Handmade Solar System in a Box

Randi from Swoon is here today to share a simple craft that invites children to explore all of the delights that the solar system has to offer—a perfect project for the budding young astronomers in our lives.

My oldest child (age five) has shown recent interest in the solar system. It all started with questions about day, night, sun and moon. I love it when my children can learn a concept in a hands on manner, so I set about looking for some sort of solar system set for them to play with. There are a lot of great sets out there, but they tend to be made of materials such as Styrofoam, which would not last long around here with younger siblings. I recently stumbled upon a few materials at the local craft store and decided to try my hand at making my own set of planets.

Would you like to make a set of your own? Here’s what you need:

  • 10 birch ball knobs in varying sizes (I tried to make mine proportionate to the real planets, but they are not perfect.* I also included Pluto in my set! This chart helped me decide which sizes to buy)
  • 2″ wooden ring (for Saturn, optional)
  • 9-10 colors of non-toxic acrylic or watercolor paint
  • Paint brush
  • Skewers, lollipop sticks, or toothpicks
  • Small jars or a cardboard box
  • A natural wood finishing oil such as sweet almond, Tung, or beeswax (see this website for more ideas)
  • Planet matching cards (download and print below)

1. Paint the planets. Put a stick or skewer into the bottom of each planet and paint with your paintbrush (there is a hole in the bottom of each ball knob). I chose to mix my paint with water to achieve a “wash” look and let the wood grain show through. I only did one coat. If you would like your planets to match the Planet Cards below, here are the colors used: Sun=yellow, Jupiter=sienna, Saturn=green, Neptune=light blue, Uranus=turquoise, Earth=dark blue, Venus=left in natural wood state, Mars=red, Mercury=gray, and Pluto=lavender.

2. Allow planets to dry. Place planets (still on sticks) into jars to dry. You can also turn a shoebox over and poke a few holes in the bottom if you don’t have any jars handy.

3. Once planets have dried, rub finishing oil on them with a clean, dry cloth. It should soak in pretty quickly, but you may want to let them sit for a few minutes.

4. Print planet cards and cut them out. Download planet cards here!

5. Place it all in a box and allow your children to play with the planets and match them with their proper names (by color)!

This set can be used in many ways, and is meant to be a jumping off point to greater learning. So far my children have enjoyed learning the names of the planets and talking about their sizes. As their interest grows, I plan on showing them how the planets orbit by drawing concentric circles on a chalkboard or large piece of paper and placing the planets in order.

*A word about scale: I tried to keep the planets as close to proper scale and proportion as possible,obviously with a few exceptions. We all know the sun is MUCH bigger than that, but the ball knobs only come in a few sizes. I chose the biggest I could find. In the case of Saturn, I really wanted to have a ring that could be played with and manipulated. Unfortunately, I could only find a set of small wooden rings at the local craft store (found in the knitting section), so I decided to make Saturn smaller than I had initially planned. The proportion is still correctly represented in the cards, however. To me this is not as important as my children are just becoming familiar with the planets and their names. They can clearly see that some are bigger than others and have loved hearing facts about their actual sizes. If exact scale is an important part of your lesson, than I would encourage you to possibly find materials that can accurately represent that!

A great website…

Books to inspire…