One of the wonderful things about teaching kids about space is that there’s so much quality information out there, especially from NASA. The unfortunate part is also that there’s so much information out there, and sorting through it all, on all the different web sites, can be a real challenge. (Hopefully I’ve helped with that below.) Another wonderful thing is that you need pretty little to get kids excited about space and space travel; these subjects are so spectacular that they dazzle all by themselves.
What Kids Will Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- build and play with a gravity well
- launch ballon rockets
- analyze crustal samples from a “mystery planet”
- eat astronaut meals
- demonstrate moon phases with a lamp
- keep a moon journal
- perfect a parachute for safe landings
- make moon craters
- design their own Golden Record
- and more
(Designed for preschool and early elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable to older children and adults, too.)
- My Very First Space Book, Emily Bone [Amazon | Usborne] — An extremely clear book about a variety of space topics (planets, astronaut training, Mars rovers), particularly suitable for preschoolers (but will likely be too basic for slightly older children with a history of interest in space).
- The Ultimate Book of Space, Anne-Sophie Baumann and Olivier Latyck [Amazon | Bookshop] — This interactive book is filled with impressive pop-ups and flaps, along with loads of information about space and space exploration. Younger children will be impressed by the pop-ups and might well also love the book, though the content is most suited for kids kindergarten+.
- Little Kids First Big Book of Space, Catherine D. Hughes and David A. Aguilar [Amazon | Bookshop] — This National Geographic book has big, beautiful photos of space and planets, and the information is very clear, even for quite young readers. It seems accurate, though it could use some updating.
- The Skies Above My Eyes, Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer [Amazon | Bookshop] — This incredibly impressive book folds out into a very long strip, showing exactly what’s above our heads: all the layers of atmosphere and all the way into space, too. It’s labeled and beautifully illustrated. A brilliant way to show children all the complexities of the sky and space.
- Planetarium, Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja [Amazon | Bookshop] — Surely one of the most beautiful and visually striking books about the universe ever made. Much of the content is suitable for high school students and adults, but there are pleasures here for younger children, too, especially if a grown-up is reading with them. The atmospheric, antique-looking images, presented in an oversized book, would likely be fascinating for anyone.
- A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg [Amazon | Bookshop] — This book tries to help children imagine gigantic numbers. Although it does talk about stars, gravity, and the planet, it’s more about numbers and comparisons than anything else (but is perhaps quite helpful when talking about the size of the universe or the sun or other hard-to-fully-grasp things).
- My Rainy Day Rocket Ship, Markette Sheppard and Charly Palmer [Amazon | Bookshop] — A little boy gathers all the components he needs from around his house for a make-believe space mission. If you’re going to be doing pretend play about space with preschoolers, this book might kick start some imaginations.
- The Darkest Dark, Chris Hadfield and the Fan Brothers [Amazon | Bookshop] — Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who has done loads of wonderful videos for kids from the ISS (see below), wrote this book the tension between his childhood fear of the dark and his dream to be an astronaut. Hadfield’s book features beautiful illustrations of the Apollo 11 landing and astronauts in space.
- Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, Brian Floca [Amazon | Bookshop] — This book about the first moon landing is perhaps the closest evocation of space travel and moon landing in a picture book. The front cover features a quotation from Michael Collins, who remarked that the book made him feel like he was in space again, and once you’ve read the book, too, that might not seem too hyperbolic. Although it’s specifically about the first walk on the moon, it also details a lot about traveling in space generally (how astronauts eat and how they return to Earth, for example), and the huge illustrations are fascinating to study.
- Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13, Helene Becker and Dow Phumiruk [Amazon | Bookshop] — A picture book biography of Katherine Johnson, whose mathematical calculations were crucial in many space flights and in bringing Apollo 13 home safely. The book touches on the importance of math (and imagination) in space exploration and Johnson’s experience getting an education in a segregated schooling system. Great for kindergarten+.
- The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon: The True Story of Alan Bean, Dean Robbins and Sean Rubin [Amazon | Bookshop] — Alan Bean was not only an astronaut but a trained painter, too. After he walked on the moon, he realized that even the best photos taken on the lunar surface couldn’t convey the experience of actually being there. So he decided to paint his experiences to help people better visualize what it feels like to be on the moon. This is a wonderful true story and also a great example of how seemingly unrelated disciplines and skillsets can come together to create something new and fascinating and valuable.
- Moon!: Earth’s Best Friend, Stacy McAnulty and Stevie Lewis [Amazon | Bookshop] — This series of books is very cute (but somewhat cuter and more breathless than I would prefer) and packs in a lot of information about the moon. The books might be useful for kids who don’t normally love reading non-fiction. Also check out Mars!: Earthlings Welcome [Amazon | Bookshop] and Sun!: One in a Billion [Amazon | Bookshop].
- Next Time You See the Moon, Emily Morgan [Amazon | Bookshop] — A large, beautiful, and wonderfully clear book about the phases of the moon.
- You Are the First Kid on Mars, Patrick O’Brien [Amazon | Bookshop] — A realistic-feeling exploration of what it might be like to be the first kid sent to Mars. There are lots of intriguing details here, like space elevators, the interior of the spacecraft to Mars, and the kinds of buildings you might live in once you get there. The idea of sending people to Mars is so incredible and intriguing, it’s fantastic that there’s a good book for kids to help them experience that wonder.
- The Stuff of Stars, Marion Dane Bauer and Ekua Holmes [Amazon | Bookshop] — This gorgeous books describes the journey from the Big Bang to you. It’s full of wonder and amazement and relishes contemplating all of this mind-bending information… and Holmes’s marbled illustrations are a stroke of genius.
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, I Know Exactly What You Are, Julia Kregenow and Carmen Saldaña [Amazon | Bookshop] — Kregenow fits loads of facts about stars into a parody of the famous children’s song. At times it’s a little strained, but it’s a lovely way to get a lot of information quickly, and every page is filled with gorgeous art. At the back of the book, Kregenow goes page by page, elaborating on the information in the book (so it’s useful as a reference, too).
- The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney [Amazon | Bookshop] — For older kids, kindergarten+, the true story of how a little girl came up with the name for Pluto. With dark, atmospheric illustrations, it focuses on the feelings of anticipation and hope that your own ideas might make their mark on history.
- NASA — NASA has put a vast array of information about space online, but the challenge is to comb through it all. You might find NASA’s Space Place, its site aimed specifically at kids, quite useful. Space Place also has a variety of free printable posters. But the coolest images and information are on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory site and the Solar System Exploration site, for example.
- Apollo in Real Time — If you want to experience the Apollo missions in real time, go here. You can start the missions at one minute to launch (quite exciting), and then you can zoom forward in time to watch moon landing footage, too. This site is so impressive, with historical video, beautiful photos, and original audio, all linked together seamlessly.
- It’s Okay to Be Smart’s space videos — An excellent collection of science videos about space. Many are fascinating even for kindergarteners, but these are educational and fun for people of all ages, too.
- Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System app — In this gorgeously designed app, kids can explore the solar system (by unzipping the sun to see inside, for example), take quizzes on what they’ve learned, and build their own rocket to fly into space. A lot of fun.
- Universe in a Nutshell app — A clever and beautiful open-ended exploration app that has much of the same appeal as Powers of Ten, allowing users to zoom in and out by powers of ten to look at everything from the known universe right down to Planck lengths.
- TinyBop Space app — TinyBop’s apps are often less directive than others, and this one lets kids fiddle around with our solar system. They can add debris to Saturn’s rings, rotate the planets, compare the weights of the planets and the sun, and even zoom out all the way to Voyager 1.
- NASA Spot the Station — A tool for finding out when the International Space Station is overhead your location and how to find it in the sky. You can also sign up to be alerted when there’s a good viewing opportunity in your area.
- Stellarium web planetarium — A beautiful program for viewing the night sky and constellations. (Available as a desktop program and as an app.)
- AstriaGraph — Inspect and track satellites and debris orbiting Earth.
Solar System Intro
Read: My Very First Space Book, Emily Bone (pages on our solar system — great for preschool) or
Little Kids First Big Book of Space, Catherine D. Hughes and David A. Aguilar 6-8, 19-23, 35, 91, 101 (pages on our solar system — great for preschool+) or
The Ultimate Book of Space, Anne-Sophie Baumann (pages on our solar system — this book is better for kindergarten+)
A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Powers of Ten (a 1996 remake of the 1977 classic, which explores the scale of the universe on macro- and micro-levels)
Read: What Is the Big Bang?
Watch: The Solar System’s Formation
You can also download a poster from NASA about how the solar system formed.
Look: The Big Bang, Planetarium, Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja [Amazon | Bookshop] 87
Read: The Stuff of Stars, Marion Dane Bauer and Ekua Holmes [Amazon | Bookshop]
Read: What Is a Galaxy?
Watch: Solar System 101
Solar System Size and Distance
Where Does the Solar System End?
Searching for Other Planets Like Ours
Read and look: The Skies Above My Eyes, Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Jumping from Space! Red Bull Space Dive (features peril and worry, but he lands just fine)
Space jobs 1:
Watch: Star Bound | We Belong to Each Other
After watching the above interview, you might be inspired to look up Kepler 452b, a relatively nearby planet in the habitable zone.
Activity: Universe in a Nutshell app — A clever and beautiful open-ended exploration app that has much of the same appeal as Powers of Ten, allowing users to zoom in and out by powers of ten to look at everything from the known universe right down to Planck lengths.
Activity: One classic activity is to measure out (on a very small scale) the distance between planets in our solar system and mark the planets with chalk or little objects. These activities are great! You might also check to see if your local science museum or planetarium has permanent markers for the planets outside their buildings. Many do, and they’re often beautifully done and very exciting for kids.
Watch: Minute Physics: What Is Gravity?
OK Go — Upside Down & Inside Out (music video filmed in zero-g)
OK Go – Upside Down & Inside Out BTS – How We Did It
Activity: Ball experiments
- First, do the classic gravity experiment: hold two different objects (for example, a big ball and a small ball) and ask the kids which one will hit the ground first. You can try this with a variety of objects after, too.
- Then get a variety of balls and try bouncing them individually. Formally or informally, measure how high they go. Then try dropping two balls together with the smaller ball on top of the larger ball and observe the results. (Either do this outside or drop the balls in the second part from a shorter height — they really go flying, and you could cause some serious damage!). Experiment with balls of different weight and bounciness and make predictions about what combinations will launch balls the highest.
Watch: A 1 Kilometer “Ball Drop” On Solar System Bodies
Activity: Build and demonstrate a gravity well
Here is one clear example of how to use a gravity well in teaching, and here’s another. While many videos recommend constructing your own frame for a gravity well out of PVC tubing, you can get great results just using a hula hoop as the frame. You’ll need a hula hoop, quite large binder clips, and one yard of stretchy fabric (15-20% spandex). Clip it the fabric to the hula hoop, balance it on a series of chairs or stools, and you’re ready. You’ll also want several round weights for the middle. An orange works well for a lighter weight, and an exercise ball (like this 2lb. one) works well for the heavy weight.
Astronaut Life: Inside the International Space Station
Read: My Very First Space Book, Emily Bone (pages on living in space and spacewalks) or
The Ultimate Book of Space, Anne-Sophie Baumann (pages on the ISS and astronaut training)
Read: Astronaut Handbook, Meghan McCarthy [Amazon | Bookshop] — A simple and fun book about astronaut training, suitable even for preschoolers. Elementary school students might want something a bit more complex, but this communicates a lot of basics.
Before each video, you might ask kids to predict how these activities will be in space: “How do you think astronauts wash their hair? What would happen if they took a shower in the same way we do here on Earth?”
Watch: Sleeping in Space
Chris Hadfield Brushes His Teeth in Space
Karen Nyberg Shows How You Wash Your Hair in Space
Getting Sick in Space
Chris Hadfield — Nail Clipping in Space
A haircut in space
Chris Hadfield Demonstrates How Astronauts Wash Their Hands in Zero-G
Wringing Out Water on the ISS — for Science!
Space Ping Pong!
Watch: Spacewalk videos
NASA Astronauts Space Walk Outside the ISS
A Spacewalker’s Emergency Life Jacket
Read: The Darkest Dark, Chris Hadfield and the Fan Brothers [Amazon | Bookshop]
Reading this book after watching the above videos is wonderful, since it’s by and about astronaut Chris Hadfield, who made all of those wonderful videos for children about what life is like inside the ISS.
Watch: How Does Food Get Delivered to Space?
Chris Hadfield’s Space Kitchen
Chris’s Kitchen: Dessert in Space
Water Recycling on the ISS
Watch: How To Drink Coffee in Space
This 11-minute video will be a struggle for young children without a grown-up breaking things down for them, but it has fascinating information about how fluid behaves in space and the challenges of engineering on Earth tools for use in space.
Activity: Space lunch
Make astronaut sandwiches like Chris Hadfield did in the above video (“Chris Hadfield’s Space Kitchen”), with tortillas, peanut butter, and honey. You can also have a selection of freeze-dried foods, like fruit and yogurts drops (like for babies). Using a kitchen scale, you can also weigh freeze-dried strawberries and regular strawberries to see how much lighter the freeze-dried versions are. Meal replacement bars are also astronaut-friendly, but make sure they’re not crumbly granola (go for something closer to a Larabar). Of course you can try the classic astronaut ice cream sandwiches, if you have them, but another astronaut dessert is simply bite-sized cookies, which avoid pesky crumbs floating about.
Watch: How Do We Launch Things into Space?
Watch: Apollo missions taking off in real time
You can start the missions at one minute to launch (quite exciting), and then you can zoom forward in time to watch moon landing footage, too. This site is so impressive, with historical video, beautiful photos, and original audio, all linked together seamlessly.
Watch: U.S./German GRACE-FO Launches Aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9
Activity: Rocket measuring activity (for pre-K-1st grade)
Measuring from tallest to shortest, shortest to tallest, and using the rockets as non-standard measuring tools
Activity: Balloon rockets
Launch a balloon rocket and estimate how far it will travel. Full instructions here.
Inspect and track satellites and debris orbiting Earth.
Watch: TRUE Limits of Humanity — The Final Border We Will Never Cross
Is there a limit to how far we can travel in space? A fascinating but highly complicated and somewhat long video that might still be of some interest for a little while, with a grown-up interpreting.
Read: How Does NASA Communicate with Spacecraft?
Activity: Hear tiny sounds with a Super Sound Cone
Full instructions here.
Activity: SCaN Message Decoder
For kindergarten+. Worksheet here.
Space Exploration: The Moon
Read and/or listen: Legends of the moon from around the world
Legends from Mexico, Ivory Coast, Algeria, China, and North America, beautifully told.
Read: Moon, Stacy McAnulty and Stevie Lewis [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Moon 101
Read: Next Time You See the Moon, Emily Morgan [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Moon modeling
Stick a sharpened pencil into a styrofoam sphere to make a moon you can hold by a handle. Take the shade off a lamp to make a sun and sit next to it. As you turn around in front of the lamp, you’ll see the phases of the moon replicated on the styrofoam ball. An excellent and very fun experiment. Full instructions here.
Activity: Keep a moon journal
Track the phases of the moon over a month. Printable template from NASA here. If you can’t see the moon, for whatever reason, you can check out NASA’s great moon phase viewer here.
Look: NASA’s Moon Overview
Watch: Apollo 13 Videos of the Moon in 4K
Read: Moonshot: The light of Apollo 11, Brian Floca [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Apollo 11 – The First Moon Walk: Things You Wanna Know
Look: First Moon Landing 1969 (from Apollo in Real Time)
To see the first steps on the moon, along with pictures and audio, click on “Mission Milestones” near the bottom left and then scroll to find “Coming down the ladder.”
Read: The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon: The True Story of Alan Bean, Dean Robbins and Sean Rubin [Amazon | Bookshop]
Look: Moon in 3D
Activity: Make and analyze moon craters
First, read NASA’s in-depth moon guide for information about the moon’s terrain and how it was formed.
Then simulate the lunar surface by combining layers of flour, sprinkles, and cocoa powder in cake pans. Drop a variety of objects into the surface (from a variety of angles and heights) and examine the ejecta patterns. From examining the crater, what can you tell about the object that made it? Full instructions and video here.
Watch: Shadows Near the Moon’s South Pole
Watch: Earth Rising on the Moon
Space Exploration: Mars
Read: Mars!: Earthlings Welcome, Molly McAnulty and Stevie Lewis [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Mars 101
Read: You Are the First Kid on Mars, Patrick O’Brien [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Could We Actually Live on Mars?
Look: Mars in 4K
NASA’s Mars overview
Activity: The sounds of Mars
Listen to Earth sounds, then hear how they would sound on Mars; listen to Mars sounds; then record your own message and hear how your own voice would sound on Mars. (Try a recording with long stretches of both very high pitched and low pitched sounds.)
Look: Mars landing sites
Read: Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover, Markus Motum [Amazon | Bookshop]
My Very First Space Book, Emily Bone (pages on Mars rovers)
Or: The Ultimate Book of Space, Anne-Sophie Baumann (pages on Mars and moon landings)
Watch: NASA Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover) Mission Animation
Compare to: NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Landing Animations
Activity: Design a parachute for safe landing
Mars rovers have to have excellent parachutes for soft landings on the planet. Here, kids can try out different shapes and materials for parachutes to determine what parachute types might work best. Full instrutions here.
Watch: Mars in a Minute: How Do Rovers Drive on Mars?
Curiosity at Martian Scenic Overlook (view and route that the rover took to get there)
Opportunity: NASA Rover Completes Mars Mission
Space jobs 2:
Watch: Behind the Spacecraft — Perseverance — The Next Mars Rover
Behind the Spacecraft: Protecting Mars from Earth Bacteria
The Courage to Invent: A NASA Roboticist Tells Her Story
Watch: NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Landing Animations
Look: Learn About Perseverance in interactive 3D
Watch: NASA Mars 2020 Rover Sample Collection Animation
Look: Mars helicopter (check out “Five Things,” “Anatomy,” and “How the Helicopter Is Released”)
Mars Ingenuity Helicopter, interactive model
With 3D glasses (like these):
Watch: Watch NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Fly in 3D
More Mars images in 3D
Watch: This Is the Rover of the Future
Space Exploration: The Rest of the Solar System
Watch: How To Terraform Venus (Quickly)
Read: Jupiter Overview and 10 Need-to-Know Things About Jupiter
What Are Jupiter’s Moons Like?
Read: Saturn Overview
Watch: Huygens touch down on Saturn’s Titan moon
Look: What would Earth’s skies look like with Saturn’s rings?
Watch: The Sacrifice of Cassini
Read: Uranus Overview
Watch: The Uninhabitable Planet Uranus (from Cosmos)
Read: Neptune Overview
Activity: Analyze crustal samples
Present kids with varied rock samples from a (supposed) mystery planet. Give them sorting tools (like tweezers) and ask them to sort the sample. What can they tell about this planet from this sample? Full instructions here.
Voyager 1 & 2 and the Golden Record
Watch: The Story of the Voyager Expedition
The Sounds of Earth (brief, beautiful video with a sampling of the contents of the Golden Record)
The Gold Record Decoded (optional watch)
Look: Voyager’s Golden Record
Watch: These Are the Images NASA Wanted Aliens to See
Look: Photos from the Golden Record (selections — for reference)
Listen: Sounds of Earth from the Golden Record
Also available on the NASA site.
Listen: Music from the Golden Record
Activity: Your Golden Record
If you were to send your own Golden Record into space, to tell us either about the Earth or about yourself, what would you include? Pick around 10 items and say why. (Kids can even take photographs for this or put together a playlist, if they like.)
Listen: Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe
(Carl Sagan chose “Kepler’s Harmony of the Worlds” to be on the Golden Record.) More information about Spiegel’s album here.
Stars: The Sun
Read: My Very First Space Book, Emily Bone (pages on stars and constellations)
Or: The Ultimate Book of Space, Anne-Sophie Baumann (pages on stars)
Sun!: One in a Billion, Molly McAnulty and Stevie Lewis [Amazon | Bookshop]
Read: Top 10 Things to Know About the Sun
Watch: Sun 101
Solar Eclipse 101
How Small Are We in the Scale of the Universe? (With younger kids, you might need to pause and explain this periodically or all at once at the end.)
Space jobs 3:
Watch: The Woman Who Stared at the Sun
Activity: Earth to sun comparison using a nickel and a door
A simple demonstration to help kids grasp the size of the sun. There’s not much more to know than that the sun is the door and the Earth is the nickel, but full instructions here.
Read: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, I Know Exactly What You Are, Julia Kregenow and Carmen Saldaña [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Fly Through a Nebula 163,000 Light Years Away (Celebrating 30 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope)
(Quite a technical video, but so beautiful and awe-inspiring that many children will be transfixed, and grown-ups can help them by breaking down or narrating over the video, too.)
Watch: The Largest Star in the Universe — Size Comparison
Watch: What Is a Black Hole?
Ultimate Guide to Black Holes
Activity: Make a galaxy pinwheel
Printable template and instructions here.
Look/Activity: Stellarium web planetarium
Double-click to zoom, and remove “atmosphere” at the bottom if you can’t see anything at first.
Activity: Hole punch constellations
To replicate existing constellations, use these templates, perfectly sized to go on the bottom of 5 oz. Dixie cups. You could also use these templates with just a flashlight. Or, to make fantasy constellations of your own, you can try this method, with a hole punch.
With Dixie cup projectors, if you’re getting a double/blurry projection of your constellations, you might want to take the top off your flashlight (so it’s just an exposed bulb).
For hole punch constellations with younger children, consider having a child-friendly, reduced effort hole punch that they can operate themselves, like this one.
Activity: Pretzel and marshmallow constellations
Finding print-outs suitable for this activity (not too complicated, the right size) that are also accurate is somewhat tricky. These generally seemed pretty good.
To help kids visualize the constellations as pictures, you might also print out the plates of whichever constellations you use from 1824’s Urania’s Mirror, which can be found here.
Read On, Grown-Ups
- Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Gregory None [Amazon | Bookshop] — This book is written for middle schoolers+, but there’s plenty in here to help adults learn how to explain space (and science generally) to kids. Tyson’s writing is filled with humor and relatable analogies, and the book is useful for understanding the Big Bang, the scale of the universe, the elements, and how scientists collect information about the stars. Tyson also writes clearly about dark energy and dark matter. It’s entertaining reading that adults could go through in a couple of hours — and younger children with a passion for space might enjoy going through parts of this book with a grown-up, too.
- Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks [Amazon | Bookshop] — This entertaining and very informative graphic novel follows Mary Cleave and many of the other first women in space, including Sally Ride and Valentina Tereshkova. The first part of the book covers the challenges women faced even to be considered for space exploration, but most of the book is about their experiences once they began training at NASA and going into space. There are many wonderful details here, like (Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura) Nichelle Nichols’s role in recruiting talent for the space program, and so much humor and wonder, too. It’s a very fun way for older children (late middle school+) and adults to learn about the history of space travel and life in the ISS.
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