There’s still time before school (and early bedtimes) start up again — take advantage of balmy evenings to spark an interest in astronomy.
Kids are naturally curious about the world, so getting your children into astronomy could be an easy sell if you go about it right. Start with something fun to hook their interest, like a late-night stargazing trip or a game. Here are nine ways to make astronomy your child’s number-one interest this summer.
What kid doesn’t love staying up past their bedtime to go on an adventure? Bring plenty of blankets and snacks, and find a scenic spot outside your town or city. While any clear night can be a good night for this activity, choosing one with a special astronomical event will make it more memorable and perhaps pique more interest.
This summer, look for bright Jupiter after sunset. Antares, the star that marks the heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion, shines just a couple degrees away from it in August. The waxing gibbous Moon will interfere with the peak of the Perseid meteor shower (night of August 12–13) this year, but you can look for meteors in the week before or after that date. If you can’t find time around one of those, check out the weekly Sky at a Glance for what’s happening when you do go out.
Glow-in-the-dark Paint or Stickers
You can also bring the stars inside by creating constellations on your child’s ceiling. If you’re not artistically inclined, buy a constellation kit (check Etsy if you have trouble finding one). If your child is old enough, this is a fun activity to do together — and you can sprinkle in some knowledge as you work, like the fact that on a clear night you can see up to 2.5 million light-years into the sky (a mind-boggling distance, even for adults). Constellation ceilings are great even for kids who are too young to help install them. They’re fun to look at and can instill a sense of curiosity about the night sky.
Try harnessing screen time to boost your child’s interest in the sky. There are several video games available from NASA in addition to YouTube videos, streaming space documentaries, and even television shows that can educate and inspire your child to explore the wonders of the universe. Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan are both known for their enthusiastic and engaging narratives; screen some Sagan astronomy videos to see which ones the kids might enjoy (or take a chance and pick one at random!).
Star Charts or Apps
One way to make the sky more engaging is to use a star chart or app. Some of us are old enough to be partial to the tangible object we can hold and move, but kids might prefer a digital version. If you want to go old school, pick up one of Sky & Telescope’s Planispheres. Or go digital with Stellarium, a fully functional planetarium program that’s free to download. The Star Walk 2 app is currently priced at $2.99. With a great, easy-to-use interface on mobile devices, it provides additional content for those who want to go more in-depth.
Binoculars and Telescopes for Kids
There’s a bit of a learning curve to using a telescope, so find one designed for kids to prevent frustration. When choosing your child’s first telescope, go for a less expensive model that still performs well. Some options come with Go To control, which can help beginners as they learn where to point the telescope and identify what they want to see. Sky & Telescope’s August 2014 issue also has great advice for younger children using telescopes.
Even better for someone just starting to learn the night sky is a pair of binoculars — with their wide field of view, binoculars can enable exploration in ways that high-powered telescopes can’t. And they’re less expensive too! Most children need to be coached the first time they pick up a pair of binoculars, but that coaching can be done in daylight hours with large, easy targets. Take your child out during the day and let them look at a variety of objects.
Be sure to talk to them about the dangers of looking directly at the Sun, though! Looking at the Sun through unfiltered binoculars will cause irreversible damage to their eyes.
In addition to offering an inside place to cool off during the hot months, a planetarium presents a breathtaking view of the universe. With different guided tours of the Moon, stars, Sun, and other aspects of the universe, planetariums please the senses while also delivering facts that will wow your kid. If you have a child who’s resistant to leisurely skywatching, this might be the activity you need to get them hooked.
Board or Internet Games
Sneaking learning into fun activities is a sure bet with kids. There are plenty of astronomy-themed board games out there, such as Patrick Moore's Astronomy Game. You can also redirect screen time to the games found on NASA’s Space Place site. Their activities help kids explore the earth, the sun, the solar system, comets, black holes, weather systems, and more. For older children who have developed an interest already, help them test their knowledge with these astronomy quizzes.
If you’re taking a road trip, put on a podcast. Sky & Telescope publishes a monthly podcast that highlights upcoming celestial events. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk mixes astronomy with physics and pop culture in entertaining hourish-long sessions. Podcasts can make a good addition to reading, and they make a great alternative to movies since they don’t require staring at a screen. There are even podcasts you can download to take with you on your next stargazing outing. If your child has a short attention span, try StarDate, a daily astronomy-themed bulletin broadcast by McDonald Observatory, which runs for only 2 minutes.
Astronomy Camp or Star Party
If your kid is already primed for an interest in astronomy, consider sending them to a summer camp to immerse them in the wonders of the universe for a week or more. Most of these camps are for kids ages nine and older, and there are some where you can join your kids for a summer family adventure. If you like camping, star parties can also make a great family outing — check out our Events Calendar to find something in your area.
Choose one of these ideas based on what you know about your child’s preferred activities, and remember that the more you share your sense of wonder and curiosity rather than approaching this as something they have to learn, the more open they’re likely to be.