You don’t have to be an expert astronomer to stargaze with your kids; you can learn right alongside them. Stargazing as a family can be a lot of fun, but what you do need is time and patience—if you have a hard time locating objects in the sky, imagine how hard it can be for a 6 year old! The most important thing that you can do for your child is to help them to appreciate the beauty of the night sky, and to help them become children who look up and wonder.
One of the roadblocks for parents stargazing with their children is the timing—it obviously has to happen at night, right? While actual “star”gazing needs to happen when it’s dark, there are some astronomical events that can be seen in the daytime such as eclipses, viewing the moon at certain phases, and rare planet transits across the sun. These can provide some great introductory opportunities for children, but the real excitement definitely happens at night.
It is certainly a great idea to learn a constellation or two, or find out which planets are in the sky so that you can point them out to your children on the way to the car after seeing a late night movie. These can be great learning opportunities for your children, but to really inspire a sense of wonderment about the sky, you need to be intentional about setting aside “stargazing time”. If you are a family that regularly camps, this can be a great time to stargaze. You are often already up later than usual, and normally in a dark area away from city lights. Another idea is to set up a “family stargazing party” in your own backyard or someplace close to home—just keep in mind that the amount of light around will determine how many objects you will be able to see in the night sky.
The best way to ensure a positive experience for you and your child is to provide a relaxing and cozy setting. Standing up with your neck craned to look up is only comfortable if you plan to be out for just a short time. If your plan is to be out for longer than a few minutes, have a blanket to lie down on or reclining beach-style chairs to relax in. Have with you any materials that you might need—a planisphere, a flashlight (paint the lens with red nail polish so that it’s not too bright), and guidebooks from the local library.
Snacks are a great thing to have for children if they start to get bored—why not go with the theme and get Moonpies or make Meteorite Krispie Treats. This can inspire a lot of fun with young children, and you can re-name almost anything with a “space” name— i.e. “Cosmic Crackers” or “Martian Milk Chocolate”. For older children, bring their favorite snack along as a special treat.
While a nice summer night is probably the most comfortable, consider stargazing in the winter. Early winter nights are ideal for children who have earlier bedtimes. Just put on your winter gear and don’t forget the hot chocolate!
Bring something else to do
While we would all love for our children to have the time of their lives gazing up at the sky for hours, this might not be a reality for most children. Have some things planned other than just stargazing.
- Bring along your Stargazing Diary.
- Have your iPod programmed with a special playlist of space-themed songs, or just a few of everyone’s favorites.
- Check out a few astronomy books from the library and take some time to read various constellation myths.
Whatever you do, please take this time to put away the media devices! This is a great opportunity to “unplug” with your child. Resist the temptation to quickly check your email or send that text that you forgot about earlier in the day. Your children will take your lead on this. If bring your laptop along, it won’t be long before they are begging to watch that YouTube video or check Facebook.
Have age-appropriate goals
Stargazing with small children (8 and under) is very different than with older children. Smaller children will most likely not be able to stay up as late as older children. This doesn’t mean that you have to wait until children are older to begin stargazing—start with some of those daytime events such as eclipses and looking at the moon during the day. Discuss where the sun rises and sets, and how high it is in the sky that day. (Remember, the sun is our nearest “star”!) When you do have an opportunity to have your young children up past sunset, aim for shorter stargazing periods—15 or 20 minutes of looking up at the sky is suitable for children 8 and under, especially for the first few times out.
Keep the developmental stage and attention span of your children in mind as you begin to look at constellations and other objects. I have found that one or two new constellations are about all that most people (including adults!) can remember at a time. It’s best to focus on remembering one constellation than introducing 7 or 8 that you can’t remember. The ability to “connect the dots” of a constellation in the sky can be very hard for children depending on their developmental stage. For children who have a hard time “seeing” the constellations, encourage them to find their own. They can look for different shapes that the stars make in the sky, or find the first letter of their name in the stars. Utilize your child’s imagination—have them make up their own myths about constellations that they see. Check out books from the library on constellation myths and use this time to tell a few stories.