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What’s The Difference Between Revolution and Rotation in the Earth, Moon, and Sun Systems?

teach the difference between earth's rotation and revolution

I love teaching Earth, Moon, and Sun systems. I think it’s so cool how three celestial objects can create so many things. Sunsets, moon phases, seasons, eclipses, days, and nights. It’s caused only by Earth’s revolution and rotation. There’s something magical about it to me. But what’s the difference between revolution and rotation?

One year, as my 7th graders and I were talking about moon phases, one asked how sunsets are made. I knew how. But I didn’t really know how. Yes, I knew that the earth spinning and changing from day to night created sunsets, but I couldn’t articulate it. 

I didn’t know, so I researched

So I researched “what’s the difference between revolution and rotation in the Earth, Moon, and Sun systems?” Come to find out, I knew how sunsets are made, but I didn’t have the proper word for it. Rotation.

I also realized I had been skipping over this very foundational topic of Earth’s rotation and revolution when I taught about the Earth, Moon, and Sun systems. So, in all of my teaching about moon phases and seasons, I never really explained how these systems worked.

Teach your students the difference between revolution and rotation with this awesome interactive notebook template! Click here to find it!

The real difference between revolution and rotation

Let’s first start with the basic definitions and difference between revolution and rotation in regards to the Earth.

Rotation: The Earth is sitting in space, titled on a 23.5° axis. One rotation is a single spin on that axis in 24 hours. Earth’s rotation helps us differentiate between day and night. Think of how a globe moves. Two points on the top and bottom hold the globe in place and when you spin the globe, it stays in place and spins on those two points. 

Revolution: The Earth is orbiting our sun. A full revolution is one trip around the sun, taking one year. If we start a timer on June 12th, it would take 365 days for the Earth to complete a full revolution, ending on June 12th the following year. 

There is a big difference between revolution and rotation. One creates sunsets and tides, and the other is responsible for our calendar. 

Don’t skip teaching the foundational stuff

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’m a huge proponent of scaffolding science concepts (and I’m probably guilty of oversimplifying) so that students can really understand what they’re learning. I assume with the emphasis put on reading and math in elementary school, student’s science exposure is pretty limited. 

And here I was. Skipping the very foundational stuff. 

Here’s the thing. Students get these words confused. They both start with R, they’re both pretty specific to how planets move, and they cause completely different phenomena in nature. 

In addition to our Earth rotating and revolving, planets and moons do the same thing. Our moon phases and eclipses are created by the moon revolving around the Earth. The high and low tides are caused by both the revolution of the moon and the rotation of the Earth. 

Get them familiar with rotation and revolution early

Students should fully understand these words before they determine what is caused by each phenomena. This interactive notebook is the best way to give your students a hands on opportunity to see and remember the difference between revolution and rotation.

Your students will see the words rotation and revolution in their reading and on websites as they learn. Addressing the difference up front is such an easy way to scaffold their learning and keep them from becoming confused later on. I find it best to teach Earth’s rotation and revolution at the beginning of the unit. You’ll be able to refer to each word, rather than spending multiple chunks of multiple class periods trying to undo confusion. 

Do yourself a teaching favor. Before you teach moon phases, tides, and seasons, spend a day talking about the difference between revolution and rotation. Your student’s will thank you. 

Moon phases are caused by the moon's revolution around the earth.
Earth Science, Space Science