An approach to the introduction of elementary astronomy concepts in early education

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An approach to the introduction of elementary astronomy concepts in early education

M. Kampeza, K. Ravanis

Department of Educational Sciences and Early Childhood Education

University of Patras, Greece;
Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Geneva, 13-15 September 2006


During the last decades there has been a consistent focus of research on student’s learning processes and especially on understanding student’s preconceptions, which are carried into learning environment and often differ very much from scientific knowledge. Some studies indicate that the information presented through science instruction is often incompatible with student’s everyday knowledge and beliefs and consequently, many students persist on holding their alternative conceptions of the natural world. Recently, the focus of this research has shifted to preschool children, since studies involving young children have reported misconceptions in their thinking which, as with older children, differ from accepted scientific ideas. Moreover, some studies have provided strong evidence that appropriate teaching interventions can help preschool children accept basic scientific ideas concerning common phenomena of the natural world (Russell, Harlen & Watt, 1989; Ravanis, 1994; Ravanis & Bagakis, 1998; Sharp, 1995; Hadzigeorgiou 2001; Solomonidou & Kakana 2000; Zogza & Papamichael 2000).

It is beyond doubt that acquiring an understanding of the earth’s properties cannot be accomplished solely through a process of direct observation and individual construction. Every day experience such as the apparent flatness of earth can be deceptive, while facts such as the possibility of living in the southern hemisphere without falling off are counterintuitive. Therefore, knowledge in this field has to be “taught” by transmission through adults’ explanations and exposure to cultural resources. But why is this important for early education? Today, many children have access to quite sophisticated information about astronomy available via television, the Internet and other popular media sources. This means that children now are more familiar with astronomy concepts than in the past. In addition, there are studies indicating that preschool children hold alternative conceptions for phenomena they observe such as the day and night cycle. So learning about basic astronomy concepts at school may help children understand certain phenomena that form a significant part of their everyday lives and it may also contribute toward the development of scientific thinking.

Our attempt to design a teaching intervention was based on a theoretical framework where learning is understood as a product of social interactions taking place around target concepts that, according to research, are obstacles to children’s thought (Martinand 1986, 1989). Therefore the proposed activities facilitate the interaction between teachers and children with the aim of overcoming the already detected cognitive obstacles (Katsiavou et al. 2000, Ravanis and Bagakis 1998).
These kinds of activities are expected to lead, under certain conditions, to the construction of ‘precursor models’. These are compatible with scientific models, since they are constructed on the basis of certain concepts included in the scientific models, and have a limited range of application (Lemeignan and Weil-Barais 1993). “These precursors are cognitive constructions (concepts, models, procedures, etc.) produced by the educational context. They constitute the basic frameworks for subsequent cognitive constructions, which without their help, would be difficult, or impossible to achieve” (Weil-Barais 2001: 188).

Our work was based on previous research findings about children’s ideas concerning the shape of the earth, the day and night cycle and the solar system (Nussbaum, 1979; Mali & Howe, 1979; Klein, 1982; Jones, Lynch, Reesink, 1987; Baxter, 1995; Vosniadou & Brewer 1992; Diakidou, Vosniadou, Hawks, 1997) and some positive effects of intervention at school (Arnold, Sarge Worrall, 1995; Diakidou, Kendeou, 2001; Sharp, 1999; Sneider, Ohadi, 1998; Valanides et al, 2000). These findings demonstrate that most of the children at different age levels hold alternative conceptions about the astronomical concepts at issue that inhibit them to construct the accepted scientific model. Moreover, the intuitive concepts of the earth’s shape and motion constitute basic cognitive obstacles to the acquisition of scientific knowledge. In addition, children’s ideas become more scientific with age and exposure to educational contexts. Astronomy learning appears to take place mainly through acts of personal and social cognition rather than direct observation.



The study sample consisted of 76 preschool children (39 boys 37 girls) aged 5-6 years old. The subjects were selected at random among the total number of children of 5 nursery schools from Greece. None of the children had yet received any formal instruction concerning the respective topics. The children who participated in our research were interviewed twice: first before the intervention and approximately ten days after. The intervention lasted two days for each group and it was organized in terms of a daily schedule in Greek kindergarten. The daily schedule lasts approximately 4 hours including lunchtime and breaks and consists of 4 or 5 activities (each activity has to last approximately 20’ depending on the subject and the time required to accomplish it) following the principles of the National Curriculum.


Our primary concern was to design a teaching intervention that responded to young children’s cognitive difficulties. In addition, the concepts under consideration needed to be presented through the activities in a coherent way since we expected children to realize the relations between them. We must note that we didn’t expect preschool children to construct all aspects of the scientific model; rather we attempted to help them construct a precursor model, which will contribute to the development of the scientific model later on. Particular attention was paid to the solar system’s principal components, the planet’s shape and motions and the day and night cycle. The teaching intervention had as objectives the following: a) understanding the spherical shape of earth, b) understanding that earth is placed among a system of rotating planets having the sun at the center (heliocentric model of solar system), c) understanding the alternation of day and night in terms of the earth’s spinning on its axis.

The teaching approach was collaborative, placing emphasis on social interaction during the activities through discussions and sharing meanings. It was based on a series of tasks that were incorporated in a story concerning the adventures of an astronaut who was lost in space and his efforts to return to earth. The incorporation of the intervention’s objectives in a story was very important because it provided the children a context of interaction where the tasks served a specific purpose in terms of the development of the story. In addition the children could identify themselves with the heroes of the story, follow the flow of the activities and become involved in them. We worked with small groups of children (6-9 in each group) using new educational material adapted to the needs of preschoolers.
The first activity consisted of two parts: during the first, the children were presented with two planets made of foamed polystyrene and a big yellow ceiling lamp representing the sun. They were asked to predict where the sun would cast light on the surface of the planets. After the children shared their ideas, we turned on the lamp and there was a discussion about where on each planet light and shadow was. The children were encouraged to link light and shadow with daytime and nighttime. During the second part of the activity the children had to assist the astronaut to decide about the route he had to follow to travel from one planet to another moving a spaceship made of paper from one planet to another. According to the story, the spaceship’s lights were damaged so the astronaut could launch and take off only at the sides of the planets that were daytime.

The second activity was carried out in front of a computer screen. The astronaut was confused and he was asking information from the spaceship’s computer. The children were watching a video (an avi file) of the planets rotating the sun. There was discussion concerning the place of the sun, the motions of the planets, the names and distinguishing features of the planets (according to the color, the size, the distance from the sun and so on).

The third activity was the construction of a model of the solar system. The children were presented with an iron lamppost with a spherical lamp on top (approximately 1 meter high), which had nine thick steel wires of different length that could move around it. The children had to place in order the nine planets made of foamed polystyrene in each wire and perform the motion of each planet. The lamp was already on and the children were asked where daytime and nighttime was and how the alternation of day and night occurred. Children could test their ideas using the model or ask help from the other members of the group. Having already established a context in which the sun and the planets comprised a system and the movements of the planets were known, we expected that children, with our guidance when needed, could understand the alternation of day and night in terms of the relationships between the celestial bodies.
The fourth activity consisted of a role-playing among the children. According to the story the astronaut dreamed of the sun and the planets dancing around it and the children enacted the roles of the sun and the planets. The children had to decide on their own where to stand and how to move (the sun was located in a steady position at the center of the room and the other children imitated the movements of the planets around the sun and their imaginary axis). At certain points we asked the children who enacted the roles of the moving planets instantly come to a standstill, and each child was asked whether in his (her) position was day or night. The children were also asked to explain what change in their position would result in a change from day to night or vice-versa.


The data concerning children’s reasoning during pre and post-tests were classified in categories. We compared children’s answers before and after the intervention using the Wilcoxon test for calculating the statistical significance of the observed changes. Table 1 presents children’s conceptions on the shape of he earth.

Table 1: Distribution of children’s selection of the earth’s shape


























6, 19,35,71,76













Subject 19 did not select a solid during the pre-test.
The majority of the children selected sphere among different solids to represent earth both during pre-test and post-test. However, in the post-test the alternative conceptions of the earth’s shape were fewer. We performed Wilcoxon test that was statistically significant (z = 2,99, p<0,005).
Table 2 presents children’s explanations concerning the cause of day and night cycle.

Table 2: Distribution of children’s responses for the alternation of day and night





Don’t know / no answer









Description of physical processes

3,4, 6, 11,14,24,31,32,37





Succession of a day





Anthropocentric explanations





Earth’s rotation







Earth’s rotation on its axis and rotation around sun



Sun’s movement

14, 18, 42


Religious or other explanations



30, 40


The category “description of physical processes” includes children who attributed the alternation of day and night to strictly observable situations from everyday experience, e.g. “the moon goes off, hides in the mountains and the sun comes”(subject 46), “the sun falls in the sea and then becomes night and comes the moon and the stars” (subject 62). The category “succession of a day” comprised such responses that mention certain phases of the day such as “first it is morning, then noon, then afternoon, and then night” (subject 56). Alternatively, children offered anthropocentric explanations referring to the role played by the sun and moon to the performance of various human activities, e.g. “we sleep and then it becomes day again” (subject 9). The “religious or other explanation” refers to answers like “god makes it happen like that” (subject 67), or “once its getting dark, once its light” (subject 64). During the pre-test none of the children attempted to explain the day and night cycle in terms of the earth’s rotation. In the post-test the majority of the children explained the day and night cycle in terms of the earth’s rotation on its axis. There was one child that claimed that the cause of the alternation of day and night was the earth’s rotation on its axis and around the sun. Some of the subjects attributed alternation of day and night to the movements of celestial bodies but not according to the typical astronomical model stating for example “the sun goes around earth”. We believe that these kinds of responses, although not compatible with the precursor model, demonstrate a shift to a more natural context of explanation compared to the pre-test categories. The Wilcoxon test was statistically significant (z = 6,69, p<0,001).

Table 3 presents the children’s selections about the solar system’s structure.
Table 3: Distribution of children’s selections about heliocentric and geocentric structure of solar system






















Heliocentric with reasoning





Other shapes






During the pre-test the difference between heliocentric and geocentric representations was very small. In the post-test the majority of the children were classified in heliocentric categories and moreover a number of children could justify his /her selection stating, “because the sun is in the middle” (subject 7). The Wilcoxon test was statistically significant (z = 4,02, p<0,001).

Table 4 presents the children’s answers concerning the earth’s movement.

Table 4: Distribution of children’s answers about earth’s movement





Around the sun



Around the axis





Around the axis and the sun

2,4,6,7,8,11,12,15,18,21,22,23,24,26,27, 33,36,37,38,40,41,42,44,45,46,49,50,52,56,57,58,59,60,62,63,64,65,66,67,68,69,71,73,74,75,76


Other movement





No movement





During the pre- test, most of the children offered answers in which the earth carried out other movements (e.g. they shift it from right to left) or didn’t move at all. Very few revolved it around its axis and none moved the earth around the sun or around its axis and the sun. On the contrary, during the post-test most of the children were able to present the simultaneous movement of the earth. The earth’s rotation on its axis is the sufficient condition for explaining the alternation of day and night. Nevertheless, we incorporated the earth’s rotation around the sun because it is important for the understanding of the structure of the solar system. The difference between pre-test and post-test was statistically significant (z = 7,05, p < 0,001).

Our research findings suggested that preschool children are capable of understanding elementary astronomy concepts, despite the counterintuitive nature of much of their content. Research findings from our study demonstrated that during the initial interviews the majority of the children held a relatively poor knowledge of the day and night cycle and the movement of the planets, while the earth’s shape was more familiar to them. After the intervention, most of the children developed an appropriate scientific understanding of the concepts at issue. We believe that the progress observed had to do with the systematic development of a precursor model for approaching astronomy concepts focused on the difficulties children had about astronomical phenomena mentioned in earlier studies and the concepts included in the scientific model that make easier the appropriation of new knowledge by preschoolers. The objectives of the activities were sensitive to the cognitive difficulties encountered by children and not imposed from above. In addition the use of educational material that was easy for the children to handle and the elaboration of the concepts at issue by the children through different means in each activity, such as watching the video, constructing the solar system’s model, experiencing planets’ motion using their bodies established a context of meaningful learning that enabled children to understand these elementary astronomy concepts that seem difficult or too abstract for children at preschool age.

We thank the European Social Fund (ESF), Operational Program for Educational and Vocational Training II (EPEAEK II) and particularly the Program HERAKLITOS for funding the above study.


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