Kids and astronomy seem like a perfect match and, in many ways they are! With a little planning and knowledge, you can have a lot of fun with your kids, and inspire a natural curiosity in them they didn’t know they had! On the other hand, poor planning can turn a kid off quickly, so it’s important that you start out on the right foot.
Let’s start with the night sky.
Pick an observing spot close to home, in fact your own home is best unless you live in a light saturated area. Convenience matters. Also consider child safety and nearby restroom access if you’re away from home. You may have to trade perfect dark skies for a nearby “potty” but you’ll be glad you did.
Start off by using a good map of the night sky or a planisphere. You can get a lot of good stuff from http://skymaps.com/ including a free monthly downloadable map! Go outside and lay on a blanket with your map and a red light, and learn your constellations! Its much easier than you think! I can’t recommend this essential first step enough – and while you’re at it, you should go to the library and get a few books on constellations and the mythological stories behind them.
Kids eat the stories up! For example, many of the circumpolar constellations are characters in the same story – and since they are out all year, they quickly become old friends to your kids! They can look up any night and see Queen Cassiopia, or King Cephius! Maybe they will see the Hero Perseus and him and Andromeda fair well as they fly away on Pegasus after his daring rescue! Its a scene that plays out every night in the sky, if you only know where to look!
On laser pointers
You may want to invest in a good laser pointer to help teach your kids the sky. Green laser pointers, commonly in the 532nm wavelength, can be found for as little as $50 dollars and can be very helpful. WARNING- know your local laws and Don’t Be Stupid – or you will go to jail! The number of lasers on aircraft incidents is going up to much that we may soon need a license to buy one! So be safe!
Personally, I like binoculars. They offer ease of use, wide field of view, and they are small and portable. Many experienced astronomers swear by them, and they offer a lot of advantages over telescopes. For the casual observer, binoculars are the superior choice.
They are everything that a telescope is not…relatively cheap, light, easy use. And because they are so easy to use, you will end up using them much more often than you would a cumbersome telescope. That aspect of binoculars alone will make them show you much more than a telescope ever would. A decent 7×35 or 10×50 pair can be found on craigslist for under $50.
Buying a Telescope
If you really want a telescope, my advice is do not buy a telescope on your own! Don’t buy anything you see at Wal-Mart, Target, Toy R Us or any other retailer either. If you are serious about getting a telescope, find an expert first. They can help you buy a decent scope, and often know of a good scope up for sale. Even if you are only in this for the kids, you should consider joining a local astronomy club. The SW Florida Astronomical Society, of which I am a member, only charges $20 a year to join, and along with access to knowledgeable people eager to teach, they offer loaner telescopes for up to 2 weeks at a time!
There are different types of telescopes and my personal opinion on telescopes is, equatorial tripods and kids don’t mix. They are cumbersome, slow down the process, and if you can’t jump in and sight in on an object, your gonna lose the kids’ interest. Yet another reason to stick with binoculars for a while.
A good dobsonian telescope is a very good place to start. They are point and shoot, a little hefty and durable so they don’t shake every time you breathe near it, and they are easy for kids to use.
These are not cheap, mind you, but dollar for dollar, a you will get more out of a turret- style reflector than a tripod mounted retractor. Best of all, you don’t have to buy these brand new! Many astronomical societies sell off their loaners after a while, and you can find deals if you look.
Its important to remember that you’re dealing with kids, and kids bore easily, so you need beginner friendly, easy to use optics, and a plan. Know what you want to see, what the weather will be like and how long you have before you lose the crowd. As they get more interested, they can start the planning with you.
Other useful tools
There are some great, open source software programs available that your kids will love and you can use as a planning and educational tool! Stellarium is a great free planetarium program that you can use to teach a class, teach a kid, or plan for a night of viewing. Want to know what the sky will look like in South Carolina on Thanksgiving night while you visit some family? Or just tonight? Not only will stellarium tell you that, but you can set it for real time and run it in night mode and take it with you. There’s even a lightweight portable app version that I run off of my cell phone and hook up to the school laptop and projector during astronomy club classes. Advanced users can add in their own deep sky objects and many other custom items! Definitely worth checking out!
Celestia is a 3D version of the universe with many user addons and customizations. Ever wanted to travel the solar system? How would you like to orbit one of Mars’ moons and observe the Earth? Maybe travel to Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the sky? Celestia makes it easy! Best of all, if you are online, you can click on any object in the sky and ask for information, and you will be taken to a webpage about that item! There is also a portable version that I keep on my cellphone and can run on any computer, just like Stellarium! With great rendering, an easy UI and all the extras you could want, this is the best video game I could recommend!
Keep it simple, don’t complicate things. Learn the constellations together. Go out before bed, and every now and then go out before the sun comes up. Learn those constellations too. If that much in itself takes hold in your kids, then join an established club, and they’ll give you all the advice and guidance you need.
Good luck, and if you find yourself one night, standing in the front yard in your pajamas, kids next to you, freezing and barefoot, just trying to get one last look at some such thing in the sky, just know that I’m out there too!