Phases of the moon seem pretty straight forward until you ask a child to explain what causes them. The problem with moon phases is that kids become good at saying the right words, but don’t actually see what those words mean. While I can play the motions of the Sun, Moon, and Earth out like a short movie in my mind, many students struggle to create this visual on their own.
While we often have students read, write, draw, or watch simulations about Moon phases, it is difficult for them to have a true visual-spatial understanding of this process. To solve this problem, I put together an activity that allows students to see how each phase happens and to physically move through the phases themselves.
This allowed my students to deepen their understanding of moon phases and create that movie in their mind. Moon Phases with Balloons is great for kinesthetic as well as visual-spatial learners; it gets them up and moving to understand the movements of the Earth, Moon, and Sun.
Setting up Moon Phases with Balloons
In this activity, a student holds a balloon representing the Moon in the correct orientation based on a light source representing the Sun. The student and their Moon balloon will move around a location representing Earth to see the phases play out on the balloon. Here’s how to make that happen!
I love how cheap and easy this activity is to set up. You can get the entire activity ready in about 15 minutes and the most time-consuming part is coloring the balloons.
- 1-8 White Balloons. I would recommend 12-inch balloons, but they don’t need to be fancy. Cheap party balloons work great!
- Gigantic Black Marker. I purchased a Jumbo Marks-a-Lot for this activity. You can make it work with a regular marker, just be prepared for it to take more time.
- Masking Tape (not duct tape!) for the floor.
- Overhead Projector or another light source.
- A darkened classroom with lights off, blinds down or windows covered.
Setting Up Your Space
Once you have your supplies, you need to start by blowing up your balloons. The balloons are going to represent the Moon in this model. The size doesn’t matter too much, but be careful not to blow the balloons up so much that they become oblong. It will be easier for students to recognize the phases if the balloons are round.
Next, color half of each balloon in with your marker. This is a lot of coloring, hence the gigantic marker. The black side of the balloon is going to represent the dark side of the Moon, the side that is always facing away from the Sun.
Then set up your desks so that you have about 10 feet of space for students to work in. Set up the projector or light source at one end to represent the Sun. About halfway across the space from the projector, put an “X” or “E” on the floor in masking tape to represent the Earth.
Lastly, mark eight locations evenly around the Earth to represent the location of each of the Moon phases. If you aren’t sure how this should look, take a look a the infographic below.
Talking Points and Tips for Ensuring Visual-Spatial Learning
Give each student a balloon and ask them to stand on one of the pieces of masking tape around the Earth.
As students get started, talk about what is happening in the model. What does each piece of tape, the balloons, and the projector represent? Where is the Earth in this model?
Then, ask students why half of the balloon is colored? How should they be holding their balloon? Students need to recognize that the white, uncolored side of the balloon represents the light side of the Moon facing the Sun while the black, colored-in side of the balloon represents the dark side of the moon facing away from the Sun.
I give students the diagram below after we have talked about the model. This helps them to see what is happening in each phase and gives them space to record what each moon phase looks from Earth in the blank spaces.
At this point, students are ready to move around the model. Ask students to hold up their balloons and make sure the light side is facing the Sun projector. Then they need to look at their balloon from the perspective of Earth in the center of the circle. Essentially, have students stand towards the middle of the circle with their balloon hand outstretched towards the Moon phase location. As students move through each of the phases of the moon, they can see each of the moon phases.
If the light side is always facing the Sun correctly, they should be able to see the progression of phases like those in the infographic below.
How to Make Moons Phases with Balloons Part of Your Instruction
Moon Phases with Balloons is a flexible activity that could work in multiple settings. Choose the method that fits best with your students and classroom!
Make this the first thing students see about the moon phases. They can go through the steps and draw the diagrams on their handouts and then use other resources to name the phases later.
Groups of 4-8 Students
This is my personal favorite. I create stations or a series of other moon phases activities for students to work on and then call them up in groups of between 4 and 8 students to work with the balloons. I put one student on each moon phase and we talk through the activity together. Then they move around the Earth, one phase at a time until they return to their original location.
Demo the Model with the Whole Class
If you want to set up the model as one station or learning opportunity for students to work on independently or in small groups on their own, demonstrate the process with a few students. Whenever you are going over instructions for the day, call up a couple of students and use them demonstrate how to use the model.
Student Practice Opportunity
Leave the whole activity set up for the remainder of your unit so that students can come in, pick up a balloon and move through the phases any time. Encourage students to take photos of their own!
If you have already taught moon phases with a few other resources, use this activity to provide a reteaching opportunity. Call over a student who is having trouble with moon phases and work through the model with them to show them the phases in a different way.
One formative assessment would be to ask them to name and explain what is happening in one moon phases at the correct location. For example, start the student in the waning gibbous location. The student, holding the balloon, would need to identify this location as waning gibbous, identify the full moon as the previous phase and the third quarter as the next phase, and explain why the moon would look like it is getting smaller.
Alternatively, another assessment would be to ask the student to name each phase of the moon in the correct location in the model.
This lesson changed the way I think about teaching motion in our solar system and I hope that it is helpful to other science teachers. I would love to hear more about your experiences in the comments!
- How do you teach Moon phases in your classroom?
- What lessons do you teach that focus on visual-spatial learning? Please share a link to the lesson if you can!
Lastly, if you are looking for more visual-spatial lessons, check out Role Modeling the Seasons (it’s free!) in my TeachersPayTeachers store. If you are looking for moon phase drawing practice, try Phases of the Moon Pictionary (also free!).