Parent's Resource Center

Should your kids get involved in Astronomy?
by:
Sherry Dale


Short History Lesson

For thousands of years people have looked to the sky and wondered about it.  The people of long ago played a game, they drew lines between the stars and filled in the rest with their imagination.  Thus, the constellations were created with pictures in the sky of people, animals, and other things.  These constellations were serious business to the people of long ago, they needed to be familiar with it because as the sky changes during the year, the seasons would change.  Charting the skies would help with planting and harvesting their crops and when they should prepare for winter.  The skies have also been used for navigation out in the seas.  It is easy to see that years ago, it was quite important to explore the vastness of the skies above us.  Why then should kids become involved today?

Space and the Final Frontier

Space science and exploration have become an increasingly important part of our everyday world, and today's students will  undoubtedly use their knowledge of this area for the rest of their lives. To begin to peak a child's interest, pose the question.. How big is space? That is a question man has been asking since the beginning of time. A very long time ago, it was thought that the universe was geocentric (earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around the earth).  When your grandparents were in school it was thought that the Universe was very small perhaps only 5000 light years across. 500 years ago it was thought that the Universe was only a little bit bigger than the Earth. In modern times with the power of technology we are finally starting to grasp the immense size of the Universe, and it is much bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.  With life as hectic as it is, many of us just go about our daily routines and never look up and wonder at the stars.  We are missing so much.

Did you know that our closest galactic neighbor is so far away that it takes light traveling at 186,000 miles per second (yes per second) 2.3 million years to get to our solar system.  When you view the Andromeda Galaxy (our closest galactic neighbor) you are seeing it the way it was 2.3 million years ago.  Think about that for a second, that galaxy may not even be there today.  Can you say that about anything on earth?  It is a look back in time, what can be more exciting than that?  So how do you go about introducing beginners to astronomy? If you're a family of expert observers, you can probably manage without advice. On the other hand, if your observing sessions aren't as tranquil as you'd like, perhaps you find some help here.

The Family Unit Enjoying Themselves

To begin with, the whole family should enjoy themselves, have a good time interacting with each other, and come away looking forward to the next time. Unless your family regularly engages in Trivial Pursuit tournaments, avoid outpourings of facts. If everyone learns something, that's fine, but it shouldn't be the primary reason for being out under the sky. Remember you are out there  sharing something you find interesting, but mostly it's for having fun!

Astronomy is primarily visual, therefore, it requires you to do a lot of listening. When beginners say they're ready to quit, take their word for it. If you suspect they're saying they're cold or tired due to boredom, you can try a different activity, but usually it's better to call it a night. Astronomy is normally interesting enough that beginners won't say they've had enough unless they've really had enough.

Beginners and Positive Reinforcement

Beginners need positive reinforcement when approaching new things. An example of what not to do is this:  One father was initiating his 11-year-old into the wonders of the universe. The child took control of the telescope, quickly found a bright object near the horizon, and announced "I found Venus!" The father peered into the eyepiece and ruined his dark adaptation on a street light at 45X. He then spent some time impressing on the child how stupid it was to point a telescope at a street light, and how anyone ought to be able to tell the difference between a street light and Venus. Strangely, the child never seemed to show any interest in astronomy after that night.  Things might have turned out better if, instead of emphasizing the child's shortcomings, the father had emphasized the positive. Imagine the child's reaction if the father had said "Well, it's not Venus, but it is a street light. It's in focus, and beautifully centered in the eyepiece. I'm sure you'll do just as well on the planets - let's find one together."

Lets Get Started

One good way to start beginners is to make Astronomy part of other activities. For example, walks are particularly good for this. During walks at dusk or in the evening, look at the moon. Pick out the bright stars and planets, and the constellations if they're visible. If you take walks most evenings, watch the changing positions of the planets, particularly during conjunctions. Vacations are also good times for Astronomy. Trips to the beach or camping offer many opportunities for combining astronomy with other family activities.

Mythology forms a good basis for introducing astronomy to children (and some adults! see Constellations.) You can tell the stories, then go out and find that constellation. There are many Greek myths and legends concerning the heavens, and they can be told during the seasons when the appropriate constellations are visible. Describe the labors of Hercules during the summer and the story of Orion during the winter. 

Family Activities

Here's a quick list of activities which can be good for Astronomy: 
      Watching moon phases;
        meteor showers;
       planetary conjunctions;
       lunar and solar eclipses;
       putting up glow-in-the-dark constellations in a bedroom;
       visiting museums;
       planetariums;
       observatories

Also, making a telescope, calendars, attending star parties, and the study of paleoastronomy (learning about astronomy in ancient times) can work well. There are many more, but these will give you a place to start, and some ideas about where to go next.

Well that is about it!  You have enough resources to get started enjoying the night sky together.  So get out your telescopes and enjoy the vastness that the universe has to offer.  To get you started, visit the What's Up Astronomy store for kits  or for an Atlas to get you started.  Have fun and may all your skies be dark!


   Portions of this page were taken from Jon and Kathleen Stewart-Taylor's
   article "Family Astronomy" and are copyright © 1996 Jon and
   Kathleen Stewart-Taylor (see
http://www.novac.com/Jon/RA/ra.family.html
   for more information).