Maria Montessori urged us to “give the child a vision of the whole universe…” so that children might better understand Earth’s place in the cosmos. Books, card materials, and star charts take children only so far – no photograph can replace the awe-inspiring vision of millions of diamond-bright stars twinkling overhead.
While late summer is ideal for stargazing, the late sunsets can present a challenge for early-to-bed children. Earlier sunsets make the winter months a good time to bundle the children up and get to know the night sky.
The details that follow are designed to help parents design an outing. And, there are plenty of ideas teachers can incorporate into the classroom, as well, from packing a classroom “star bag” to getting involved in global International Yeaar of Astronomy activities and projects.
You don’t need a degree in astronomy, an expensive telescope, or a handful of complicated star charts to explore the night sky with your children. Prepared with the ability to locate a celestial landmark or two and common sense, any parent can create a fun, educational family adventure.
Find the Hunter and his little dog, too!
Before your stargazing party, practice finding a familiar constellation and identifying its stars yourself. You’ll be better able to point out any constellation to children after you’ve located it a few nights yourself.
The bright stars of Orion the Hunter and Canis Major make these two winter constellations relatively easy to spot with the naked eye. This time of year, prime viewing time in the Northern Hemisphere is just after sunset.
To find Orion the Hunter, face south and slightly to the east. Scan the sky from the horizon (where sky meets land) upward. The three bright stars in Orion’s belt (Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka) line up neatly. Orion rises with the belt stars nearly perpendicular to the horizon. Once you’ve located the belt, practice picking out Orion’s two “shoulder” stars (above the belt) and the two stars that form the hem of the Hunter’s cloak (below the belt, toward the horizon)
Feeling brave? Draw an imaginary line from the left of the belt and slightly down (toward the horizon) and you will see one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Sirius forms the head of Orion’s faithful dog… constellation Canis Major. Finding and exploring these two constellations is plenty for a first stargazing expedition with young children.
Prepare the Children
Begin sharing developmentally appropriate books and card materials about stars and constellations well in advance of your expedition.
Along with fact-based resources, consider expanding the “story” with cultural tales about the constellation(s) you expect to view. Find the exciting story of Orion and his two dogs, eternally hunting Taurus the bull, in a good Greek mythology book. Older children will be fascinated by celestial navigation and the role the night sky played in early exploration.
Many young children have never spent time outside after dark. Younger children may be concerned or uncertain about this new environment. In advance, spend some time learning about nocturnal animals that you might encounter. Practice nighttime listening outdoors in the security of your own yard; with eyes closed, pick out the sounds of dogs barking, passing cars, or trees in the wind.
Pick a Location
You needn’t travel far for successful stargazing. If you can get away to a rural hilltop, by all means do. If not, simply settle into a grassy backyard or an athletic field on the edge of town. Even though city lights will obscure a portion of the star field, the brightest stars and constellations are still visible. In fact, a little ambient light can limit the number of visible stars enough to make finding the major constellations easier.
An unobstructed view of the southern horizon and a clear, moonless night are your two keys to successful winter viewing. Scout your location in advance to make sure hills or skyscrapers won’t block your view. Upcoming new moon nights are January 26, February 25, and March 26. Pick a date within a few days before or after these nights.
Plan on a short walk, so you’ll have plenty of time for viewing before children get sleepy. Bring something dry to sit on and pack a snack and water. Let each child carry something! Please note: evening hikes with small children near wilderness areas are best avoided, especially in bear or big cat habitats. Check with your local Forest Service staff for timely back-country advice.
Pack a “Star Bag”
Some Montessori classrooms have a “star bag” that can be checked out from the school. If none is available, a functional “kit” is easy to assemble on your own. Perhaps several parents can pool their resources to create a classroom stargazing kit that can be kept in the classroom and loaned.
You can’t have too many flashlights. Bring one for yourself and one for each child. Just holding a flashlight can be empowering even when the light is off. A red-filter flashlight reduces the time it takes for eyes to re-adjust to full dark. Use filtered light to refer to your star map, find your snack, or make notes or sketches. Hint: stretch a red balloon or tape layers of red cellophane over any flashlight lens to make a functional filter.
Bring along note/drawing paper and pencils/pens for each child. A star chart can be a powerful tool when its simple enough for children to read or use. Be sure you’re comfortable with using it before introducing it to the children. (We highly recommend The Star Finder: Guide to the Northern Sky, a simplified star chart which we hope will be available again soon!) An astronomy reference book will come in handy when the questions begin.
A good pair of binoculars will increase the visible star field ten-fold. Finding the same stars first with the naked eye and then through binoculars is a fascinating challenge for older children. A tripod can be very useful, or just provide a place to rest the elbows while holding the binoculars (a fence or a stump).
Get the most from The Big Night
Plan to arrive just at dusk. Allow half an hour after full dark (or after turning off flashlights) to adjust to night vision. Use the time to eat a snack, tell a story about the constellation, and listen for identifiable night sounds. This is a good time to follow the child. If necessary, remind children you only take them to places that are perfectly safe.
As your eyes adjust, pick out Orion the Hunter and his “big dog” (Canis Major). Make up a new constellation and a story to go with it. Help older children use a star chart … or let them help you! Sooner or later the questions will start.
Don’t worry if you don’t know how stars are made, or how many light years to Alpha Centauri. “What a good question! Can we find the answer?” Children can jot down questions for later investigation or consult the astronomy book on the spot. Unanswerable questions provide a great opportunity for understanding the role conjecture plays in developing scientific theories.
Your hour and a half of prime viewing time will pass as quickly as a star’s twinkle! Enjoy your first stargazing expedition and beware… it could be the first of many.