If you want to raise a kid with a scientific mind and an appreciation for the natural world, look no further than as far as you can look. Space is lousy with gorgeous spectacles, mind boggling mysteries, and the kinds of discoveries that inspire humanity to create things like the International Space Station and Wall-E.
“Kids are born with a natural affinity to the night sky,” says Jason Kalirai, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which you might have heard of because it’s responsible for little projects like Hubble Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST is what Kalirai works on, and it will be the most powerful telescope ever built when it’s unveiled in the coming years. That’s not what makes Kalirai an expert on kids and the night sky, though; his 6-year-old twin girls and baby boy are responsible for that.
The girls have been stargazing with him since they were 3 and already understand “how the atoms and heavy materials that we’re made out of were created in stars.” His advice might not turn your own kids into mini-Neil deGrasse Tysons, but it should get them into checking out the night sky with you.
Find The Right Spot
Here’s a simple checklist to ensure that a night of “Whoa, did you see that?!” doesn’t turn into a night of “My neck hurts and I can’t see anything:”
• Get away from the city. Light pollution is an astronomer’s worst enemy.
• Keep an eye on the moon cycle and go when the sky will be darkest.
• Get high, literally. The higher your elevation, the clearer the sky.
• Winter is the best season for stargazing, because there’s less moisture in the air, which can obscure starlight, and the leaves have fallen off the trees, which means more sky to work with.
Start With Meteor Showers
Nothing gets a kid excited about stargazing like seeing flaming chunks of interplanetary debris streak through the atmosphere. “There are a number of meteor showers that happen every year that make for spectacular imagery,” Kalirai says, and because these happen in predictable patterns — when the Earth’s orbit crosses the debris clouds — there are plenty of meteor shower maps you can use to schedule stargazing nights for maximum impact. Whether you choose to disclose all this to your kid, or simply drag them outside one night while screaming about an alien invasion, is entirely up to you. Either way, it should be pretty effective.
Make “Vast” Something They Can Grasp
“You really need to give kids an example that conveys the sense of scale of the universe,” Kalirai says. “The way that you do it is find something that’s really, really small, and put in a really big scenario.”Let’s say the sight of a meteor shower freaks your kid out because they’ve seen Armageddon one too many times, the first thing you should do is tell them this analogy Kalirai uses that puts the planet’s size relative to the universe into perspective: Have them envision each of you is holding a grain of sand while standing at opposite ends of a soccer field. If each of you throws the sand at each other, and that’s basically the equivalent of where the meteors are in relation to Earth. The second thing you should do is stop letting your kid watch the bad Bruce Willis movies, when there are so many good ones to watch instead.
Another Kalirai trick for helping kids organize the massive distances involved with stargazing is to talk about it using the neighborhood as an example: The houses on the street are planets, and the planets are just rocks floating around a star. Stars are like cities, and there’s way more distance between cities than between houses on the street. Those cities are all within the country, which is like the galaxy. “They next time they go on a road trip,” he says, “they’ll understand that things are really far away from each other. And then when they look in the night sky, they’ll understand that they’re just seeing a glimpse of their neighborhood.”
Buy A Cheaper Telescope First
You could start your kid off with a state-of-the-art, automated telescope that locates whatever star their heart desires, but that would be like learning directions with Google Maps instead of an actual map, which is to say it’s like never learning directions. “I would actually recommend getting a simple telescope that you have to physically move yourself,” he says, referring to scopes made by Meade or Celestron in the $100-$200 range, with a 4 or 5-inch aperture.
Stargazing Gear That Turns The Backyard Into Your Personal Planetarium
Download A Smart Star Chart
The fact that you can’t tell Orion’s belt from Andromeda’s chain should in no way discourage you from claiming to your own kid that you know where all 88 of the modern constellations are, because your phone will totally do it for you. Apps like Star Chart for iOS or Android let you just point the phone’s camera at the sky and will tell you exactly what you’re looking at. Think that’s cheating? “That’s what I do,” says Kalirai.Go To Star Parties
Not to be confused with Malibu bar mitzvahs, star parties are events where stargazers mingle and share the night sky together. They’re BYOT (bring your own telescope), but half the fun is the opportunity for your kid to try someone else’s much more powerful equipment. You can find star parties in your area with StarDate.org.
Keep Your Kid Up To Speed
Kalirai has been going over the latest in astronomy at his computer with his daughters “multiple times a week” since they were 3. Needless to say, they have quite the leg up on the other first graders. He recommends the MinutePhysics YouTube channel to explain complex physics in simple terms and Amazing Space to find news and Hubble images.
He points out that casual astronomers today have access to stuff that was pure science fiction just a generation ago: Earth-like planets, Mars colonies, and a search for intelligent life that gains momentum every day. So, if your kid gives you lip about going stargazing, just explain that you need their help finding aliens. That should get them out the door in no time.
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