Making Moon Phases

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People are naturally mesmerized and curious about everything about space. Kids are excited to learn about how and why space works. Misconceptions are commonly made. In fact, my own science instruction was SO ABSENT in my formative years that I really didn’t know much about how the earth or space worked until my 30s when I graduated from college.  In fact I didn’t like science in my youth because I thought science was boring and involved only worksheets (truly!!). Yes, I am gasping about my own experience, but it is true. Unfortunately, it is true for far too many children. And then the children grow up to be adults thinking such ideas like the sun revolves around the earth. Hands on science is so essential to clear up false thinking as children.

Some main objectives with teaching moon phases is 1) to identify how the earth, moon, and sun appear in space 2) that the moon, earth, and sun are spherically shaped  3) to demonstrate the movement of the earth and moon 4) to model the moon phases 5) to chart the moon phases using a calendar over a cycle. In my TPT store, I offer a FREE phases of the moon foldable.

If you want a cool lab that you can keep forever but also takes hours to build (am I selling this or what??) then the following lab is a great one. In fact, my principal saw me teaching this and said it was the best way she’s seen moon phases being taught. You need the following per group of four students:

  • a hula hoop
  • 8 smooth styrofoam balls (they are significantly easier to paint)
  • black paint
  • drill & 8 screws OR extra strong glue

This activity ends with a hula hoop having 8 “moons” around one side in equal increments indicating each moon phase. First, buy hula hoops WITHOUT flimsy foil wrapped around it. Second, paint half of each of the 8 styrofoam balls black PER HULA HOOP. Dry.  Make sure there is a pretty straight line of black paint, and that they all look the same. Third, mark the hula hoop in equal eighths. Choose to either drill screws through the hula hoop into the styrofoam balls to secure them OR use extra strong glue instead. The benefit of the strong glue is that you don’t want the styrofoam balls to move. I have had the styrofoam balls twist on the screws which is a problem. Make sure you glue the half painted black and white styrofoam balls ALL the same direction since you want the hula hoop to have the appearance that one side is facing the sun and one side is lit up with the sun’s light.

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When you do this introductory activity, students should have already been explicitly taught that 1) the moon and earth are spheres —-NOT circles, 2) the moon orbits earth, 3) the appearance of the earth and moon.

I darken the room and turn on a lamp indicating the sun. I want the light to only be on one side of the room, so it will light up the styrofoam balls facing the “sun.” Have one student acting as the earth stand inside each hula hoop while the rest of the group is holding the hula hoop up in place. THE PERSON REPRESENTING THE EARTH MOVES each time you indicate movement since you want to show how the moon orbits the earth. Explain that since the groups are NOT orbiting the lamp, the earth will move rather than the moon in this demonstration.

To start, make sure all the students representing earths are all facing the same direction….which is the sun. They are staring straight ahead looking at the styrofoam ball that is completely black facing them. To model how the side of the moon facing the sun is lit up, make sure the white side of the styrofoam balls are facing the lamp or “sun” to start off. Make sure the class is under control, so that they can hear you explain each step well. Have all earth students in all hula hoops move at the same time. I explain that the earth is staring at the sun and moon in a straight line, but that the moon is blocking all the light, This is the phase called NEW MOON. Have the earth person rotate slightly counterclockwise, so that he/ she is now facing the second phase. THE GROUP MEMBERS HOLDING THE HULA HOOP DO NOT EVER MOVE….ONLY THE EARTH PERSON MOVES. The earth person should see that a little bit of the white side of the styrofoam ball representing sunlight appears on the right side of the styrofoam ball. This is the waxing crescent phase. Have the earth person move again, each time noticing how the light appears to grow on the right side until they see the full moon, and then shrink down on the opposite side. Explain that many things in science experience patterns and cycles just like our beautiful moon. Switch out students who get to be the earth person, so that all students become the earth and can observe the changing of appearance in the light on the moon. At the end of the lesson, all students should understand that the moon orbits earth, the moon gets its light from the sun, and that the moon’s light changes throughout the month based on where it is in its orbit around the sun. Voila!

Check out these moon and earth movement websites. FOSS websiteinteractive weebly,  Wonderville.

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