You’ve probably heard the rhyme, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.” Answering this question in terms that a five-year-old can grasp may not be as hard as you think. In a nutshell, everything in the sky is either making light or reflecting light. Stars make light, while the moon and planets reflect light. Your child will likely be fascinated to know that our own sun is a star. And come nighttime, you and your child can enjoy gazing up at the night sky together without any special equipment needed. Backyard astronomy is the perfect activity to enjoy with your child (and the whole family!) on those warm, clear Spring and Summer nights.
What You Do:
Make a Telescope
While you won’t be able to see any far out planets with an empty paper towel roll, it will help your child focus on what she’s looking at. To make this homemade “telescope”, have your child paint her paper towel roll and decorate it with stickers of the stars and planets. Getting your child involved in the process will build anticipation for the evening.
Research the Night Sky
Some constellations are easier to see than others. Ursa Major, "The Great Bear", is the most popular constellation because it is visible in the Northern Hemisphere year round. The Big Dipper is actually not a constellation at all, but part of The Great Bear. And the North Star, Polaris, is not the brightest star in the sky, but a very important one. Because of where it sits in the sky it appears not to move, making it the marker to find north from anywhere on Earth! Orion, "The Great Hunter", is another favorite of junior astronomers and easily visible from January through April. Teaching your child the legends behind the constellations may also helps her remember what to look for and get excited about it along the way. For example, Orion is the great hunter of the night sky traveling with his two loyal dogs - the constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor. The three stars which make up Orion’s belt that hold his sword are easy to spot. And from there you can locate an array of other constellations.
Not sure what to look for? Using the Internet is a quick and easy way to find out which stars are currently in your area. Check out googolplex.cuna.org and www.astronomical.org. You can also often find this information in your local newspaper.
Let the Gazing Begin
You will probably have to let your child stay up a little later than usual, but lying in the backyard with mom and dad looking at the night sky will be an experience well worth it! It will take your eyes 30-40 minutes to adjust to the darkness, so be patient. As your child looks up at the stars with her handmade telescope, ask your child, “What do you see in the sky?” Explain that the stars make pictures called constellations, and that constellations are used to help people remember which stars are which. Check out the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, part of the Big Dog constellation.
On a clear, dark night, you can see between 1,000 and 1,500 stars with the bare eye. Point out a few constellations but also encourage your child to find her own pictures in the sky. If she were an astronomer, what would she name them?
This is a fun way to introduce the beginning concepts of astronomy and get your child excited about something science-related. It’s also a great way to spend a summer night with the whole family involved.
Gina Dal Fuoco has been an elementary school teacher in California for over 12 years, and has also taught English as a foreign language in Italy. Gina is the mother of a toddler and a kindergartner.