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There is nothing like sitting outside in the dark with your kids and staring up at the night sky. Time stands still as you both ponder the enormity of the universe and your place within it. Poetry springs to mind as you try to explain to your child how people 100 years ago didn’t have television and 500 years ago could really imagine a “man in the moon.” Talking about the constellations brings more talk about ancient people seeing stories in stars and constructing their world-view out of the few reproducible phenomena in their lives. Even a three-year-old can fall under the spell of the heavens. Every child should be able to look into the sky, understand that our earth revolves at a speed of some 800 miles and hour, and see the stars for what they are: dying suns millions of light years away. Better yet though, is for a child (or adult) to be able to recognize the constellations and the planets. That’s a basic skill like knowing how to juggle, play the harmonica or how to score a baseball game. None are necessary for survival in the world, but are part of a basic set of skills that make life fuller, more nuanced, and more interesting.
However, if you’re like me, this is not information you ever learned in school. Amateur astronomy, the inspirational kind for non-astrophysicists, is not taught in school. It’s like the non-existent course on “how to invest in the stock market” that would have saved you a bundle if only they had had a course like that in college. Luckily, like a lot of things on the big list of “Things I wish I had learned in school,” there are ways to fill in the gap of your knowledge and that of your children.
First, obviously, is a trip to local museum and planetarium. Not surprisingly, I have not done that with my kids. Instead, I jumped for accessible tools we could look at at home and take with us on trips anywhere I think there will be a big black sky we can peer into together. By all means, go to the local planetarium. Better yet, if there is an observatory, check that out on a clear, warm summer night.
However, if you have little kids who would not sit through a planetarium show, or stay up late enough to take the Observatory route, here are a few other ideas:
These star maps are simple cardboard items, about the size of a magazine and as thick as a few pieces of cardboard. The non-glow-in-the-dark ones require that you put a piece of red plastic over your flashlight for reading them in the dark, or your eyes will never be able to go back and forth from the map and the sky.
If your budget allows, take a look at the Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium. I have not seen this gadget perform, but it sounds magical.
Another take on the same theme is the Stellarscope, which allows you to look up through a telescope-style device to see the stars as they would appear in the sky. At close to $40, it’s more expensive and bulky, and probably over-kill for most.