Light Up the Night

What better way to start a unit on space science than with a look at our beautiful moon?

By Ann Whittemore

crescent moon

To some people, there is nothing more lovely than the phases of the moon. There is something romantic about the glowing white surface waxing and waning through its orbital phases. Kids love the moon too. This makes space science a naturally motivating subject for your class to study, and the moon is a great jumping off point. There are several key concepts to teach about the moon: moon composition, its reflecting characteristics, moon phases, and lunar eclipses.

Lunar Composition

Ask your class what they think the moon is made of. I like to have them (depending on age) write a short one-paragraph response describing what they think the moon is comprised of and why they think this way. These answers become the basis for a class discussion. Use this discussion as an opportunity to clear up any misconceptions by providing an explanation of the moon's composition and surface. This would be an excellent time to bring in samples of rocks similar to those found on the moon and list their attributes. You can even compare them to other types of rocks.


Lunar Reflection

Does the moon glow? If the moon is cold, how does it make light like the sun? These are great questions to kick off part two of your moon lesson. The sun is extremely bright and its light travels 93.2 million miles to reach the Earth. It is also bright enough to bounce light off the surface of the moon, reflecting light. An experiment on reflection seems in order. Put a circular mirror on the back wall of the classroom, dim the lights, and then grab your flashlight. Ask learners what they think will happen when you shine your light on the mirror. Show them that the light wave from your flashlight (sun) bounce off the mirror (moon) and makes it appear to glow or give off light. This is a short demo but is a wonderful way to show how the moon does not generate light, but reflects light. It is also a great way to introduce a tricky lesson: moon phases. 

Lunar Phases

Try these ideas for helping learners understand the phases of the moon:

  • Have pupils take a bite out of a round cookie while they imagine the cookie is the moon. After each bite, they trace their cookie on a piece of paper. As they document the progressively smaller cookie shapes, it's similar to recording the phases of the moon. 
  • Students can make moon phase posters. As pupils learn about each lunar phase, they can draw the moon on a poster,  labeling each phase as they go. It may also be helpful for them to write a single sentence describing what they see as you show images of each moon’s phase. 
  • After moon-phase terminology is in place, break the children into groups. Give each group a flashlight and a ball or grapefruit. Have the child with the flashlight act as the sun, the child with the ball act as the moon, and the remainder of children in the group sit inbetween on the ground, acting as the Earth. Dim the lights and have the sun walk around the moon to show the Earth. This will show the different positions of the light from the sun that cause the moon to appear as different shapes in the sky. While this is going on, you can ask the children open-ended thinking questions to help them discuss and understand what is happening. Also, it is very important to make sure they understand that the Earth and moon (as a system) move around the sun, not the other way around. The rotation of the Earth around the sun is not the focus of this article, but can also be demonstrated at this time in a similar fashion. 
  • There are also scores of amazing video clips that show and explain the phases of the moon. These are great to show after your demonstration in order to drive home the concept.

Lunar Eclipses

Eclipses are cool. Get out those balls and flashlights again, because we need to discover what happens during an eclipse. NASA has some amazing video clips about the moon and so does Discovery Kids. Have learners view a few clips depicting lunar eclipses, then ask them what they think is going on. After a discussion, show the class what happens when the Earth passes between the sun and the moon, casting its shadow across the moon’s surface. Again, have a large ball as the Earth, a light source, and a slightly smaller ball as the moon. Shine the light on the moon ball, and then have a child holding the Earth ball to walk partially in front of the light source. Next have him step between the light source (sun) and the moon so that there is no light hitting the moon. This will visually demonstrate partial and full lunar eclipses. 

Lunar Writing Ideas

Reading and writing should be incorporated into any good science lesson. This will also help with meeting Common Core requirements:

  • Have learners conduct a peer-to-peer story time. Give each small group an informational book about the moon, then have them read it to each other in a round robin. You can walk around and listen in.
  • At the beginning of the unit, as homework each night, have them document the lunar phase they see in the sky. Have them mark the time, the date, and then draw an image of the moon. This activity is a great way to involve parents while reinforcing your daily school activities. At the end of the month they can construct a moon phase calendar depicting each phase as it changed in the night sky.
  • Have each child examine images, their moon phase journals, and reference the various books they’ve read. Then have them write a descriptive poem about the moon. Each line or two should describe or mention a phase of the moon. You can always start the poem with a sentence frame if needed.  This poem can accompany the child’s drawing of the moon; allow pupils to draw any phase they wish.
  • Have older children impersonate the moon, writing what a month is like. They can describe what they see, how they feel, and more importantly, how they change as they move through their phases. 

Overall the moon is a fascinating subject that kids love to discuss. Creative writing, hands on demonstrations, lively discussions, and great books can all help your class actively understand what the moon is all about.

Connecting to Common Core 

Here are some suggested standards, look for the parallel standards in the desired grade level: 

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.8 Recall information from experiences or gather information from print and digital sources; take brief notes on sources and sort evidence into provided categories.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.