I’ve always been fascinated by the night sky (I don’t remember this particular instance, but apparently when I was two, my parents commented on the bright moon one night. “Full moon!” I said. An impressive eloquence of expression, but not, alas, of comprehension, as apparently I later identified something else as a “full moon” also. Oh, well. It’s the thought that counts).
When I was just a few years old, we trekked up the nearest mountain to get a clear gaze at Halley’s Comet. I was duly impressed by the sight (some amateur astronomers were also hiking up the same mountain and let us peep through their telescope for a better look), but was even more fascinated by the mathematical calculations required to compute how old I’d be if I ever lived to see it again (we’ll see how that works out, but so far I seem to be on track).
In college, I had the pleasure of taking an astronomy class from a real enthusiast who announced up front that his grading system would be based “one-third on pop quizzes every week, one-third on the mid-term and final exams, and one-third on my totally subjective impression of how engaged and attentive you are as a student all semester.” The grade incentive wasn’t really necessary, though, since the subject matter was truly fascinating. We spent the first part of each (evening) class on lecture and discussion, and then, when it grew dark, moved outside for observation.
We learned a good bit about observational techniques and trivia, and I became formally re-acquainted with the winter hexagon and the summer triangle, which I vaguely remembered from reading H. A. Rey’s books as a child. This was before Pluto had been demoted to a dwarf planet, of course, but even so, quite a few things had changed since the star charts of yore. The formal course of education dovetailed very nicely with all the informal experiences of my childhood.
Of course, all the training and textbooks in the world won’t resonate if the student isn’t interested in the topic. How can you spark passion in your kids for learning more about the skies? Here are some ideas that we’ve enjoyed:
- Read stories and picture books about astronomy. My personal favorite was “Find The Constellations,” by H. A. Rey, but any picture book with good drawings and a compelling story will capture a child’s interest. Learning about the stories that go along with the various constellations not only helps make the star patterns recognizable and memorable (the whole point of devising constellations, really), but also contributes to a richer understanding of history, mythology, and legend.
- Point out celestial spectacles on a regular basis, and discuss in simple terms the astronomical phenomena behind them. The phases of the moon, as visible in the night sky or even faintly in the daytime, are a perfect opportunity to wax didactic on the basics of orbital relationships and lay the foundation for the more intricate scientific explanations that will come along later and fill in the gaps.
- Seek out events and exhibits that showcase astronomy. Visit planetaria, observatories, museums, and local science shows. Field trips can make the exceptional accessible.
- Make a big deal over celestial events. It’s hard to resist the excitement of adventure. Staying up late is always a treat and definitely leaves an impression on young minds. After all, getting dragged from one’s bed in the middle of the night to observe a lunar eclipse invariably ranks as an unforgettable experience. Of course, this means that you need to keep track of when there’s going to be a meteor shower, lunar or solar eclipse, blood moon, etc.
- Convey a sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of creation by modeling a marveling attitude in oneself. This can be as simple as reveling in the beauty of sunrise and sunset and singing songs that celebrate the majesty and glory of the skies.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” ~Psalm 19:1
Photo Credit: Graphic design by Charity Klicka.