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July 15, 2024

Backyard Astronomy: Summer School (2004-06-12)

By Cheryl Haimann

If you like slipping some subversive education in on the kiddies over summer vacation, the night sky can be your best friend. It's free and readily available, making daily appearances that often correspond with camping trips, cookouts, and ball games.

Summer is also the season of public presentations and star parties at astronomy clubs and observatories. Often, these are connected with uncommon events such as the recent comet appearances or last week's Venus transit, or with annual events such as the Perseid meteor shower in August.

Even with no equipment, you can still find plenty of things to look at and talk about.

Very young children can learn to find the moon and see its different shapes. I know a four-year- old who has been fascinated by the moon for one-fourth of his life, ever since seeing last year's lunar eclipse. The moon is also early-bedtime friendly, since it can be seen during daylight, and the day moon is a rewarding first introduction to binocular observing. (Of course, be sure to monitor the binocular time during daylight to prevent solar viewing.)

There are almost always planets visible that can be seen with the naked eye. Children can find these planets, and over time, see how they move differently from stars. This is the same way that Copernicus determined that the sun, not Earth, was at the center of our solar system.

Children can also begin learning the locations and names of constellations and asterisms. The Big Dipper a good place to start, since it is well-known, easy to find in the summer, and can be used to point to several other constellations.

Depending your sensibilities and your child's age, you might want to gloss over some of the seamier aspects of sky lore as you introduce the constellations. Cassiopeia was the queen of Ethiopia and Andromeda was her daughter. Better to leave it at that rather than traumatize a sensitive child who might believe that you, as well the queen, might tie your child to a rock in the ocean in order to keep your government job.

Anyway, children are famously imaginative. Let them make up their own stories about the star patterns. The Greco-Roman stories we know are not the only possible explanation of star patterns. Virgo and Bootes look like a girl flying a kite, and her cat, Leo, is nearby. What happens next? Some children may also like to write poems or plays or songs.

They sky can also inspire art in the more visually inclined. They can draw the star patterns, or the animals and people they represent. The shifting colors at sunset might also inspire a visual child.

Learning how to measure the apparent distance between objects in degrees helps an older child understand the geometry of circles and spheres.

Summer also brings meteor showers, which are best enjoyed from a lawn chair or a blanket on the ground, and require no skill other than staring into space.

City viewing, sadly, also presents opportunities to teach about air and light pollution. If you live in a city, but can get to the country, it will easy to see how artificial lighting limits what you can see. In summer, the difference between city and country skies is most notable with the Milky Way. Adults who grew up in cities may never have seen, or noticed, or recognized, the Milky Way. In fact, a few years back, when earthquakes in California caused power failures, some folks speculated about whether that bright spot in the sky had anything to do with it.

If you are concerned that you don't know enough astronomy to teach a child anything, stop your worrying. You only have to be a couple of steps ahead. Many public libraries subscribe to at least one astronomy magazine. While the science in old astronomy books at the library may be out of date, the star charts and star lore will still be usuable. Some other resources are:

--Past Backyard Astronomy articles can be found in the archives at:
--Sky and Telescope magazine has a free PDF leaflet with star charts. Download "Getting Started in Astronomy" at:
--A new publication geared toward casual astronomers, Night Sky, is now available in bookstores and by subscription:
Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-06-12
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