Ready, Set, Learn! We're Off to the Moon
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Sam ran across the play yard yelling, “I have a lightsaber so no one can get me!”
“My lightsaber is bigger. You can’t get me,” Jason responded.
It was the start of a new school day and yet another round of Star Wars play among a group of 4- and 5-year-olds in my preschool class. Some children brandished their invisible lightsabers and others ran from them. Every day they played basically the same game, showing little interest in art experiences, science explorations, or math games.
Tim, the assistant teacher, and I wanted to expand this Star Wars enthusiasm into more creative play and learning opportunities. During our brainstorm session, Tim suggested that we start a mission to the moon. The children could be astronauts and learn about space travel and the moon. I was enthusiastic about the possibilities for problem solving and building a rich curriculum based on this idea.
Introducing the moon
We gathered useful information from a trip to the library and NASA’s website, www.nasa.gov. Thinking that we could use cardboard boxes for building spaceships, I asked families for cereal boxes and local grocery stores for paper bags and big cardboard boxes.
At circle time a few days later, I dimmed the lights to make it like nighttime. I told the class, “Teacher Tim and I know many people love the Star Wars movies. Those are pretend stories. Do you know that real people called astronauts went into outer space in real spaceships all the way to the real moon? I’m going to read you a story about traveling to the moon.”
The children were fascinated by the story of the first moon landing, One Giant Leap, by Robert Burleigh. At the end of the story I said, “You have powerful imaginations. I think you could become astronauts and pretend you are traveling to the moon. What do you think you’d need to be an astronaut?”
The children nearly launched themselves off the floor, hands waving.
“We need rockets.”
So began our mission to the moon.
Launching into outer space became the focus of the entire curriculum for several weeks. It provided opportunities to connect science, math, literacy, language, art, and drama. We read books and discussed different parts of a space mission. The children made a giant spaceship from large cardboard boxes and pretended they were rocketing to the moon and beyond. Mission control consisted of old telephones, obsolete computer keyboards, headphones, and other equipment made from milk jug lids set up on a table. The children made jet packs from cereal boxes, space helmets from paper bags, and smaller spaceships from paper towel and wrapping paper tubes. The children became astronauts.
Best of all, the explorations appealed to all the children in the class, not just the Star Wars crowd. The sense of adventure in blasting into space inspired imagination and cooperation.
Some early childhood educators believe that outer space can be too abstract and remote for young children. However, we discovered many age-appropriate, hands-on explorations that helped the preschoolers learn about our nearest neighbor in space while satisfying their desire to be big and powerful.
Literature and dramatic play
During circle time Tim and I read aloud books that inspired discussions about what children would need to get to the moon. We acted out the dramatic story “An Adventure in Space,” by musicians Greg and Steve.
The children brainstormed the different adventures they might have.
“We might see aliens.”
“We might run out of gas.
” “We might crash.”
Later, sitting in their spaceship and at mission control, the children tried out their ideas.
“Check the controls.”
“3-2-1 . . . Blast off!”
“Emergency. Emergency. We’re going to crash.”
“Turn the wheel!”
Math and science
Astronaut food. After reading books and information from the NASA website (www.spaceflight.nasa.gov/living/spacefood/index.html), the children wanted to try eating the same way astronauts do—without the pull of gravity to keep food on plates and drinks in cups. They measured and mixed Tang, a powdered orange drink that became popular when astronauts took it into space in 1965. They ate applesauce in a way similar to how astronaut John Glenn did in 1962.
Astronaut jumping. Math came alive when the children measured how high they can jump on Earth and learned how high that would be on the moon. The moon has less pull from gravity than the earth because it is smaller. You can jump six times higher on the moon than on the earth. Although preschoolers may not fully understand gravity, they understand more and less and that the moon is different in many ways from the earth.
We made a simple high jump stand by placing two small, rectangular unit blocks a yard apart and laying a yardstick across them. The children took turns jumping over this first height. If they knocked the yardstick off the blocks, they helped put it back and went to the end of the line for another turn. In the next round, the children decided if they wanted to raise the bar by adding a block to each side or if they wanted to keep it at the same height as before. They used a second yardstick to measure how high they jumped in inches. Then we stacked several unit blocks to show how high a moon jump would be. A jump four blocks high became a stack of 24 blocks. The children loved counting 24 blocks!
Crater explorations. We showed children photos of the Moon’s surface. We introduced the word crater, a bowl-shaped hole created when a chunk of rock from space crashes into a moon or planet. We invited the children to explore how craters are created using pretend moondust. (Damp sand works.) We provided several balls of varying weights and sizes (marbles, ping pong, golf, tennis, baseball, and foam) and various round lids (such as those from milk jugs and yogurt containers) for measuring by comparison.
I put more than four inches of moondust in a large tub and invited children to predict what would happen when they dropped a ball from shoulder height without throwing or pushing it down. Would the dust fly out? Would the size of the crater be as big as a yogurt lid or smaller? After they dropped the ball and observed the crater size, they smoothed the dust with a tongue depressor. We continued the exploration by dropping objects of different sizes and weights from different heights. Children drew pictures and dictated their observations about the relationship between the size and weight of the ball and the size and depth of the crater.
Art and science
Astronaut drawing. To help children imagine how it would feel to work inside a small spaceship without gravity, we challenged them to work in unusual positions. We taped drawing paper to the underside of tables so children could draw pictures while lying on their backs on the floor.
Gravity painting. This exuberant (but messy) experience uses six old socks filled with sand to make space rocks. The children dipped space rocks in a mix of tempera paint, starch, and liquid soap (this mixture extends the paint and makes it easier to wash out of clothes). Then they held them above a long sheet of paper. I emphasized that gravity would do the work. The children just let go of the socks to see what would happen. Splat!
Storytelling. Children who rarely came to the writing table loved drawing pictures of spaceships and dictating space adventure stories. I used the following story starters: Where would you like to travel in space? What do you think it would be like to live on the moon? What would you see on a trip to the moon? An adult wrote down the children’s stories, and I read them aloud at story time.
We celebrated the conclusion of our moon mission by acting out the first moon walk. The children turned the sandbox into a model of the moon, complete with craters. They wore their jet packs and space helmets. They took turns walking on the moon, planting the American flag, and saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
We’re ready for new adventures in learning. To infinity and beyond!