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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:
- Buy or use a good set of binoculars to look at the moon. A telescope at the early stage is overkill and kids have trouble delaying gratification while you set it up. A good pair of binoculars, perhaps small enough to travel with you easily, can bring the moon in close enough to stimulate great conversation on stars, planets, moons, and space travel. I have a pair of small Nikon Travelite binoculars with 9x25 resolution. Prices are below $100 for what used to be a luxury item. They are small enough to carry easily in a jacket pocket and I take them with us on all family trips, for moon-watching, but also because the kids love to look at everything: birds, animals, neighbors, with them. And, as I always say, “it’s for the kids,” is always a good gambit to satisfy your middle-age desire for that pinball machine, slot-car set, or model train you’ve wanted since you were nine years old.
- Try an in-house planetarium. Don’t laugh. Especially if you are miles away from a science museum, or have young kids like I do, this might be a good option to familiarize the kids with concept of the solar system. At $29.95, don’t expect the Star Theater 2 to serve up popcorn for the show, but the price is right for the semi-sophisticated tool that it is. The Star Theatre is a clear globe with the stars and constellations printed on it. Inside is a halogen bulb, and when you turn it on, you get a projection on the walls and ceiling of the night sky. So, okay, with the lights illuminating everything that “isn’t” a star, the idea is a little upside-down, but the kids get the idea. A CD comes with the set, and in dulcet tones, the narrators explain the heavens. I found the CD narration to be both basic and interesting at the same time – clear enough for my six-year-old, but clearly a snore for my two-year-old. The globe itself, can be taken outside, and with its glow-in-the-dark printing, can be used as a star map (read on for other tools for this). Additionally, the Theatre comes with a “meteor-maker” the kids can play with to project asteroids on the ceiling while you fight for control so that you can show them the Big Dipper. I can’t imagine using this device thousands of times, but my daughter is still enthralled with the idea of stars and planets on the walls and regularly begs for a star show.
- A basic tool is a Constellation map for finding stars in the night sky. I recommend the Star Finder.
There are plenty to choose from on Amazon. We have something similar to the Orion Planisphere. It’s very simple and easy to use. At $1.99 though, try the Glow-In-The-Dark Star Finder and let me know what you think. At this price, you can’t go wrong. As the Amazon review says: “When you're out under the summer sky attempting to discern Leo on the western horizon, less is more. Try to juggle an astronomy tome and a flashlight and you'll end up with more mosquito bites than star sightings. A star dial is what's needed, a lightweight paper contraption that can be manipulated to show the sky as you see it, whatever the month and time of night. Accurate for the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, there is also a chart showing where to expect Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, month by month, through the year 2000. The stars are rated by magnitude; there's a zodiac dial identifying each zodiac constellation, showing how it appears in the sky; and most helpful of all, the stars are coated with a luminous treatment that causes them to glow in the dark, so you can see what you're looking for without ruining your night vision with bright lights. It's a superbly simple yet elegantly
constructed stargazer aid.”
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.
- Attach glow in the dark stars to your ceiling. This is a very low-cost idea that adds a magical element to both your child's bedroom and to bedtime. The stars are barely visible on a white ceiling but are very bright after lights out. It's easy to put up the simplest constellations (think Big and Little Dipper) and the stars are easy to remove from painted surfaces.
- And lastly, take a look at telescopes at some point. Not having any real experience (yet!) on this, I can only suggest taking a look at the selections below. Both National Geographic and the Discovery Store have good selections and provide good instruction materials for most science projects. Shop for Telescopes & Science Tools at National Geographic!