If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they’d live a lot differently. - Bill Watterson
You don’t have to be an astronomy expert to share the wonders of the sky with your child. Here are some ideas and resources you can use:
Finding Planets and Constellations
I have always experienced feelings of awe and wonder when looking at the night sky, but for a long time I didn’t know much about what I was looking at. I knew some were stars, some were planets, and some were closer than others. But when my friend, Jenni, started teaching me some tricks about how to identify things in the night sky, I was surprised at how easy it is…and how fascinating! She taught me how to follow the arc of the big dipper to find the star Arcturus and then “spike” straight out from there to find the star Spica. She also taught me how to find the three stars lined up to form Orion’s belt.
One great resource for identifying stars and planets is the McDonald Observatory website, http://stardate.org/nightsky. On this site, you can print a weekly stargazing guide. We print it out and hang it on the fridge. It explains in clear, simple terms what you can see in the sky that night. And of course, there are some quite remarkable apps for searching the night sky. The one we use is Star Walk from Vito Technology, Inc. It has totally been worth the $2.99 I spent on it! https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/star-walk-5-stars-astronomy/id295430577?mt=8
Noticing the Moon’s Patterns
Children are naturally fascinated by our beautiful moon. I remember years ago my son would reach his arms toward the full moon and say, “Ball, ball, ball.” He was so little, and so enthralled with this glowing ball of rock. Now that he is 6, we’ve started taking note of how the moon changes throughout the month.
This week, his Kindergarten class started a moon chart where they draw the shape of the moon each night for a month. He has already noticed subtle changes between the crescent moon we saw three nights ago and the thicker crescent we saw last night. He is also fascinated by the fact that the moon is visible during the day sometimes.
The McDonald Observatory has a great webpage dedicated to the moon phases and a moon calculator where you can enter any date, past, present, or future and find the moon phase. This activity shows children how predictable this pattern of change is with our moon. Kids always want to enter their birthdays to see what the phase was on the day they were born! http://stardate.org/nightsky/moon
Spot the Station
Here on Earth, we often forget that there is a huge science lab orbiting our planet. The International Space Station is actually pretty easy to spot, if you know when to look up. In fact, it is the third brightest object in the sky! NASA’s Spot the Station website provides information on when and where to look for the space station. You can even sign up for NASA to send you emails or texts to notify you of sightings in your area. I just signed up yesterday and got a text this morning that the ISS will be passing over my city at 7:44 tonight. How cool is that? http://spotthestation.nasa.gov
Delight in the Wonder
It’s fun to identify stars, planets, moon phases, and the space station, but sometimes its best to just throw out a blanket, lay on your backs, and gaze upon the night sky together. No explaining, no identifying…just looking up at the stars and experiencing the sense of awe. You may want to read or listen to Adam Frank’s “How to Fall Forever Into the Night Sky” before the next time you do this. He puts this activity into marvelous perspective: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2013/08/13/208647989/how-to-fall-forever-into-the-night-sky.
For more ideas for sharing nature with the children in your life, check out the Next Time You See Facebook page: www.facebook.com/NextTimeYouSee.