6 Ways to Explore the Nighttime Sky With Your Kids
Do they stump you with questions like “How many stars are in the sky?” or “Why does the moon change?”
There are lots of fun ways your family can learn more about the night sky together, right from your own backyard or kitchen table.
In this article I’ll show you six easy ways to introduce your kids to astronomy and feed their fascination with space—no telescope required.
Why Explore the Night Sky?
Take a few minutes after dark tonight to step outside with your kids and look up.
Now, ask your children what they see.
Kids are naturally curious and the sky above us is full of amazing things that incite wonder: the stars, the moon, the planets and the vastness of it all.
Observe the sky several evenings in a row and your kids will notice that the sky looks different each night than it did the night before.
The moon may appear to be getting larger or smaller. The stars may seem brighter and more noticeable (or dimmer and harder to see). The sky itself may seem brighter or darker.
And, of course, they’ll wonder why.
Take advantage of this curiosity and introduce your kids to the wonders of the cosmos.
It’s easier than you may think to teach your kids about astronomy. You don’t need to invest hundreds of dollars in a telescope or know much about science yourself to have a great time exploring space together.
This video shows how one family learned about the night time sky together.
You’ll discover six fun ways—from books, to phone apps to even a tasty snack—to feed your kids’ fascination with the starry sky.
Here are six fun ways to learn about space with your kids. Choose one or two, or choose all six.
#1: Read About the Moon and Stars
Story time is a great way to introduce children to new topics or expand their current knowledge.
My kids always like to learn new words they can impress me with and reading together is one of the best ways to do this. Astronomy has a whole vocabulary of its own they can show off!
There are many wonderful books you can read together about the moon, stars and other things you see in the sky. Check some of these out next time you’re at the library or bookstore.
- The Moon Seems to Change by Franklyn Branley (ages 4-8)
- The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons (age 5+)
- There’s No Place like Space by Tish Rabe (ages 4-8)
- Magic Tree House: Space by Mary Pope Osborne (ages 7-10)
- Zoo in the Sky by Jacqueline Mitton (ages 6-9)
- The Big Dipper by Franklyn Branley (ages 4-8)
- Find the Constellations by R. A. Rey (ages 9-12)
These books can answer a lot of your kids’ questions so you don’t have to. They’ll explain that a constellation is a group of stars that make an imaginary picture in the night sky. Kids will also learn that the moon doesn’t ‘change’ its shape, why some stars look brighter than others, and how a star shines.
Your children may beg for another trip to the library soon, to get more astronomy books!
#2: Create Your Own Constellations
After learning about the stories and pictures behind the constellations, surprise your kids with this fun (and yummy) project.
Step 1: Choose your favorite constellation. Your kids’ favorite may be one that they can easily see in the sky or a myth or animal they like. We chose Orion, the hunter. His belt of three stars in a row is simple to find from where we live.
Step 2: Draw the constellation on black paper using a white pencil or crayon. Use constellation pictures from the books you read or from a constellation web-site as a template.
Step 3: Construct the constellation using mini-marshmallows for the stars and toothpicks for the imaginary connecting lines.
This project is lots of yummy fun and it helps teach kids what to look for when they peer into the night sky at the actual stars.
#3: Track the Size of the Moon
Your family will love this activity as you head outside to search for the moon each night.
Each evening or early morning, go outside with your children and find the moon. Sometimes you can locate it by looking out the window, but it’s best to head outside.
Draw the shape of the moon on the calendar square for that day. After a few days, they will notice that the shape of the moon is changing.
A ‘waxing’ moon is one that appears to be growing larger and a ‘waning’ moon is one that appears to be getting smaller.
Tracking the moon for a month will illustrate and reinforce one entire lunar cycle, bringing a concept that may be hard to grasp a little closer to home.
#4: Head Outside and Locate Constellations
On a clear evening, spend some time outside looking at the stars together. It’s a fun activity to do after a hike or a picnic dinner and it’s just as fun to simply turn off the TV or computer and step outside for awhile—no planning required!
We’ve had the best luck with seeing constellations and even some viewable planets by heading to a local park and away from the streetlights.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a large state or national park, they are optimal places for viewing the stars, as they have limited light pollution coming from artificial lighting.
Some stars have names. Others are actually planets. Occasionally you can even see the international space station zooming past.
You can print a map of the stars in the sky where you live (to the nearest city).
For a mobile approach, these apps will help you identify the constellations you can see in the night sky above you, right from your phone.
Try SkyView for iPhone, iPod or iPad.
With these apps, all you need to do is hold your phone up to the sky. Your phone or tablet’s camera will read the stars to identify the location of the sky above you. You’ll be able to see the constellations on the screen as you try to search for them in the sky directly above. It’s pretty cool.
If you have an Android, you can use an app such as Star Chart.
Note: The sky map for your area will change with the seasons as the earth’s tilt shifts so make sure that you have the correct map for the current season or things will seem confusing. Sea & Sky has a complete list of constellations that can be viewed each month.
There are some wonderful celestial events that occur each year and many can be viewed with the naked eye. Kids will enjoy viewing the sky during these events:
- Meteor showers occur at least six times throughout the year.
- The Farmer’s Almanac provides dates for full moon and harvest moon sightings.
- Time & Date provides a running list of upcoming eclipses for both the moon and sun.
For more information on using star maps and star wheels, see this video from Sky & Telescope.
#5: Visit a Planetarium or Observatory
Are your kids addicted to space yet? After reading about the moon and stars, tracking the lunar cycle, making models of the constellations, and going outside for some good old fashioned star gazing with a modern technological twist, they’re probably begging for a visit to your nearest planetarium or observatory.
Many cities have planetariums or observatories that are open for public viewings and shows.
Observatories are buildings that house very large and strong telescopes that allow people to view stars, galaxies and celestial bodies. Families will get a great introduction to the stars and planets by viewing them through high-powered telescopes.
We had a great time during our visit to a local observatory. The viewing included stars in other galaxies, three planets and some amazing constellations. Find an observatory near you.
Check the show schedule for your closest planetarium and find the one that’s best for your kids’ ages. Our local planetarium has a wonderful ‘Sesame Street’ showing for young kids.
#6: Add some ‘Twinkle’ to Your Room
If your kids are like mine, once you start to learn about space together, they won’t want to stop. Here are a few ways to bring the stars right into your children’s bedrooms.
My kids loved creating glow-in-the-dark constellations using peel-and-stick star kits that can be found online. I would suggest that you make them on paper that can then be hung on the wall or ceiling of your child’s room. The light during the day energizes the stars so they’ll glow at night.
So read them a book about the stars as they’re going to bed. They’ll be able to see those very stars on their ceiling as they’re drifting off into pleasant dreams.
Some Final Thoughts…
We love to go outside and look up at the nighttime sky. It’s a great way to spend some quiet time together, away from all the distractions indoors. I hope your family has fun exploring space and learning more about astronomy, too.
What do you think? I’d love to hear about your astronomy adventures! Please leave us a message or photo of fun ways you’ve explored ‘galaxies far, far away’ so we can all travel to the ends of the universe together!