6 Ways to Explore the Nighttime Sky With Your Kids
By Jacquie Fisher
Published October 10, 2013
Are your kids curious about the night sky?
Do they stump you with questions like “How many stars are in the sky?” or “Why does the moon change?”
There are lots of fun ways your family can learn more about the night sky together, right from your own backyard or kitchen table.
In this article I’ll show you six easy ways to introduce your kids to astronomy and feed their fascination with space—no telescope required.
Why Explore the Night Sky?
Take a few minutes after dark tonight to step outside with your kids and look up.
Now, ask your children what they see.
Kids are naturally curious and the sky above us is full of amazing things that incite wonder: the stars, the moon, the planets and the vastness of it all.
Observe the sky several evenings in a row and your kids will notice that the sky looks different each night than it did the night before.
The moon may appear to be getting larger or smaller. The stars may seem brighter and more noticeable (or dimmer and harder to see). The sky itself may seem brighter or darker.
And, of course, they’ll wonder why.
Take advantage of this curiosity and introduce your kids to the wonders of the cosmos.
The night sky is full of wonders to explore with your family. Go outside and look up! Image source: iStockPhoto.
It’s easier than you may think to teach your kids about astronomy. You don’t need to invest hundreds of dollars in a telescope or know much about science yourself to have a great time exploring space together.
This video shows how one family learned about the night time sky together.
You’ll discover six fun ways—from books, to phone apps to even a tasty snack—to feed your kids’ fascination with the starry sky.
You Will Need
- 1 bag of mini-marshmallows
- White pencil or crayon
- Black construction paper
- Constellation diagrams (link included below)
- Moon chart (link included below)
- Books from the book list (many can be found at your local library)
- Apps for your phone (can be downloaded with links included below)
- Optional: binoculars or a telescope for outdoor viewing
Most of the activities take less than 15 minutes of prep time; some will need to be completed at night when the stars are out
30 minutes to 3 hours (depending on how many activities you choose to do)
- Most activities can be completed at home or in your backyard
- Optional visit to an observatory or planetarium—they can usually be found within an hour of most locations.
Here are six fun ways to learn about space with your kids. Choose one or two, or choose all six.
#1: Read About the Moon and Stars
Story time is a great way to introduce children to new topics or expand their current knowledge.
My kids always like to learn new words they can impress me with and reading together is one of the best ways to do this. Astronomy has a whole vocabulary of its own they can show off!
There are many wonderful books you can read together about the moon, stars and other things you see in the sky. Check some of these out next time you’re at the library or bookstore.
These books can answer a lot of your kids’ questions so you don’t have to. They’ll explain that a constellation is a group of stars that make an imaginary picture in the night sky. Kids will also learn that the moon doesn’t ‘change’ its shape, why some stars look brighter than others, and how a star shines.
Your children may beg for another trip to the library soon, to get more astronomy books!
#2: Create Your Own Constellations
After learning about the stories and pictures behind the constellations, surprise your kids with this fun (and yummy) project.
Make your own models of the constellations from toothpicks and marshmallows.
Step 1: Choose your favorite constellation. Your kids’ favorite may be one that they can easily see in the sky or a myth or animal they like. We chose Orion, the hunter. His belt of three stars in a row is simple to find from where we live.
Choose a constellation you like. Draw it on black paper.
Step 2: Draw the constellation on black paper using a white pencil or crayon. Use constellation pictures from the books you read or from a constellation web-site as a template.
Build a model of the constellation using marshmallows and toothpicks.
Step 3: Construct the constellation using mini-marshmallows for the stars and toothpicks for the imaginary connecting lines.
Marshmallow constellations—a fun and tasty way to learn about the stars.
This project is lots of yummy fun and it helps teach kids what to look for when they peer into the night sky at the actual stars.
#3: Track the Size of the Moon
Your family will love this activity as you head outside to search for the moon each night.
Print out a calendar page to use for this activity from Science NetLinks.
Print this calendar to keep track of the phases of the moon for a month. Image source: sciencenetlinks.com.
Each evening or early morning, go outside with your children and find the moon. Sometimes you can locate it by looking out the window, but it’s best to head outside.
Go outside and find the moon. Image source: iStockPhoto.
Draw the shape of the moon on the calendar square for that day. After a few days, they will notice that the shape of the moon is changing.
A ‘waxing’ moon is one that appears to be growing larger and a ‘waning’ moon is one that appears to be getting smaller.
Track the moon every night for a month to see every phase of the lunar cycle. Image source: sciencenetlinks.com
You can also track the moon’s phases using apps on your phone. Download Moon Phases for the iPhone and iPad apps or Moon Phases Lite for Android.
Tracking the moon for a month will illustrate and reinforce one entire lunar cycle, bringing a concept that may be hard to grasp a little closer to home.
#4: Head Outside and Locate Constellations
On a clear evening, spend some time outside looking at the stars together. It’s a fun activity to do after a hike or a picnic dinner and it’s just as fun to simply turn off the TV or computer and step outside for awhile—no planning required!
Go outside and watch the stars come out.
We’ve had the best luck with seeing constellations and even some viewable planets by heading to a local park and away from the streetlights.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a large state or national park, they are optimal places for viewing the stars, as they have limited light pollution coming from artificial lighting.
Some stars have names. Others are actually planets. Occasionally you can even see the international space station zooming past.
You can print a map of the stars in the sky where you live (to the nearest city).
Get a map of the sky wherever you live. Image Source: SkyMapOnline.net
For a mobile approach, these apps will help you identify the constellations you can see in the night sky above you, right from your phone.
Simply point your iPhone, iPad, or iPod at the sky to identify stars, constellations, planets, satellites, and more!
Try SkyView for iPhone, iPod or iPad.
With these apps, all you need to do is hold your phone up to the sky. Your phone or tablet’s camera will read the stars to identify the location of the sky above you. You’ll be able to see the constellations on the screen as you try tosearch for them in the sky directly above. It’s pretty cool.
Point your Android device at the sky and Star Chart will tell you exactly what you are looking at.
If you have an Android, you can use an app such as Star Chart.
Note: The sky map for your area will change with the seasons as the earth’s tilt shifts so make sure that you have the correct map for the current season or things will seem confusing. Sea & Sky has a complete list of constellations that can be viewed each month.
There are some wonderful celestial events that occur each year and many can be viewed with the naked eye. Kids will enjoy viewing the sky during these events:
For more information on using star maps and star wheels, see this video from Sky & Telescope.
#5: Visit a Planetarium or Observatory
Are your kids addicted to space yet? After reading about the moon and stars, tracking the lunar cycle, making models of the constellations, and going outside for some good old fashioned star gazing with a modern technological twist, they’re probably begging for a visit to your nearest planetarium or observatory.
Many cities have planetariums or observatories that are open for public viewings and shows.
Observatories are buildings that house very large and strong telescopes that allow people to view stars, galaxies and celestial bodies. Families will get a great introduction to the stars and planets by viewing them through high-powered telescopes.
Visit an observatory to see the stars up close through a powerful telescope. Image Source: Steve Jurvetson
We had a great time during our visit to a local observatory. The viewing included stars in other galaxies, three planets and some amazing constellations. Find an observatory near you.
Check the show schedule for your closest planetarium and find the one that’s best for your kids’ ages. Our local planetarium has a wonderful ‘Sesame Street’ showing for young kids.
#6: Add some ‘Twinkle’ to Your Room
If your kids are like mine, once you start to learn about space together, they won’t want to stop. Here are a few ways to bring the stars right into your children’s bedrooms.
Create glow-in-the-dark constellations for your kids’ rooms.
My kids loved creating glow-in-the-dark constellations using peel-and-stick star kits that can be found online. I would suggest that you make them on paper that can then be hung on the wall or ceiling of your child’s room. The light during the day energizes the stars so they’ll glow at night.
Fun toys that allow kids to explore the stars from their own bedrooms.
There are also several toys and projectors that will shine constellations on the ceiling of a dark room. They’re a fun way for your kids to explore constellations every night.
So read them a book about the stars as they’re going to bed. They’ll be able to see those very stars on their ceiling as they’re drifting off into pleasant dreams.
Some Final Thoughts…
We love to go outside and look up at the nighttime sky. It’s a great way to spend some quiet time together, away from all the distractions indoors. I hope your family has fun exploring space and learning more about astronomy, too.
What do you think? I’d love to hear about your astronomy adventures! Please leave us a message or photo of fun ways you’ve explored ‘galaxies far, far away’ so we can all travel to the ends of the universe together!
Images from iStockPhoto and flickr commons.
Tags: astronomy, astronomy book, constellation, cosmos, galaxy, jacquie fisher, kids astronomy, lunar cycle, moon phase, observatory, outdoor activity, planetarium, sky map, skyview, star chart, waning moon, waxing moon
Spanish parents are revolting – against homework. The CEAPA (which represents 12,000 parent/teacher organisations) is organising protests against what it claims is too much homework set by schools. A recent survey revealed that 82% of parents asked believed it was too much or excessive. Over half thought it harmed family life. And with a few caveats, I couldn’t agree more with their complaint.
Interestingly, compared with other countries, the estudiantes have it relatively easy. In 2014, the OECD recorded average weekly homework assigned to 15-year-old students across various countries, and it turns out Spanish students don’t know how lucky they are, with a mere 6.5 hours. Finnish pupils dodge the bullet with a skinny 2.8 hours. Shanghai clobbers its students with 13.8 hours (so they know what it feels like to be a teacher, I imagine). The UK doles out a comparatively palatable 4.9 hours. Given that Programme for International Student Assessment chart-toppers Finland and Shanghai appear at either end of this survey, there doesn’t appear to be a clear link between length of homework set and systemic grade outcomes.
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So what does the research say about it? A 2001 meta-study by the National Foundation for Educational Research concluded that there was “a positive relationship between time spent and outcomes at secondary level” but “evidence at primary level is inconsistent”. And even at secondary, homework “explains only a small amount of variance in pupils’ achievement”. More recently John Hattie’s seminal Visible Learning study concluded that homework overall had an effect size of 0.29 – in other words, a very small impact. He too noted a difference between the effect on young pupils (0.15, minuscule) and older children (0.64, significant). Other studies concur. So if there is at least some utility, are the Spanish parents right to rebel?
Si. Because there is a huge variance between the effect different types of homework have on students. And homework differs from classwork in many ways. It’s normally done independently of supervision; it requires that the task is understood, and that all resources to complete the task (from IT to prior, understood knowledge) are availableThe student needs uninterrupted time and space to finish it, and the qualities of character to complete it. Obviously, mileage varies enormously in all of these categories. In a classroom you can attempt to create a controlled environment where conditions are optimised for everyone’s benefit. But setting homework is an act of faith about what will return; a boomerang thrown into the darkness.
Plus, some homework is useful, and some is not. One thing that amazed me when I entered teaching was how much homework appeared to be entirely mad, and set for little purpose beyond bureaucracy. Writing a poem about how you felt about litter was one of my favourites, but there were countless other examples. Writing a letter from Jesus about what it was like to be on the cross. Making “wanted” posters for Mr Hyde for English teachers. Colouring in the Great Fire of London for history. Writing scripts for roleplays about Greek medicine. Building volcanoes out of papier mache for geography. I mean, come on. These kind of activities indicate a purposelessness that we need to say goodbye to for ever in teaching. Set meaningful homework, or not at all. It’s their time you’re wasting.
For example, asking pupils to read independently is great, and useful at most ages, although by itself it won’t help someone struggling with the basics. It demonstrates what is called the Matthew effect: to those that already have, shall be given. In other words it’s the children with poor background knowledge or difficult home environments who benefit least from it, and the most fortunate who get any effect at all. Which isn’t an argument against homework, but a reminder that when you set it, you have to be aware of the different impacts it can have.
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Of course the teacher’s lens is important here too: homework produces marking. And if you set it, the student deserves constructive feedback. But if you see 200+ children as a secondary humanities teacher every week, weekly marking becomes a Sisyphean task. Even flicking and ticking the toils of that number of pupils becomes an extra day out of your week. And the effect of such minimal feedback is microscopic at best. Given that this might burn anything up to 25% of your notional working life, it’s heart-breaking, not to mention pointless.
Finally, the parents’ view: homework steals family time that doesn’t get refunded elsewhere in the week. And that is indisputably true, and the theft is compounded when the return is so small in general. Those few hours between getting home and closing your eyes are precious to the inter-family relationship. If you’re going to steal any of that, you better be damn sure that the reward is greater than the loss. And for a lot of homework, for a lot of children, it just doesn’t add up. Abajo el sistema opresor – down with the oppressor – as they say in Spain.