Sun Position and Shadow Patterns

In this unit, students explore science phenomena related to patterns that result from Earth’s rotation and the moon’s orbit around the sun. This page provides a brief overview of lesson two of this unit, in which students conduct two investigations and use the patterns they discover to make predictions about the future positions of the sun, moon, and stars in the sky. In the first investigation, students observe the sun’s position in the sky at different times of day, drawing a diagram (model) of the sun’s position above the horizon. In the second investigation, students use a sundial model to explore the relationship between the sun’s position and the length of shadows.

Science Background for Teachers:

The science background gives teachers deeper explanations of the phenomena that students investigate in the unit.

Earth’s rotation also causes the sun to appear to move across the sky over the course of a day. It is Earth’s rotation, and not the movement of the sun, that causes the sun to appear to change its position in the sky, rising in the east, traveling across the sky, and setting in the west.

As the sun rises in the east, it casts shadows that change throughout the day depending on where the sun appears in the sky. Shadows are dark shapes created when an object blocks light. Nighttime is actually caused by shadows—Earth itself is blocking the sun’s light from reaching the half of the planet facing away from the sun. During the day, the length and direction of the shadow depend on how low or high the sun is in the sky. When the sun shines down from directly above you, your head is the only part of your body blocking the sunlight. As a result, there is very little shadow. This is why in the middle of the day, around lunchtime, your shadow will become very small. It might even disappear. In contrast, your shadow will be the largest when the sun is near the horizon. This is because more of your body is blocking the sun’s light.

Supports Grade 1

Science Lesson: Exploring Sun Position and Shadow Patterns

In this unit, students explore the position of the sun and moon to see how each of these objects relate to one another and also how they affect day and night on Earth. Once students have modeled how the motions of Earth and the moon cause patterns we see from Earth (specifically day and night and the moon cycle), they investigate another pattern: the sun’s changing position in the sky over the course of a day, which occurs in a predictable way. They also measure the length of shadows at different times of day to provide evidence for the sun’s changing position.

Science Big Ideas

  • The sun appears in different locations in the sky throughout the day, and the changing positions of the sun happen in a way that can be predicted.
  • The sun produces light, and when objects block light from the sun, it creates shadows.

Sample Unit CTA-2
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Prepared hands-on materials, full year grade-specific curriculum, and personalized live professional development designed to support mastery of current state science standards.

Science Essential Questions

  • Is there a pattern in the position of the sun in the sky during the day?
  • Why does the sun’s position change in the sky in a predictable way throughout a day?
  • How does the position of the sun affect the length of shadows?
  • Are shadows something physical that can be held?
  • How does the shadow of a common object outside, such as a tree or a flagpole, change over a day?

Common Science Misconceptions

Misconception: The sun and the moon move around Earth, which is why their positions change in the sky over the course of a day.

Fact: Earth’s rotation is why the sun, moon, and stars appear to move across the sky.

Misconception: The moon can only be seen at night.

Fact: The moon can sometimes be seen in the sky during the day.

Misconception: Stars appear in the same place in the sky every night.

Fact: Just like the sun, the stars (and the moon) appear to move across the night sky over the course of a night as Earth continues its rotation.

Science Vocabulary

Axis: a straight line that an object rotates around

Day: the time between the sun’s rising and its setting

Moon cycle:  the changing appearance of the moon (as seen from Earth) as the moon orbits Earth

Night:  the time between the sun’s setting and its rising

Orbit:  to travel in a circle around an object

Pattern: something that happens in a regular and repeated way

Rotate : to move in a circle around an axis

Science:  all knowledge learned from experiments

Shadow: a dark shape created when an object blocks light 

Sun : a star at the center of the solar system

Lexile(R) Certified Non-Fiction Science Reading (Excerpt)

Sun and Shadows Telling Time

Jamie eats breakfast at 7:00 in the morning. He knows what time it is because he uses a clock. And Jamie knows what day it is because he has a calendar. Calendars tell us what day it is in the week. They also tell us what month it is in the year.

People haven’t always told time with clocks or calendars. They looked to the sky instead. People could predict when the moon would be round and bright. It appears that way every time the moon reaches that spot in its orbit around Earth.

People also used the movement of the sun across the sky to tell time. The sun does not stay in one place in the sky. It begins the day in one part of the sky. It always rises in the east. It then appears to move across the sky. It ends the day in a different part of the sky. It sets in the west. The path of the sun is a pattern. If we know where the sun is at one moment, we can predict where it will be at another moment.


Hands-on Science Activity

During the hands-on activity, students investigate the position of the sun throughout a day and explore observable shadow patterns. Students use a straw to build a sundial to observe the shadow patterns. They record their observations before analyzing and discussing the data to make predictions about sun position and shadow patterns.

Science Assessments

KnowAtom incorporates formative and summative assessments designed to make students thinking visible for deeper student-centered learning.

  • Vocabulary Check
  • Lab Checkpoints
  • Concept Check Assessment 
  • Concept Map Assessment 
  • And More...


Science Standards

See How KnowAtom Aligns to NGSS Science Standards

Discover hands-on screens-off core science curriculum for student centered K-8 classrooms. KnowAtom supports classrooms with all hands-on materials, curriculum, and professional development to support mastery of the standards.

Download the Alignment to NGSS

Standards citation: NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.