Getting Children into Astronomy

By Richard Findon.

Giving your children an interest in astronomy will provide a lifetime of pleasure and satisfaction, a sense of wonder at the universe, a potentially lifelong hobby, as well as a possible professional career for them in later years!

Before you give them binoculars or buy them a telescope or a hand held planetarium, get your kids outside on a clear night to look at the stars in the way humans have always done - with their eyes. Naked eye astronomy is the way to begin learning about the heavens. That's because, apart from the moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and a few other night sky objects like the Pleiades, looking at something through binoculars or a telescope can be difficult and disappointing. The star which is a tiny point of light in the sky will remain a tiny point of light when magnified. Even holding binoculars steady enough for viewing is likely to be challenging for smaller children anyway.

It's much better to get children inspired about the night sky by having them learning about and watching the phases of the moon, or the shapes of the brighter constellations, without using instruments. Of course, if you are hazy about things like the names of the constellations yourself you will be setting out on a voyage of discovery
with your kids as well! There are many great software programs available which will display the currently visible night sky on your computer, or you can check the constellations in the charts in any good astronomy guidebook. Then you can pass on your knowledge when stargazing.

Another recommendation before venturing out in the dark - dress your kids warmly, make them wear hats, and don't try to do too much on the first night. Whether you stargaze in your yard, in the local park, or have to drive outside the city to get away from the artificial light and streetlights and get a clear view of the stars, don't let your kids get too cold. I know from bitter experience that this will make it harder to get them out the next time.

You can also be very clever about your first night sky adventure by choosing to go out when there are likely to be meteor showers. Consult a guidebook or an online web site to find out when and from which area of the sky the next meteor shower will come, and get your kids out to see it. This is exciting for kids as well as adults, and you can compete to see who can count the most.

If you live in higher latitudes, auroras (the northern or southern lights) are another spectacular night sky event: I have even roused my children from their beds to see a good one, and I'm sure they will thank me for it when they are older!

Spotting planets is another fine game, and the kids will soon be adept at pointing out Venus or Jupiter at dusk, given a clear sky.

As always with education, the secret is with reinforcement. If you mention the blue color of Rigel or the red color of Betelgeuse one night, ask the kids if they can remember the name of the red or blue stars in Orion the next time you go out. If you have been working on why the moon has phases, get them to experiment with a tennis ball and a flashlight. One method: place a flashlight (representing the sun) on a chair pointing at the child who then turns while they hold the tennis ball at arm's length to simulate the moon circling the earth.

Ways to teach about the night sky are limited only by your imagination, and when your kids have grasped the basics, you can then think about a telescope, and mastering that. At that point, the universe will really open up for parent and child.