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Finding Phases of the Moon

This is a lesson on lunar phases that teaches students about planetary movements and how the relative positions of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon determine how we see the Moon. Students observe and record daily the changing shape of the Moon for two weeks. In the classroom, students then use modeling experiments to explain the various lunar phases they observed earlier. Group discussions, along with individual drawings and journal entries, encourage students to clearly describe their lunar observations. Stories from native cultures present students with alternative explanations of the Moon and its movements.

Key Concepts

Planetary Science, Revolution & Rotation, Lunar Phases


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Space Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan





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Throughout history, humans have tried to explain why the Sun and the Moon move as they do through the skies above. Native cultures in the past did not have today's scientific explanations of planetary rotation and revolution through space, but they created their own explanations for what they observed. Tribes around the world had special names for the various lunar phases, often using the Moon's appearance and movement to decide when to migrate, plant crops, or perform other tribal activities.

The moon that revolves around the Earth emits no light of its own, reflecting the Sun's light instead. Sunlight hits only the side of the Moon facing the Sun and we can see only the part of the Moon that reflects sunlight. What we see of the Moon changes over time, creating different shapes called lunar phases. While the Earth is revolving around the Sun, the Moon is revolving around the rotating Earth. The respective movements of the Earth and the Moon cause the Moon to appear to us as the various lunar phases. It takes about four weeks for the Moon to orbit once around the Earth, a period of time called a lunar month. At times during its monthly cycle, the Moon is not only visible during the night, but also during daylight hours.

We see four primary lunar phases during each month. The first phase is called the New Moon, when the Moon is not visible to us because the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth, putting the dark, unilluminated side of the Moon towards us. As the month progresses, small segments of the Moon become visible due to the relative positions of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. After the first week, we can see the first quarter phase (which appears to us as a half moon). By the second week, the Moon is fully visible and called the Full Moon, which occurs when the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun with the Earth in-between. By the third week, the visible portion again becomes smaller until it is only half of the Moon, called the last quarter phase. This sequence of shape changes recurs each lunar month. A moon that appears to us to be getting bigger is called a waxing moon, while a waning moon is one apparently getting smaller. The name "crescent moon" describes a moon less than half visible, while "gibbous moon" refers to one greater than a half moon.


The purpose of this activity is to give students an understanding of the monthly phases of the Moon and how this phenomenon relates to the Earth's movements in space. Students discuss the changing appearance of the Moon and create their own stories to explain the Moon's features. Students also observe and record the Moon's appearance each day for two weeks. They conduct modeling experiments in the classroom, using illuminated, reflective balls and their own shifting positions to demonstrate how earth and lunar movements change the Moon's visible appearance. Native stories illustrate to students that humans have always believed that the Moon and its movements are significant and found ways to explain what they observed in the sky.


Edith Horn Wagner
Cultural Consultant - Blackfeet

I have been teaching for 12 years, two of which were in Frazer, MT. I currently teach 6th grade math and science for the Browning Public Schools. I am married and have 3 children.


Learner Outcomes

  • Identify and name the phases of the Moon.
  • Use classroom models to explain the changing lunar appearances in relationship to the Earth’s movements.
  • Realize that native cultures believed that lunar movements and shapes affected their daily lives and that these cultures created their own explanations for these natural phenomena.

Content Standards

  • Blah


  • Styrofoam® balls – 2-inch or larger (one/student; other balls can be used but must reflect light)
  • Desk lamp with flexible neck and high-intensity bulb (150-watt)
  • Three name badges (labeled Sun, Moon, Earth respectively)
  • Moon journal pages (one/student; master copy supplied with lesson)
  • Science journals (one/student)

Lesson Procedures

  • Lead the entire class in a large-group discussion. Record on poster paper or the chalkboard what students already know about the Moon. Discuss whether the Moon always looks the same every night. Why or why not? Introduce the concept that native people have stories to explain why the Moon looks different on different nights and how it came to be in the sky.
  • Read and discuss the three native stories below -- the Micmac tale "Rabbit and the Moon Man" talks about how the Moon got a spotted appearance, according to this eastern Canadian tribe; "Blackfoot People, Some Teachings of Nature" discusses how the Moon looks different at different times and how the Blackfeet of the Great Plains used the Moon's appearance to predict the weather; and the African story "Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky" explains native beliefs about how the Moon got into the sky.
    Rabbit and the Moon Man (Micmac)

    Long ago, Rabbit was a great hunter. He lived with his grandmother in a lodge which stood deep in the Micmac forest. It was winter and Rabbit set traps and laid snares to catch game for food. He caught many small animals and birds, until one day he discovered that some mysterious being was robbing his traps. Rabbit and his grandmother became hungry. Though he visited his traps very early each morning, he always found them empty.

    At first Rabbit thought that the robber might be a cunning wolverine, until one morning he found long, narrow footprints alongside his trap line. It was, he thought, the tracks of the robber, but they looked like moonbeams. Each morning Rabbit rose earlier and earlier, but the being of the long foot was always ahead of him and always his traps were empty.

    Rabbit made a trap from a bowstring with the loop so cleverly fastened that he felt certain that he would catch the robber when it came. He took one end of the thong with him and hid himself behind a clump of bushes from which he could watch his snare. It was bright moonlight while he waited, but suddenly it became very dark as the moon disappeared. A few stars were still shining and there were no clouds in the sky, so Rabbit wondered what had happened to the moon.

    Someone or something came stealthily through the trees and then Rabbit was almost blinded by a flash of bright, white light which went straight to his trap line and shone through the snare which he had set. Quick as a lightning flash, Rabbit jerked the bowstring and tightened the noose. There was a sound of struggling and the light lurched from side to side. Rabbit knew by the tugging on his string that he had caught the robber. He fastened the bowstring to a nearby sapling to hold the loop tight.

    Rabbit raced back to tell his grandmother, who was a wise old woman, what had happened. She told him that he must return at once and see who or what he had caught. Rabbit, who was very frightened, wanted to wait for daylight but his grandmother said that might be too late, so he returned to his trap line.

    When he came near his traps, Rabbit saw that the bright light was still there. It was so bright that it hurt his eyes. He bathed them in the icy water of a nearby brook, but still they smarted. He made big snowballs and threw them at the light, in the hope of putting it out. As they went close to the light, he heard them sizzle and saw them melt. Next, Rabbit scooped up great pawfuls of soft clay from the stream and made many big clay balls. He was a good shot and threw the balls with all of his force at the dancing white light. He heard them strike hard and then his prisoner shouted.

    Then a strange, quivering voice asked why he had been snared and demanded that he be set free at once, because he was the man in the moon and he must be home before dawn came. His face had been spotted with clay and, when Rabbit went closer, the moon man saw him and threatened to kill him and all of his tribe if he were not released at once.

    Rabbit was so terrified that he raced back to tell his grandmother about his strange captive. She too was much afraid and told Rabbit to return and release the thief immediately. Rabbit went back, and his voice shook with fear as he told the man in the moon that he would be released if he promised never to rob the snares again. To make doubly sure, Rabbit asked him to promise that he would never return to earth, and the moon man swore that he would never do so. Rabbit could hardly see in the dazzling light, but at last he managed to gnaw through the bowstring with his teeth and the man in the moon soon disappeared in the sky, leaving a bright trail of light behind him.

    Rabbit had been nearly blinded by the great light and his shoulders were badly scorched. Even today, rabbits blink as though light is too strong for their eyes; their eyelids are pink, and their eyes water if they look at a bright light. Their lips quiver, telling of Rabbit's terror.

    The man in the moon has never returned to earth. When he lights the world, one can still see the marks of the clay which Rabbit threw on his face. Sometimes he disappears for a few nights, when he is trying to rub the marks of the clay balls from his face. Then the world is dark; but when the man in the moon appears again, one can see that he has never been able to clean the clay marks from his shining face.

    Blackfoot People, SomeTeachings of Nature
    by Adolf Hungry Wolf

    I used to hear the Old People say that when Night Light (Moon) is lying on her back that she is resting, that she has been working very hard and that the weather will be good. My father…that's what he taught me. He would say, "She is lying back like a bowl and holding all the rain water in. When she is finished resting, then she will make it cold or rain again." When Night Light is standing all the way up, the Old People will say that she is mad, that you better dress warm because it is going to get cold.

    Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky
    An African Tale

    Long ago Sun and Water lived on the Earth together. They were good friends. The sun went to visit the water many times. But the water never went to visit the sun. "Why don't you ever come to my house to visit?" said the sun to the water. "Your house is too small," said the water. "If I came to visit you with all my people, we would run you out of your house. I have many, many people, and they take up a lot of room." The sun said he would build a very big house so Water and his people could come visit. Then Sun went home and told his wife, the moon. She smiled and said she would help him.

    The very next day, the sun began to build a big, big house. It was soon ready. Water and his people came to visit the sun and the moon. When they got there, Water called out to Sun, "Is it safe to come in?" "Yes," said the sun, "Come in, my friend." So the water, the fish, and all the water animals began to flow into the sun's big house. Soon the water was up to the window. So Water asked the sun if it was still safe. The sun said yes, so more water came in. Very soon the water was up to the top of the door. "Do you want more of my people to come in?" asked Water. "Yes," said the sun and the moon. So Water flowed into the house with more of his people. Soon the sun and moon had to go up to the top of the roof. Again Water asked. Again the sun said yes. So more and more of Water's people came in. Very soon, the water was over the top of the roof. The sun and the moon had to go up into the sky. And that's where they are still.

  • Give each student a copy of the moon journal page included in this lesson. Ask students to create their own story about the Moon. They can write about how they think the Moon got into the sky, or why the Moon has a spotted appearance, or about the phases of the Moon. Tape the finished journal pages around the room.
  • Tell students that they are going to be watching the Moon and making drawings every night for the next two weeks, using their science journals. Illustrate to the class how each journal page needs to have the date of observation, as well as a circle in which the student will draw how the Moon looks that particular night. Students will need to take their journals home and record in them each night.
  • After the two-week observation --
    1. As a class, have students discuss what they saw during the past two weeks of observing the Moon each night. Select a child to draw on the board the Moon's appearance on each night during the two weeks. Discuss how the Moon's appearance was changing during that time. Have students try to guess what each phase of the Moon is called. Predict what other appearances/shapes the Moon might have.
    2. Discuss how sometimes people call the full moon by different names, such as Harvest Moon in September (additional information available on the Internet). Read the excerpt below from "The Sun Came Down" and discuss any other names for the full moon the students have heard.
      Excerpt from The Sun Came Down
      By Percy Bull Child

      January is the Moon of Big Smoke, the Moon That Helps Eat. This is because in January the air is very still, and when the smoke comes out of the top of the tipi, it is very big in size. "Helps Eat" came about because in January it is too cold to go out and do anything, and everyone stays in the tipi near the food. When people are near the food, they are tempted to eat, and the food goes fast.

      February is the Moon of the Eagle. This is when the eagle returns from migration. It is also known as the Hatching Time of the Owl. The owl and other predatory animals and birds take time to grow, and must be ready to fly when all of the summer birds and hibernating animals come out for the warmer months.

      March is the Geese Arrive Moon. It is also known as The Time Napi Comes Running Down Off the Mountains, or the Moon of the Warm Chinook Winds. It is the Moon for Gophers too.

      April is the Moon of the Frogs. It is also the Moon of the Returning Bluebirds and the Moon When the Thunder Returns. All the holy bundles that pertain to the thunder are taken out to honor the return of the thunder.

      May is the Moon of the Green Grass, when grass starts to grow. It is also the Moon of the Leaves, when leaves begin to appear on the trees. It is the moon that changes the color of animals to summer colors. It is known for the pretty flowers blooming.

      June is the Moon of Hatching. It is known too as the Moon of High Waters and the moon that appears when the service berry begins to ripen.

      July is the Moon of the Ripe Berries. It rises over the tribe's gathering at the July encampment that comes annually, midsummer time.

      August is the Moon That Ends the Summer Encampment, when we move back to the hunting areas and stock up meat for the winter.

      September is the Moon When the Long Time Rain Comes. This is the moon that dries up the berries and causes the departing of the thunder, the yellowing of the leaves and the gathering of the whitefish. It is time to bless all the holy bundles and put them away for the winter.

      October is the Geese Go South Moon. Certain animals turn white for the winter.

      November is the Moon to Knock Bull Berries off Their Thorn Bushes. The animals' fur coats are prime for winter and trapping starts. The eagle starts its migration.

      December is the Moon of Winter Cold. It is also the Moon That Parts Her Hair Right Square in the Middle, called this because it is the month of the shortest day and the beginning of the longest day.

    3. Discuss how scientists have their own names for each phase of the Moon. Erase all of the pictures of the phases of the Moon drawn on the board, except the eight shown in the illustration found in the background section of this lesson. Discuss again with students how they think the Moon changes its appearance.
    4. Give a Styrofoam® ball to each student and explain the ball will be his/her own moon.
    5. Set the desk lamp in one corner of the classroom with the light facing outward. Spread students through the room and have them face the light in the corner. Turn off the overhead room lights.
    6. Ask students to hold their "moon" at arm's length directly towards the light, using two fingers placed on top and bottom of the ball (or push the ball onto the tip of a pencil and hold the pencil). Explain that the lamp light is like the Sun, the students are the Earth, and their ball is the Moon.
    7. Have students describe what they see on their moons. The part of the ball they see should be dark, in shadow because it is directly between the light source and the student. Have students slowly rotate in place, turning counterclockwise 45 degrees, and then describe what they see now. They should see a crescent of the moon that is bright while the rest of their moon is dark.
    8. Have students continue to rotate 45 degrees counterclockwise, describing what they see at each rotation.
    9. Turn on the classroom lights and reassemble students into a large group. Collect all balls and turn off the desk lamp. Have one student go to the front of the group with the name badge marked Sun. Choose two more students, one to represent Moon and one to represent Earth. Using the three students, model the activity the class just performed with the balls, with Sun and Earth stationary and Moon rotating around Earth. Tell the students that the moon takes one month to move completely around the Earth. Discuss what the moon looks like as it orbits around the Earth. Can we predict the relative positions of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon based on which particular lunar phase is visible?
  • Discuss what the class has learned about the Moon. Write students' answers on poster board and post it above their moon stories in the classroom.
  • Have students return to their desks and write a final entry in their individual science notebooks, telling what they liked most about their study of the Moon.


  • From our perspective here on Earth, the Moon changes in appearance throughout the lunar month.
  • Lunar phases are directly related to the relative positions of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon.


  • Participation in class discussions
  • Participation in moon-phase modeling experiments
  • Individual moon journal page
  • Individual science journal (drawing lunar phases daily for two weeks + final entry)


  • Collect pictures of the Moon from various magazines and other sources; make a collage of the pictures and discuss how the images differ in appearance.
  • Using the Internet or local newspaper, keep a daily record of when the Moon rises each day for one month. (Note: the Moon rises about 50 minutes later each day)
  • What is the Moon made of? How do we know?
  • Use the Internet or other references to research past scientific expeditions that explored the Moon’s surface.
  • What is the distance between the Earth and the Moon? Between the Earth and the Sun?


  • (free star constellation map to print each month)
  • Hungrywolf, Adolf et al. (1975) Teachings of Nature. Good Medicine Books, Invermere, B.C.
  • Bull Child, Percy. (1985) The Sun Came Down. Harper & Row, San Francisco.