs of students. Those waiting in their seats were not occupied enough. Partly this was due to were I had had to position the ball, the sun was very bright through the windows that afternoon and the corner of the hall was the only suitable dark enough spot even with the curtains pulled. That meant far fewer students than I had anticipated could walk around the ball at a time, I had planned for 8-10 students to walk and view both sides, front and back at the same time. One class teacher stepped in and led the group in practicing the shapes and tested them on the words while their classmates took turns to look at the ball. The other teacher didn’t and the students eventually became restless.

I would prepare a word search or pairing/matching game for this period of the lesson if I did it again to reinforce the vocabulary while they waited.

With one group we had a good discussion about how scientists find things out which led nicely onto the homework observation task. We ran out of time with the other group which meant the task was explained with less context. This bothered me but the students didn’t seem to mind. The students very much enjoyed asking questions about how scientists work, one asked me if scientists have rows with each other about who is right, which of course they do very politely via academic publications.

Additional Resources

moonphasepictures – Word document of A4 lack and white Moon phase photos

Phases of the Moon – students’ worksheet

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