Toilet Paper Solar System

Adapted by Suzanne Chippindale
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Toilet Paper Solar System is a high-interest, kinesthetic group activity in which students create a scalar model of distances in the solar system using a single roll of toilet paper.  This activity can be conducted in either a long hallway or, as a special treat, outdoors.  Data for two versions of the activity are included: a short version in which solar system distances can be modeled using 100 sheets of paper and a longer version, using 200 sheets of paper.  The author notes that this model only applies to relative distances, not relative sizes of the planets.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 5
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS1-3 Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the analysis of data from Earth-based instruments, space-based telescopes, and spacecraft to determine similarities and differences among solar system objects. Examples of scale properties include the sizes of an object’s layers (such as crust and atmosphere), surface features (such as volcanoes), and orbital radius. Examples of data include statistical information, drawings and photographs, and models.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include recalling facts about properties of the planets and other solar system bodies.

This resource was not designed to build towards this performance expectation, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
As designed, Toilet Paper Solar System does not provide a strong opportunity for students to analyze and interpret data. However, teachers can easily strengthen this activity’s alignment to the Performance Expectation by either providing data tables with actual distances (these values are already included with the activity) or tasking students with finding this information. Then, students can use the data to determine their own scale before constructing a model.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In this activity, students are using data to create a scaled model of the solar system. The instructions that are provided to the students already have distances calculated in terms of squares of toilet paper. For example, Mercury is 1.0 square from the Sun and Venus is 1.8 squares. With this type of data, students are not developing a model; rather, they are just following directions. To bring this activity more in line with the practice, teachers could substitute actual distances and challenge students to design their own scale. Another approach would be to tell students that the distance from Earth to the Sun (149,600,000 km ) equates to 1 AU and that each sheet of paper now represents this measurement. From this information, students can calculate the distances in AUs for the remaining planets and, then, construct their model.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource was not designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This activity provides students with the opportunity to investigate the relative sizes of planetary orbits within our Solar System. Since this activity does not provide any information on why these orbits exist, teachers should utilize this activity before introducing the concept of gravitational pull. Teachers should be aware that this activity could lead to a student misconception: in this model, the planets are lined up in a row, a situation that rarely occurs.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In Toilet Paper Solar System, students construct a model that demonstrates the relative distances of the planets from the Sun. Since students are using equal-sized dots to mark each planet, it is important that teachers reinforce that this model does not reflect the relative sizes of the planets only their relative distances from the Sun. Teachers should also inform their students that the distances being used in the model are averages since planetary orbits are oval.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: With slight modifications, Toilet Paper Solar System is strongly aligned to the Performance Expectation of analyzing data to determine scale properties. In this activity, students construct a scalar model using data that has already been converted into squares of paper. By providing the raw data found in the activity and instructing students to create their own scale, teachers will bring the activity into closer alignment with both the Performance Expectation and Practice. The Disciplinary Core Idea is only loosely suggested in this activity; the concept of gravitational pull is not mentioned. As written, this activity only serves as a foundation for the introduction of this concept. This activity is strongly aligned to the Crosscutting Concept of Scale, Proportion and Quantity.

  • Instructional Supports: This activity is a high-interest, engaging, authentic experience for middle school students. The information included is scientifically accurate and grade appropriate. The author provides limited advice on differentiation: students who need a challenge could calculate their own scales while students needing more support could use the tables containing the actual number of squares. No opportunity is provided for students to report on their models. Teachers might want to design some focus questions or graphing exercises that students could complete in their journals. For example, teachers might want to have students graph the actual distances from the planets (and Pluto) to the Sun or have students explain how distance from the Sun affects the time it takes for planets to complete their revolutions.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Teachers can easily monitor student progress by viewing the models during the construction period; however, the activity does not include any formative assessments or scoring rubrics.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Toilet Paper Solar System is a hands-on, kinesthetic activity.