Starlight, Starbright, Stargazing Tonight!

Space exploration starts in your very own backyard! A night outdoors can inspire your youngsters to be lifelong stargazers. Stimulate their curiosity in outer space by taking a trip into your backyard to view the moon, stars, planets, and maybe even a UFO!

To prepare for your mission, build on your children’s background knowledge of space by creating fact cards together. On one side of each index card, affix a picture of an object that is related to space. Look for pictures of items like planets, constellations, shuttles, satellites, astronauts, and telescopes in science and astronomy magazines or print them from NASA’s website. On the opposite side of each index card, write the object’s name, a description explaining what it is, and a few key facts about it. Have children practice their grouping and soring skills with the cards you’ve made. Which are planets? What items are red? Which ones can be seen without a telescope? Once your children have a basic understanding of the night sky, it’s time to gather a few supplies for the evening trip outside.

You’ll spend a lot of time looking upwards, so reclining lawn chairs or blankets are ideal for your adventure. You may want to be outside for a long time, especially if it’s the date of a meteor shower so be sure everyone has attire appropriate for the night. Even though the temperature is warmer in the summer, you can still get chilly in the cool night air. Plus, the ground may become moist with dew. Take along flashlights, preferably ones with red beams or those with a lens that you have covered with red cellophane. The reddened light won’t be as hard on your eyes as white light can be. It won’t take your eyes as long to adjust to the darkness when your flashlight shines red. If you have a telescope or binoculars, bring them. Kids love experimenting with these instruments for viewing that will extend their natural senses. Pack water and snacks to bring along but leave the greasy potato chips indoors so their oils won’t cover your instruments. One thing each stargazer can also take is a journal to record what is seen. For each journal entry, prepare a spot to record the date, time, location, weather conditions, instruments used, details about the object being observed, and the object’s name if you know what it is called. Leave a large amount of space for sketching a picture of the object. Taking notes on an observation helps kids to look more closely at the objects. Reviewing the entries later will help your children grasp the concept of passing time as they see the position of many objects change as Earth revolves around the sun.

The moon is a great place for kids to start pursuing space. Not only can you study the phases of the moon with your children, but you can study its craters too. Even with the naked eye, they will notice the moon’s craters. When they add these features to the sketch in their journals, they will surely make some craters larger than others. Ask them to explain why this is the case and then tell them that they will do an activity the following day to illustrate why some craters are large and others are small.

With a few simple materials, you can demonstrate how the impact of an object forms a crater on the moon. Fill a pie plate with dirt. Add a layer of sand followed by a layer of flour. Next, have the children drop pebbles of varying sizes into this pie plate. The result of each can be recorded in the observation journal. Children will see how divots are created in the layers of the pie plate. They will also see how the material of each layer is scattered about when the pebble makes impact. Journal records should indicate the size of the pebble used and the size of the crater it makes. Continue experimenting with craters by having the children observe and record the results brought about by larger and smaller pebbles as well as those from the pebbles being dropped from various heights.

Finding constellations with your children can be a lot of fun, too. In addition to identifying their locations, you can share with the children the stories of their namesakes. In the sky, they can identify the constellation Hercules, but do they know the stories of the hero? Some constellations like the Big Dipper have a mythology that changes according to different groups of people. Why did Britons think of it as the chariot of King Arthur? Why did the Cherokee Indians see it as lacrosse players inside a canoe? How does the Iroquois myth differ from that of the Cherokee? The stars in the sky above will offer great entertainment to fill a night of family time.

If you get the chance to view the night sky in a location other than your backyard, prepare your children for noting the similarities and differences they will encounter. If you live in the country, venture into the city on a clear night to see if the stars are visible or if streetlights and pollution cover them. You can also check the schedule of events at your local planetarium to learn more about the night sky. Also see if a nearby state or national park will be visited by astronomy clubs and societies. These events often set up telescopes for visitors to use.