Waay Outer-doors with Kids in New York City
April 17, 2013

Waay Outer-doors with Kids in New York City

We have always loved a gorgeous night sky, but beyond wondering the unknowable—such as how big the universe is—we haven’t delved deeply into astronomy. That all began to change a few years ago when our son Riley became obsessed with the phases of the moon. Maybe we should be embarrassed to admit that we didn’t know a waxing gibbous from a waning one, but we do now! 

Thanks to books and the Internet, we also got the sequence of the planets down, learned that Pluto had been “demoted” from planet status, and can now identify a few key constellations. We even enjoyed a few stargazing ventures in Central Park, where amateur astronomers bring their high-tech telescopes out to the path surrounding the Great Lawn. They train them on the night sky when there is a particularly major celestial event going on, and are kind enough to allow strangers to take a peek. Thanks to them, Riley and his younger sister Halina became even more deeply drawn in to the impossibly far away.

But soon we needed more to sate Riley’s interest. As good fortune would have it, there are three amazing telescopes open for free public viewings just a few blocks away, through the Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach program.

An Insider’s View of the Night Sky

Columbia University’s manicured lawns are among our favorite picnicking spots in the summer, when we practically have the place to ourselves. Occasionally we’d strike up a conversation with a passerby and quickly discovered that a few were going to the roof of Pupin Hall to seriously look at the stars. The roof is open to the public every other Friday, weather permitting, and although we’ve never seen the program advertised anywhere, it’s clearly popular.

We have gone twice—on February 2 when it was very cold, and on April 5 when it was still cool—and both times there were well over 100 people ready to enjoy a spectacular view of the night sky. The program begins indoors, usually with a half-hour lecture and Q&A session delivered by graduate students, faculty, or guest lecturers. Afterwards, everyone makes their way to the roof, first by elevator and then by three flights of stairs (this wouldn’t be good with strollers).

Two of the massive telescopes are housed in domes, and one is set up independently on the roof. No one seemed to mind the temperature, and everyone enjoyed the views of majestic Riverside Cathedral and the surrounding neighborhood as we made our way to the telescope sites. The roof scene is managed by graduate students whose passion is infectious. It has taken us an hour or so each time to get to each telescope, and along the way we learn more and more about the night sky and how to navigate it.

We have variously seen Jupiter and four of its 67 moons, the belt and nebulae of Orion, stars within Ursa Minor (better known as the Little Dipper), and some clusters of new stars way off in space—totally awesome. Each time we go, Riley and Halina talk about it for days afterwards—and come up with yet more questions that we have to save for our next visit! 

Make an Evening of It

As the days get long and nighttime starts later, the viewing times will be moved back, so make a full evening out of the trip. Pack a picnic or pick up provisions along Broadway (options abound from 110th Street to the 116th Street entrance to the campus), bring a Frisbee or ball, and settle in on a lawn to wait for the sun to sufficiently set. Pupin Hall is in the northwest corner of campus, so start heading over there 15 minutes before the lecture begins. There are restrooms and water fountains in the building too.

What is your favorite constellation and place to stargaze? 


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Throw sticks into a stream or pond. Watch the ripples, see how far you can throw, and notice what floats and what sinks.

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