Distance of Common Stars
How would you describe and what are the distances
of the common stars to third graders?
It is always difficult to explain extremely large distances or
numbers to young children. One of the most common ways that these
topics are taught is to reduce the scale to distances that they can
understand. Here is a link to a question on explaining planetary distances:
If you scale the distances down so that Mercury is now 1 inch from
the sun instead of 10 yards, then the nearest star would still be
225,925 miles away. Since the Earth's circumference is 24,906
miles, you would have to circle the Earth 9.07 times! The distance
to the moon is 238,857 miles, so the moon would be approximately
where the nearest star is! Remember, this is only the nearest star
and it take reducing down to this tiny scale to comprehend how far
the closest star is (4.3 light years)! Other starts are millions of
light years away--the logistics of trying to explain these distances
are very difficult.
The same reasoning can be applied to explaining atoms as well--but
this time, you have to increase the distances to the usable scale
that they can comprehend.
The third grade is not at a point of brain development to comprehend
great distances. It is a waste of time to try. However, you can
make arbitrary models to show distances. One that is simple, does not
require much effort, but is actually inaccurate which I do not think is the
point. Use a paper clip on the floor, and assuming you have floor tiles
place the earth very close to the starting point. Illustrate the Sun by
placing one at the other side of the room. The nearest star would be
somewhere in the distance of the classroom window. The paper clip can
not be seen without a large telecope.
That is about the best you can do pragmatically and realistically.
Certified K-6 Teacher
Click here to return to the Astronomy Archives
Update: June 2012