Expand Your Child’s Universe with Stargazing for Kids

It’s 7 pm and pitch black outside – what’s on the agenda for some fun nighttime activities? Netflix? Forget it! Jenga? No thanks, it’s time to head outside for a cosmic and mystical show from Mother Nature– we’re talking stargazing. 

At first, the night sky can seem like a confusing mass of lights, but it doesn’t have to be that way, says Paul Hertz, Director of Astrophysics at NASA headquarters and an astronomer. “The most important thing to realize when we look up at the night sky,” he says, “is that we can actually understand what all those lights are that we’re seeing.”

Here are some basic steps on how to get started; then just let Mother Nature do her thing!

Pique Their Interest

Visit your local planetarium or attend a guided discussion at your local observatory to get the kids interested.

Hertz suggests talking to your kids about the fundamentals of astronomy, and their place in the universe: “the basic layout of the universe, the fact that the earth goes around the sun, the fact that the rising and setting of stars and moon and sun are caused by the earth rotating, and not the sky rotating around the earth.”

Before you head outdoors, check the evening sky first. Try EarthSky, and click Tonight to see what’s on tap. The best stargazing is on a clear night with little humidity and when the moon isn’t shining, because a bright moon can wash out large areas of the sky. (The New Moon or Last Quarter cycle is best.)

Try to observe from a dark location, away from direct lights like street lamps or porch lights. Once outside, give your eyes a good 10-15 minutes to adjust to the light. Your pupils will gradually open to their fullest, and allow in more light from the stars.

Stargazing Kit

  • Lawn chairs that recline, a hammock, or blankets and pillows
  • Dress in layers. Even if it’s warm outside, the lack of movement may make it chilly
  • Bug repellent
  • Star map apps like Star Walk or Google Sky
  • Binoculars and/or a telescope if you have one
  • A flashlight, to see your way around
  • A journal to record observations and thoughts
  • Snacks and drinks

Do You See What I See?

A telescope isn’t required for beginners. Using your peepers will give you plenty to see and admire. However, binoculars make an ideal first telescope. They make it a bit easier by providing a wide view and magnification, especially if you’re looking for a particular target. Binoculars show a view that's right-side up and straight in front of you, making it easy to locate and share what you’re looking at. You can pick up a decent pair relatively cheap; look for 7 x 50.

You can also encourage your kids to look to the stars by making pocket star guides:

Now Showing

What’s truly wonderful about stargazing is that each night is a new show. Why stop at the Big Dipper? Each season has its own cast of stars. In the summer, for instance, Aquila, the eagle and Sagittarius, the archer is showcased. If the night sky is dark enough you can see the Milky Way. Using binoculars you can see craters and bumpy edges on the moon. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter can easily be seen.

Celestial Event of the Year

Meteors, pebble-sized pieces of space debris, fall through the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up in a few seconds, igniting a sudden trail of light across the sky. Look up on any night and you might see 2 or 3 meteors each hour.

But the celestial event of every year is the Perseids, annually appearing in mid-August. You'll be treated to one of the best meteor showers of the year, with peak meteor viewing up to 60 meteors per hour. These fast and bright meteors radiate from the constellation Perseus the Hero. You won't need a map to find them because they will appear in all parts of the sky. As midnight draws near, the Perseids will strengthen in number, but the best show will likely happen in the wee hours before dawn.

Map to the Stars

Detailed star maps are easily obtained on websites like The Old Farmer's Almanac. The kids can decide which ones they would like to look for before you head out. Take your apps, but let their imaginations go wild and ask them what they are seeing. Encourage them to connect the dots and make up their own names for a constellation. See if they can find a basic shape like a triangle, or something more detailed like an animal or a car. You may want to get them journals so they can write or draw pictures of what they see each time they go out. The more you look, the more you will see of our amazing universe.

Have you ever gone stargazing with the kids? What constellations did you spot, and what was in your stargazing kit? Share with us!

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