I have always loved looking up into a night sky and seeing the brilliance and glory of the stars and planets. These are experiences I want to share with our son. I also want to share them with other kids in our life. However, not all kids are going to realize how amazing our night sky is without a little help. So how about some tips to encourage kids to enjoy the night sky?
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Our night sky is full of possibilities. Full of stories. Full of adventures. Staring up into the sky reminds us of how big the universe is. Helps us realize we are part of something bigger. Expands our imaginations. Encourages a child’s natural love of learning. And we can achieve all of this by enjoying the night sky with kids.
Starting with Books
It’s probably the librarian in me but I have to start with books. There are so many great titles out there. I’m going to do my best to not overwhelm you with suggestions because this is not a book review site. If you are interested in more titles, please visit your local library (or send me an email). In the meantime, here are a few new titles publishing in 2021.
We like to start with stories of the constellations. There are 88 internationally recognized constellations. NPR made a nice video for locating those visible in the Northern hemisphere during the summer. Many of these constellations were named from Greek and Roman mythology. There is a new title for adults entitled Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook: From Aphrodite to Zeus, a Profile of Who’s Who in Greek Mythology which is not something we would recommend reading to a child. But it gives the adult the stories to tell. Additionally, there is a new pop-up book coming in October for younger children that looks really good: My First Pop-Up Mythological Monsters: 15 Incredible Pops-Ups. Sometimes we read the story first and then find the constellation. Other times we do that in reverse.
After enjoying the mythology along with our constellations, we like to dig deeper into the science behind the stars. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has written Cosmic Queries: Startalk’s Guide to Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going based on the podcast StarTalk. This will appeal to adults and older teens. For a middle and high school audience we recommend The Universe: The Big Bang, Black Holes, and Blue Whales from Nomad Press. It discusses the science of cosmology in an accessible manner. Plus, it includes hands-on activities and comic-style illustrations.
There are so many good books about important figures in our journey to space. I’m excited about the new picture book about the first American to walk in space: The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk in Space. Additionally, in July, Wonders All Around about Bruce McCandless II is being published. You know the classic image of the astronaut in the snow-white spacesuit, floating in space, untethered? Well, it is a photo of Bruce McCandless II. He was an astronaut for 26 years and the photo was taken by Hoot Gibson, who actually happens to live in middle Tennessee and we got to meet him recently.
Some kids need stories to catch their interest. I was one of them. There are several kids books publishing this year that would have had me begging to do the same. First up is The Night Walk from Floris. In this story, two children are awakened in the night by their parents to go for a walk that takes all night long. Next is Seeking an Aurora. Again, a parent wakes a child at night and off they go on a walk to the top of a hill and see the night come alive. Talk about enjoying the night sky with kids!
The last one I want to mention doesn’t publish until October (right in time for the Draconid and Orionid Meteor Showers) but I was lucky enough to see an advance copy. It is Skywatcher and is the story of a child who longs to see the stars but lives in a light-polluted urban setting. Somehow his mother finds a way to get him out into the wilderness for a night of camping and he is wowed by the glorious Milky Way.
For the graphic novel enthusiasts among us, My Weird School has gone to space with Mr. Corbitt is in Orbit and there is a new series that we are looking forward to reading: Astro Mouse and Light Bulb #1: Vs Astro Chicken. This import from Spain sounds like it will be right up Tadpole’s alley.
Storytime From Space:
It would be remiss of me to not mention that your child can listen to an astronaut read a story in the program Storytime From Space. This project was created by the Global Space Education Foundation. They send child-friendly titles to the International Space Station. Astronauts then videotape themselves reading the books. These videos are then hosted on the Storytime From Space website.
I tried SO HARD to keep this section short. Did it work?
Moving on to Your Backyard
Now that we have introduced the night sky to the kids, it is time to take them outside to enjoy seeing those stars, planets, and the moon. The easiest place to do this is in our own backyard. Unfortunately, some of us have to deal with light pollution. If this is you, don’t despair. Look for other locations within driving distance that offer a nice dark place to set up. Fodors has this list of ten best stargazing sites in the United States.
Items to bring:
We suggest starting with bug spray if you are going out during a time in which bugs are active in your area. Next, bring a blanket, and maybe a pillow, to make the ground more comfortable. A red flashlight will allow you to look at a star map without losing your night vision. That star map could be print or an online version such as an app on your phone. The one we use is GoSkyWatch. If you have them, binoculars or a telescope can also be nice. We don’t use ours as often as we should, but we are trying to be more mindful of taking it with us camping. Last, but not least, don’t forget snacks! Snacks can retain the interest of many a child while we are waiting for the constellations to appear.
How about some Rocket Fruit Kabobs for a quick appetizer? Then, move on to either Mini Star Sandwiches or Rocket Dogs. To make the star sandwiches, layer bread, meat, and cheese, then cut with a star cookie cutter. Rocket dogs are hotdogs on a skewer wrapped in a strip of either biscuit or crescent roll dough. For dessert we recommend some Asteroid Cereal Treats, Constellation Cookies, or Phases of the Moon Sandwich Cookies. The phases of the moon can be simple or complex. And if you just want a quick snack, we love these Alien Pretzels!
Don’t want to make your own food? Try these tasty treats: Moon Pies, Orbit Gum, Milky Ways, Cosmic Brownies, Mars Bars, and Starburst Candies.
Once you are ready, you will want to set up at or before dusk. This will allow your eyes to adjust to night vision. We suggest putting yourself into a mediation state of mind. Slow down, breathe, enjoy the moment. If you are in a group, we recommend going over star party etiquette.
Do consider age-appropriate goals. Help them recognize that we aren’t out there to just memorize a bunch of shapes in the sky. Younger children will like hearing more stories about the stars. Older children might want to know more about the science behind our knowledge about space. Either way, our goal is to have those kids enjoy the night sky.
Look into Nighttime Nature Events
If some of this seems overwhelming, look into events being held by nearby national or state parks, your local parks and rec department, or even junior ranger programs. A list of some astronomy clubs and events can be found at Night Sky Network. Some terms to search for include campfire sing-a-longs, night hikes, stargazing events, or evening canoe/kayak adventures. Some of these events may be free. Others might cost a bit. Regardless, having a professional guide the group can be worth the cost of the event.
International Dark Sky Parks
While we don’t have any dark parks near us, we have on our bucket list to visit at least one in our lifetime. What are dark sky parks? They are, and I quote from, “An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. The land may be publicly owned, or privately owned provided that the landowner(s) consent to the right of permanent, ongoing public access to specific areas included in the IDA designation.” There are 99 world-wide, with 72 in the United States.
Any Planetariums nearby?
Do you have a planetarium in your vicinity? If so, it is time to check what programs it has to offer. If not, take a look at any that are along your travels. Additionally, some might offer online programs which are worth investigating.
While not a planetarium, we had a fabulous trip to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama a few years back. We even got in free because we were members of our local science museum and they had reciprocal admission. Talk about an inspiring look at the science of space and our journey to the stars!
Night Sky Events
Creating a calendar of events can be a fun way to keep the interest alive. Start with Spot the Station and see how often you can see the International Space Station go on by.
Next, add meteor showers to your calendar. The Perseids Meteor Shower which takes place late July through late August, has to be one of my favorites. Partly because it takes place before school gets too intense here. Partly because it can produce up to 100 shooting stars during the peak. For other meteor showers we recommend checking out the list at Space.com.
Keep your ears open to find out when there will be other interesting events to add to your calendar such as planets in close conjunction or when auroras might appear. Spaceweather is a great place to find fun celestial events coming up.
Get Crafty with It!
Some kids respond well to crafts and I have some suggestions for you! First up are instructions from Sky and Telescope on making a star wheel. What is a star wheel? I’m glad you asked. Also called a planisphere, a star wheel is a map of the sky which rotates based on time and location.
Next up, to help with those fine motor and visual perception skills, are star sewing cards. While these cards can be made in a variety of simple shapes, we like these constellation shapes.
One more book to mention is Explore Comets and Asteroids!: With 25 Great Projects from Nomad Press. This title is part of the Explore Your World! Series of which we are huge fans. With comic-style illustrations, it provides an introduction to space and offers step-by-step directions for multiple projects such as making asteroid cookies, writing imaginary tweets, and, and building a refracting telescope.
Games to Play
We wanted to mention a couple of games as well. How fun is it that NASA has the SpacePlace website and the Kids’ Club website with games for kids to play? Additionally, Barefoot Books offers a SpaceQuest themed set of Build-a-Story Cards.
As a teenager we lived in a house whose roof did not have a steep incline. My parents allowed me to go up on it throughout the summer. There I enjoyed watching meteor showers, planets in close conjunction, and learning about constellations. Nowadays I still love these activities. I also look forward to watching the International Space Station when it passes overhead. I only hope that sharing these events with kids helps them to enjoy the night sky as well.