Planets in Balance

Explore the solar system through the creation of a Calder-type mobile


Key Staff

Can be taught by the science teacher.

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Applying Vocabulary
Creative Thinking: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving


Students explore the solar system through experimentation of mobile design in the style of Alexander Calder. Using independent research about the planets, teams of students create mobiles that compare the size of the Earth to other planets in the solar system.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Compare planet sizes
  • Explore the mobile designs of Alexander Calder
  • Experiment with force/distance/lever physics to create balance
  • Research basic information about the planets in the solar system
  • Design and build a mobile that compares the size of the Earth to another planet in the style of Calder

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Experiential Learning
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Research
  • Large or Small Group Instruction

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Internet Access
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

  • Become familiar with the work of Alexander Calder by exploring National Gallery of Art Kids, Calder Virtual Tour, and Calder Foundation.
  • Become familiar with web information about the solar system.
  • Understand force/distance/lever physics. One resource is Fear of Physics and its SeeSaw lab.
  • Become familiar with Virtual Mobile Design Web site.
  • Become familiar with planet-size ratio tool.
    (Note: Click on the word “compare” after setting the planets to be compared.)
  • Become familiar with Planets in Balance 'Vocabulary' handout, available within the Resource Carousel.
  • Purchase or borrow inflatable earth ball. One source is LiveScience.
    (You can select any size earth ball.)
  • Schedule computer lab time, if necessary.

NOTE: Although some resources may include Pluto as a planet, in 2006, astronomers determined it was no longer a planet.

Prior Student Knowledge

Mathematical ratios, basic solar system knowledge

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab


Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Present inflated earth ball to classroom. Ask students:

  • What is this? (a model of the earth)
  • What is the earth a part of? (the solar system)
  • What other planets are in the solar system? (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune)
    NOTE: Pluto is no longer a planet.
  • Do you think (Mercury) is smaller or larger than Earth? (Ask about each of the planets. It’s OK if the students are incorrect in their guesses on planet sizes. The team research later will verify or correct their answers.)
  • What mathematical tool can we use to compare the size of two objects? (a ratio)

2. Share the planet-size ratio tool. Use Mercury as the example. (It comes up automatically.) Ask students, if we were to make an inflatable Mercury ball, what size would it be if our Earth ball were ___ inches? (For example, if your earth ball is 16 inches in diameter, your Mercury ball would be 6.4 inches in diameter. Divide 16 inches by 2.5, the ratio.)

NOTE: To engage the students in the discussion, you may want to toss the beach ball from student to student as they answer questions. You can also ask them what they know about the planets in general while tossing the earth ball.

3. Introduce students to an Alexander Calder constellation mobile. This is one of them. (A constellation mobile is a floating, balanced three-dimensional piece of art that represents something in the sky, such as planets, stars, or clouds. Calder was known for the creation of this type of mobile.) Ask students:

  • What is this? (a mobile)
  • What can you tell us about its design? (it’s hanging, it’s in balance, there are larger pieces and smaller pieces, it moves, etc.)
  • What knowledge do you think the artist must use to make a mobile like this? (physics or science, math, creativity, understanding of balance)
  • What do you think it might represent? (answers will vary)
  • Do you think an artist could create a mobile to represent the solar system?
  • Do you know the artist behind this piece of work? (Alexander Calder -- It’s OK if they don’t know the artist. They will by the end of the lesson!)

Build Knowledge

1. Explore the work of Alexander Calder. As a class, visit one or more of the following sites: National Gallery of Art KidsCalder Virtual Tour, and Calder Foundation.

2. Build understanding of force/distance/lever physics. Using the Distance and Force Exploration worksheet located within the Resource Carousel as a guide, working in teams, experiment with forces and distances applied to a lever.

(NOTE to teachers: The weight times the distance on one side of the lever must equal the weight times the distance on the other side for the ruler to be in balance. For example, 2 paper clips 2 inches from the fulcrum on the left will be in balance with 4 paper clips 1 inch from the fulcrum on the right.)

3. Review the terms from the Vocabulary handout located within the Resource Carousel.


1. Research planets in the solar system. Assign one planet to each team of students. Using solar system web sites and the planet-size ratio tool, complete the Planet Research worksheet located within the Resource Carousel.

2. Create a planet mobile. Using the planets’ ratio, create 2-D representations of Earth and the researched planet on poster board. Using the yard stick and ruler from the previous experiment, have each team create a planet mobile showing Earth and the other planet. The weight of the planets must be balanced by altering their distances from the fulcrum. The largest planet is Jupiter. To fit Jupiter on standard 22” x 28” poster board, its largest diameter will be 22 inches. Using the planet-size ratio tool, Jupiter is 11 times the size of Earth. Therefore, Earth would be only 2 inches in diameter for the mobile. If each team starts with a standard-size Earth for their mobiles, the class can then compare the sizes of the other planets too. Teams can include the Earth’s moon and the other planet’s satellite(s), if applicable. (The Earth is 3.7 times the size of its moon. Place the Earth and its moon on one side of the ruler, and the other planet and its satellite(s) on the other side.) Explain that even experts like Calder needed to experiment with placement of objects on a mobile to find balance.

3. Present planet research and mobiles to the class. Have each team share their findings with the class. Each team should describe their process for creating their mobiles.


1. Create a Planet Observatory. Hang mobiles in the classroom.

2. Conduct an inflatable earth ball discussion. Passing the ball from student to student, have each student share one fact or observation that he or she learned from the experience of researching planets. Pass the ball a second time and ask what they learned or observed by creating a Calder-type mobile. Ask students:

  • What other subjects could we use to create a Calder-type mobile? (answers will vary, but may include leaves, snowflakes, constellations, geometric shapes, musical notes, etc.)

3. Have students fill out the Our Solar System handout located within the Resource Carousel during the discussion.


Assess the student's work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
Visual Art

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 2: Using knowledge of structures and functions

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 5: Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

National Standards in Other Subjects

Math Standard 1: Uses a variety of strategies in the problem-solving process

Math Standard 4: Understands and applies basic and advanced properties of the concepts of measurement


Science Standard 3: Understands the composition and structure of the universe and the Earth's place in it

Science Standard 10: Understands forces and motion

Science Standard 12: Understands the nature of scientific inquiry



Eileen Ewald
Original Writer

Carol Parenzan Smalley

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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