Skip to main content

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for announcements, education- related info, and more!


Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science

Order out of Chaos: Our Solar System Children’s Ideas About the Solar System

Below are common ideas children in grades K-6 have about this topic, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science (see the Session 1 Children’s Ideas Bibliography). Consider what evidence might refute this idea, and why a child would be likely to believe this?

1. Children’s theories of the origin of the solar system and the Earth include: 1) the solar system has always been there 2) the Sun collided with another celestial body to create the planets and 3) the origin of the Earth involved explosions or collisions of stars and galaxies.

The solar system formed from a cloud of dust and gas that, as gravity brought the material closer together, began to spin. This cloud eventually collapsed into a flat disk, and the planets formed through the accretion, or accumulation, of matter, which further coalesced into individual planets. The use of the term “Big Bang” may skew children’s ideas about the Earth’s beginnings, but the term does remind us that there was an event which started the universe’s growth, and that the universe is still expanding today. Children’s limited perception of the passage of time can influence their ideas of the permanence or ‘forever-ness’ of the solar system.

2. Earth is flat and motionless.

The Earth, like the other planets, is spherical in shape. This is why, even with the strongest telescope, we can’t see straight across from one end of the country to the other. The Earth is not motionless — as with every other planet in our solar system, the Earth rotates on its axis and orbits the Sun. The fact that we cannot feel any motion as Earth rotates perpetuates the perspective that the Earth is motionless. Evidence of movement, like night and day and the seasons, help us understand otherwise.


  • Marques, L. and Thompson, D. “Portuguese Students’ Understanding at Ages 10, 11, and 14 – 15 of the Origin and Nature of the Earth and the Development of Life.” Research in Science and Technological Education 15, no 1 (1997): 20 – 51.
  • Sadler, P. “Misconceptions in Astronomy.” The Second Proceedings of the International Seminar on Misconceptions in Science and Mathematics. Ithaca, NY: Department of Education, Cornell University, 1987.
  • Samarapungavan, A., Vosniadou, S. and Brewer, W. “Mental Models of the Earth, Sun and Moon: Indian Children’s Cosmologies.” Cognitive Development 11, no 4 (1996): 491 – 512.
  • Sharpe, J. “Children’s Astronomical Beliefs: A Preliminary Study of Year 6 Children in Southwest England.” International Journal of Science Education 18, no 6 (1996): 685 – 712.
  • Vosniadou, S. “Conceptual Development in Astronomy,” in The Psychology of Learning Science, edited by Glynn, Yeany, and Britton. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.

Series Directory

Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science


Produced by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 2004.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-742-8