Guest Post by: Justine Ickes, writer, mother, anthropologist, and traveler.
“My very educated mother just showed us nine planets.”
Remember that childhood mnemonic? Sadly, for most of us that’s as deep as our astronomy awareness goes. Fortunately, stargazing is an easy and fun way to boost your family’s celestial knowledge. Here’s how to get started.
UPDATE: Pluto is no longer a planet so the new and improved mnemonic an be:
“My Violent Evil Monster Just Scared Us Nuts”
“My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos”
1. Scope out a good spot.
Before your first astronomy excursion, locate an open area in your community with a clear view of the sky. An empty parking lot or a local sports field are good choices.
2. Rely on your naked eye.
Young children often have trouble using binoculars and telescopes because they tend to look at the lens instead of through it. So, when you first start out, plan on gadget-free stargazing. As your family becomes more adept at astronomy, you can invest in kid-friendly equipment. Remind children to never look directly at the Sun.
3. Focus on fun.
Pre-school-aged kids and those in the early elementary grades should be encouraged to notice and describe. So don’t worry too much about naming objects or explaining concepts to your pint-sized astronomers. When stargazing with older children, follow their lead and let their questions guide your astronomy explorations.
4. Look up and learn.
For stargazing enthusiasts, our universe offers lots to marvel at. Here are some ideas for observing the most prominent objects and phenomena.
The Moon — Observing the moon is a good way to introduce children to the concept of orbits and lunar phases. Engage young minds by asking questions. Where does the moon go during the day? Is the moon always in the same place every night? Is the moon the same color all over?
Stars — Because stars differ in size, brilliance and color, stargazing is great for developing your child’s powers of observation. Ask questions like What do you notice about the color of the stars? Are all the stars bright? Do the stars make any shapes?
Planets — Once they’ve learned how to use a telescope, your kids can use it to study the planets. What’s the difference between a planet and a star? Can you see Jupiter’s four moons? What’s special about Saturn? Why isn’t Pluto considered a planet anymore? When you get home download the Grammy-nominated “Here Comes Science” by They Might Be Giants for some astronomy-themed tunes.
Clouds — When it comes to clouds, beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. On full moon nights, why not do some cloud-watching? Or plan a daytime cloud-appreciation picnic and watch the nimbus, stratus and cumulus drift by. Again, ask questions about what you see. Are clouds always white? Why not? What are clouds made of? For more cloud appreciation ideas, visit www.jenhenderson.com
5. Find a local stargazing community.
Do a Google search to find astronomy organizations, clubs, planetariums, or observatories near where you live. Take advantage of free resources like the downloadable monthly maps at www.skymaps.com or NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day where you and your kids can see a different image each day and read an explanation by a professional astronomer. Check your library for astronomy-themed books like Zoo in the Sky (Jacqueline Mitton) or Faces of the Moon (Bob Crelin).
Bio: Justine Ickes, an anthropologist and expert in international education, writes about travel, culture and people making a difference. She has lived and worked in over 25 countries, designing and managing programs for the U.S. Peace Corps, the United Nations Population Fund, the Asociación Cultural Hispano-Norteamericano, the New School for Social Research and the French Culinary Institute, among others. Ms. Ickes is a contributing writer for Washington Parent and her work has appeared in New Jersey Monthly, Language Magazine and over two dozen publications. She blogs as the Cross-cultural Traveling Mom at www.travelingmom.com and at www.cultureeveryday.com.