My first step toward building a solar system and space unit was to buy this Planets and Sun set from Priority Montessori Materials. This set comes with the planets, the sun, and labels for each. I also purchased the companion nomenclature cards.
I have seen some mats that are a cross-section of the solar system, but I wanted the children to have the visual of the planets and their orbits going all the way around the sun. And the solar system is BIG! I wanted this work to be physically large, as well.
Here are the supplies needed to make this mat:
- I bought about 2 1/2 yards of 74-inch black felt with sparkles from JoAnn Fabrics. I wanted space at the top to arrange the planets and the cards, so I needed the mat to be a rectangle, not a square. My finished mat is 54" x 74".
- 1 large bottle of white puffy fabric paint, 1 long piece white chalk, 1 skein of yarn, scissors, 2 large thumb tacks. I also used my laptop to find directions on the internet for making an ellipse.
Start by placing the thumb tacks in the what will be the center, or foci, of your ellipse. The farther apart, the narrower your ellipse. The closer together, the more round your ellipse. Then cut a piece of yarn a little longer than the major diameter of your ellipse (the longest point.) Tie the ends of this yarn together so you have a loop of yarn and bring it around the two thumb tacks. Pull the other side of the loop taut. It should look like a triangle, as in the photo below.
Now you need to test the diameter of the ellipse. Gently pull the point of the triangle in a circle all the way around the tacks. This will be the orbit of Neptune, the planet farthest from the sun. If your finger goes off the felt, your string is too long or your tacks are too far apart. If your finger does not come close to the edge of the felt, the orbits of all of your planets may be too close together. Adjust your string and thumb tacks accordingly. You have to do a little fiddling, here. If Neptune's orbit is good, put your chalk at the point of the triangle and draw a complete ellipse around the foci.
For the orbit of the next planet, Uranus, cut your string to make it shorter but do not move the tacks. Again, test your orbit and if it fits within Neptune's orbit, draw it in with the chalk. (The actual orbits of the planets in our solar system are not an equal distance apart but this mat is only an aid to the imagination. We try to make it accurate in concept even though it cannot be accurate in scale.)
The reason we use chalk is so we can wash away any lines we don't like. So if you are unhappy with the results of any of your orbits, resize your yarn and start over. After you have traced the orbits of all 8 planets to your satisfaction, pat yourself on the back and take a break. Then look at your solar system mat once more to make sure you have room for your sun in the center and an orbit for each of the 8 planets. If it's all good, start tracing over the final lines with the puffy paint. It's a good idea to test this on scrap fabric, first.
In addition to the orbits, I used some sparkly silver puffy paint to simulate the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Then I filled a little drawstring bag with small rocks and the children place these "asteroids" on the mat along with the planets.
When finished, let the paint dry overnight. When it is completely dry, take it outside and use a spray bottle or a fine stream of water and wash out the excess chalk. Your completed mat can be folded and placed on the shelf next to the planets.
The planets are fragile and the heavy sun is especially susceptible to being dropped and cracking. I put our sun in a basket to make it seem less like a ball and give it a little more protection.
I hope your children love this work!