The Moon and the Stars: Introducing kids to astronomy
March 21, 2014

by Kim Foley MacKinnon

After learning how the two experts interviewed in this article became interested in astronomy, some parents may want to run right out and buy a telescope for their children. 

Both Amanda Thompson, who works at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Sciencein Boston, and Douglas Arion, who, among other things, is a professor of physics and astronomy at Carthage College, had their passion for the stars ignited quite young.

“I’ve loved astronomy since I was a kid, when I received a telescope as a gift and learned how to find the Orion Nebula,” said Thompson.

“When I was in sixth grade, I saw a telescope in the Sears catalog and wanted it,” said Arion. “My parents said they’d help me buy it if I got books from the library and learned about astronomy.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Now both help children learn about the stars.

Thompson has a masters degree in earth and environmental science from Wesleyan University, where she specialized in planetary science. She works at the planetarium and serves as the school coordinator and speaker.

Arion is a physics and astronomy professor at Carthage College, president of Galileoscope (a high-quality, low-cost telescope kit), and also teams up with AMC for astronomy workshops.

They both offered interesting ways to foster a budding astronomer, but one idea they had in common was especially creative: making up constellation stories. Forget trying to figure out where Sagittarius is or even the difference between the Big and Little Dipper, at least at first.

“Using the real stars, have the kids find their own constellations and show you how to find them,” said Thompson. “Then make up stories about them together. Bonus if you can tie multiple constellations together in one epic story.”

Arion said constellations are like clouds, that people see all sorts of patterns in them, and encouraging kids to make up their own stories about what they see can be engaging. He also said that if you don’t have a telescope, binoculars are another easy way for kids to look at the sky.

If you do decide to work with a telescope, you can learn with your kids if you aren’t already familiar. There are some easy objects to find, such as the Orion Nebula hanging from Orion’s belt of three stars (best viewed in the winter months), as Thompson did, or you can even look for a planet. Mastering pointing it at a single star can bring a great feeling of accomplishment, said Thompson. Ask your kids to draw what they see.

The Stars: A New Way to See Them is a book Arion highly recommends, and most parents are probably quite familiar with the author, H.A. Rey, of the Curious George series. Rey also wrote Find the Constellations. Rey and his wife Margret had a lifelong interest in astronomy, and today theMargret and H.A. Rey Center in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization, offers all sorts of educational programs in art, science, and nature. One of the most popular is a monthly stargazing event. Telescopes are set up, and volunteers from the New Hampshire Astronomical Society are on hand to help to decipher what you and your kids see.

Several websites also offer fascinating glimpses into the stars. You may want to bookmark NASA’s website called “Astronomy Picture of the Day,” which features a different image or photograph of the universe, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer. There’s an archive going back to the middle of 1995, so if your kids were born after that, it’s fun to look up the picture on their birth date.

Arion also recommended several smartphone astronomy applications that tech-savvy kids will love. One of the best, he says, is SkySafari, which is quite inexpensive.

“You hold up the phone [to the sky] and it tells you what you’re seeing,” said Arion. “You can’t get it out of their hands after that.”

Who knows? Just one introduction to the universe’s wonders, however you choose to do it, and your kids might be star struck, too.

Doug Arion coordinates astronomy programs at AMC huts and lodges throughout the year. Search the AMC activity database for upcoming events, or ask hut or lodge staff for details.

Read more from AMC Outdoors:

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day 
Each day a different image or photograph of the universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

Every night, a network of NASA all-sky cameras scans the skies above the United States for meteoritic fireballs, with the results presented here daily.

Hubble Telescope Photo Gallery 
Check out amazing images of the cosmos taken by the cutting-edge Hubble Telescope.

Planetarium program 
Stellarium is a free open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.

This app accurately shows you the sky from anywhere on Earth and lets you identify stars, planets, and constellations with your iDevice's GPS, compass and/or gyroscope.

Sun images 
You can’t look at the sun with the naked eye, but you can check out cool images of it at the website run by the Solar Data Analysis Center at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. 


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