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14 billion, five and a half

Creating the collage ‘The Sun was born with several thousand siblings’.

Every child should have the gift of understanding how our Universe evolved and our place within it.

On March 25th, I was involved in a magical event at the St James independent primary school in Kensington. Entitled ‘The Story of the Universe: Our Story’, 400 children expressed what they learnt about the history of the Universe, from the big bang to present day and their perspectives on their place within it with art, creative writing, mathematics, dance and music.

Our team numbered the wonderful teaching staff at the school, and our small group led by former Imperial College PhD in cosmology Dagny Yousuf-Kimberly; Professor Jonathan Halliwell from Theoretical Physics at Imperial College; local writer, economist and former dancer Nicole Barberry-Bleyleben and me.

A sign of success? The following week, one father told me that his young son when asked his age replied: “14 billion, five and a half”.

Our activities included:


  • Introduction on birth and growth (flowers, horses, stars, the Universe).
  • Big numbers (powers of 10, up to the age of the Universe) using grains of rice and "0"s.


  • Geraldine's talk on 'Connectedness' and our Sun-Earth-Moon system.
  • Free "rocket" writing for 8 minutes.
  • Black hole lunch.
  • Chalk drawing of solar system in courtyard.
  • Jonathan's musical journey through the evolution of the Universe.
  • Star dust on cheeks.


  • Big bang parachute demo.
  • Solar system formation and colliding galaxy dances.
  • The forces at play (gravity, energy) using an elastic band.


  • Hydrogen and the age of the Universe.
  • Constructing a cosmic timeline.
  • Hubble and the expansion of  the Universe (balloon and sticker-dot demo).
  • Einstein, curved space-time (mini trampoline-ball demo) and black holes.
  • Discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (constructing CMB galaxy gardens).
  • Maths (what is an equation?, constructing hyperbolic paraboloids, conic sections in space).
  • Universe in a bottle (soap suds in a bottle coalesce and change - discuss cosmic structure).
  • Story telling (creation myths and historical excerpts).     


  • Sun's siblings collage (1,000 stars).
  • Building a totem to show the cosmic timeline.

A huge thank you to the children, teachers and project team – Dagny, Niki and Jonathan. Thank you also to the team from Global Generation at the 'skip garden' in Kings Cross, who warmly hosted, facilitated and inspired us at our project planning supper.

To close with a comment from a parent posted on the school's website.

Universe Day

Dear Mrs Thomlinson

Many thanks to all who were involved in the Universe theme. If Theo is anything to go by, it was a huge success. He is full of extraordinary facts, figures and questions (lots of googling), and a new ambition to study Physics. We’re amazed by how much he has learned in a short time and how excited he is by it all. As an educator, I know it can’t have been easy to present such a complex topic in an accessible, memorable and meaningful way to this age group, but I think St James has done it.


All best wishes.