Children and adults alike repeatedly demonstrate their wonder about the Sun, the Moon, and the stars by asking me a wealth of interesting questions at the public astronomy programs where I volunteer my services as an amateur astronomer and sky guide. It never ceases to amaze me when I see how naturally inquisitive children are and how they love to discover Nature and the Universe. It makes me think that our fascination with the sky is built into our DNA and is probably as ancient as the human species itself.
During astronomy programs, I interact with many parents who see the discovery moments their children experience and they want to recreate similar moments at home. Parents often ask me about activities they can do to continue to stimulate their child’s interest. If you have similar questions, then here are five easy things you can do with the sky to generate family fun time outdoors and feed your child’s innate fascination with Nature.
1) Make a human sundial. You will need a sunny day, a piece of chalk if you have a sidewalk or a paved driveway, or a stick (or a rock) if you are in a field. Have a child stand on the ground straight and tall and face in the direction of their shadow and stand still. Mark the location they are standing by tracing their feet or place a stone at the center of where they are standing. Then trace the shadow of their head and shoulders or place a stick to mark one edge of their shadow of their head. If a sibling or playmate is available, have them do the tracing. The child can now step away from their spot. Wait 10-15 minutes and have the child return to their exact position and again face their shadow. Now retrace their head and shoulders or place a second stick where the new location of their shadow is. The shadow has moved! You can repeat this as many times as you like. This demonstrates the apparent motion of the Sun in the sky. Of course it is not the Sun which is moving, but the Earth rotating on its axis which makes the shadow change. This same rotation makes the Sun rise and set each day and is the phenomenon upon which actual sundials are based on.
2) What goes around the Earth in just over 27 days? The Moon of course. This is a great way to talk about the duration of a lunar cycle, the basic phases of the Moon, and why a month is approximately one lunar cycle. It is no coincidence that the word “month” comes from the word “moon”. While looking at the Moon with your child you can share the concept that the Moon is illuminated by sunlight just like the Earth is during the day. As it makes the trip around the Earth, the Moon position and the illumination angle change together. The Moon’s orbiting motion is why we see the phases change night after night.
3) Ask your child this question: “What is the Moon made of?” No, it is not made of cheese! You’ll see amazement in your child’s face when you pick up some dirt and some rocks at your feet and place this material in your child’s hands. They will immediately understand that the Earth and the Moon were formed from the same stuff. The Earth and the Moon are members of the family of the Sun which means they were formed out of the same starting material roughly 4.6 billion years ago.
4) Find the brightest star in the night sky. This is a fun question to ask to stimulate scanning the night sky and hunting down a star. It is also a perfect time to explain that the points of light in the night sky are brilliant fireballs just like our Sun only very much farther away. Even the brightest stars in the night sky are extremely far away. The closest star to our Sun is about 25 trillion miles away (a trillion is the same as a million millions).
5) Locate one constellation and try to see its shape. This is an excellent way to spend a little time and acquaint yourself and your child with one part of the sky. Use a map of the night sky to teach the skill of reading a star chart and comparing that to what is actually up there. Most kids can recognize the constellations of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and Orion. The shapes are distinct and memorable.
To learn what constellations and stars are in the sky tonight, consult any of the online sky charts available for free on the web. These provide star names, constellations and other information about the sky. Here is a short list of links:
http://Skymaps.com My personal favorite
http://www.kidsastronomy.com/astroskymap/constellations.htm A simple skymap
http://www.stellarium.org/ Free planetarium software for your computer
Have fun and enjoy the sky!