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Space day

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By Peter Rileyauthor of Scholastic’s Hot Topics series

Last year we offered you the chance to win a topic day. Now get ready for blast-off with the winning school’s space exploration

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Having won the Child Education PLUS Hot Topic Day competition, Sebert Wood Community Primary School in Suffolk challenged me to create a Hot Topic Space Day for their two Year 1 classes. I began liaising with them on a structure for the day while they worked out a plan to group their 60 children for the different events, so everybody got a chance to fully take part in both the explorations and investigations.

Almost all children have an interest in space, and through television, films, books and comics, so the first activity was to bring everyone together for a question and answer session to sort the children’s ideas into an order for exploration – stars, planets, space travel and aliens!

Shining stars

The children split into three groups to investigate stars, moving around the activities in their classrooms and activity area. In the first session they learned that stars could be different colours. They experimented with the idea by shining torches on the darkened ceiling covered with red, blue or yellow cellophane filters. They then got together in small groups and shone their torches to make constellations. A particular favourite was a wavy line they decided was a snake. After this everyone made their own constellations with sticky stars on black paper, challenging their friends to identify them. Rockets and dogs seemed popular.

Finally, the children discovered how stars twinkled by looking at their stars through bubble wrap, moving it up and down in front of their eyes. The bubble wrap simulated the movement of air in the atmosphere, which makes the stars appear to twinkle.

Planetary motions

It was then time to investigate planets. Everyone formed a circle in the hall while I set out a model of the solar system in the centre, made from fruit, peppercorns and icing sugar. A yellow melon formed the Sun, while peppercorns formed Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. A pinch of icing sugar formed the asteroid belt, an orange represented Jupiter, and an apple with a cardboard ring represented Saturn. Two plums formed Uranus and Neptune, with a peppercorn used to represent Pluto. Some of the children thought they might try this at home.

While everyone got started creating their own solar system by colouring, cutting and pasting, groups of 15 children joined me on the school field to become a moving solar system.

Ten children were given a ball each, representing planets or the Sun, and five children were given plastic blocks, representing asteroids. Having arranged themselves in order across the playing field, I beckoned each ‘planet’ and ‘asteroid’ in turn to begin its orbit around the Sun until everyone was moving. As they turned, I explained that gravity is the force that keeps planets in space, pointing out that the ‘planets’ furthest from the Sun were taking longer to make their orbits – just like in space.

Having successfully made orbits around the Sun, the children formed groups of three so that they could model how the Moon moves around the Earth, while the Earth moves around the Sun. While in their orbits, they soon realised that some movements in space are quite complicated!

Space exploration

After lunch everyone gathered to talk about space travel. I explained how rockets work, how long it takes to travel to destinations in space, and that spacecrafts use parachutes to land.

The children discussed what kind of hardwearing material could be used to help a spaceship land without crashing, before investigating for themselves using a standard parachute design and a range of different materials.

The children’s parachutes were then tested outside. The most unusual one (made by Rory) was an upside-down aluminium foil parachute, which the spaceship dropped into before landing gently on Earth.

Alien existence

Having thought about spaceships landing on other worlds, I asked the children to consider what these other worlds might be like and what conditions might be needed for life to exist. I explained that scientists are using telescopes to look for stars that wobble and ‘blink’ as planets go around them and block out some of their light. With the children’s help, I demonstrated the Goldilocks Effect, which shows that a planet needs to be at a certain distance from a star for it to be ‘just right’ for life.

I then showed the children a series of pictures about an alien I had devised. My alien hatched from an egg. At first it took the form of a lizard, but then stood upright and developed a neck frill to use for signalling, and a dome with nostrils like a dinosaur for emitting booming sounds.

The day ended by reviewing all the activities and setting the scene for follow-up activities, including modelling rockets and generating aliens and alien worlds, based on my ideas.

Making it a success!

The key to the success of the day was early planning, collecting all the items needed and having them to hand, in sequence, on the day. Excitement at the presence of a visitor and the nature of the topic kept the group on a ‘high’ all day, so it was important to have short, whole-group discussions to balance the excitement. The activities were sequenced, with a linking story for continuity. For this day the ‘story’ was:

Hot Topics!

Peter Riley is author of Scholastic’s Hot Topics series, which was nominated for an ERA at this year’s Education Show. Find out more about the series at the Scholastic Shop.

  • Let’s look at the stars and make some sense of them.
  • How are the planets different?
  • How could we travel through space?
  • What might we meet?

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