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Explaining the Solar System
Children of all ages find looking at the stars at night an intriguing and exciting activity, especially during meteor showers, eclipses, and other celestial anomalies. Explaining the universe to children can provide a challenge, because we all know children are filled with question after question, many of them starting with the word "why." The age of the child will determine just how simple you need to keep your explanations. The best place to start, of course, is with our own solar system.
No matter how old the child is, use visual representations to show them how the eight planets and one Plutoid – since Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet – circle around the sun. If at all possible, try to make your representations approximately the correct size, so they can see how some planets are larger than others. You can use colored paper, styrofoam orbs, or even play dough in different colors.
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Teaching Kids About the Universe
When children are looking up into the night sky, explain to them that they are looking at the universe, an endless expanse of stars and planets. Let them know that we live in a galaxy of thousands of stars, called the Milky Way, and that there are millions of galaxies in the universe. From there, explain that our solar system is just one of many in the Milky Way. The simpler you can keep the concepts at first, the easier it will be to explain the expanse of black sky and twinkling stars.
The concept of the universe is one that even some adults have a difficult time understanding. Explaining it to children, especially young ones, requires a simplified approach. They are not going to understand that stars make up constellations, let alone be able to identify them until they are considerably older. This is why we recommend using visual representations to help them understand how our solar system works. If you find yourself getting frustrated when trying to teach children about the solar system, switch tactics and try teaching them about the sun and the other planets one at a time.
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Learning on the Computer
Children who have a serious interest in astronomy may benefit from the variety of computer programs that are available, both online or as standalone additions to your system. These programs start with the basics of the solar system and work their way out, offering vivid pictures and examples. They also cover more advanced concepts, such as nebulas, comets, asteroids, and black holes, among other things. As long as you remember to start with the easiest concepts first, you’ll be able to help children understand how the universe works.
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Planets2008. (Supplied by NASA; Public Domain; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Planets2008.jpg)