Enjoying the outdoors does not have to stop when the sun goes down. Stargazing is a simple, fun, and relaxing outdoor activity that often gets forgotten in our busy lifestyles today. One of the biggest complaints against stargazing is that people are overwhelmed by all the constellation names and don’t know where to start.
To enjoy stargazing one doesn’t require a degree in astrophysics or Greek mythology, nor does one have to know constellation names, locations and history. An expensive telescope is not needed. It also doesn’t matter if you’re in the heart of a large city, or in a remote wilderness camping site, certain objects in the night sky are always visible. Also, there is so much more in the night sky to observe besides stars. There are planets, comets, meteor showers and earth orbiting satellites which are all visible with the naked eye.
Basically, to have a relaxing time stargazing, make some snacks, pour some drinks and just get outside. Lie down on a blanket to avoid neck strain, and look up at the sky. If you’re outdoors with the kids, make a game of it and try to locate the brightest stars in the sky, look for the moon, and try to spot a moving satellite. Preschool and kindergarten kids will find this game the most fun. With this age group, this is a good time to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. Kids will especially enjoy the time outdoors with you, without the stress of structured learning that is often associated with memorizing stars, and the fear of being incorrect.
If you’re looking for more of a learning experience while stargazing, take the opportunity to learn together as a family. There are books, websites and smartphone apps that will help you discover even more in the night sky.
The Starry Night Education website is a good resource with an excellent tool where your postal code or zip code can be entered, and it will display an interactive map of the night sky at your location. This is a great resource for the casual stargazer, as it will display the names of each object in the sky, and draws the constellations for you. You can sit down at the computer with your kids and search the virtual sky for objects you want to view, then head outdoors to try and find the real objects. I have used this many times with the kids, and most recently when we were out back and saw a bright object in the western sky just before/after sundown, and we didn’t know what it was. After visiting the site, we found out it was the planet Venus. The kids were really excited to see a planet!
Another resource with good information is the website Astronomy.com. There is a section for kids, a star atlas, planet information, and much more.
Pocket Universe is an application for the iPhone by Craic Design. This app has many similar features that Starry Night’s tool has, but available on the iPhone. Instead of having to enter your zip or postal code, it knows your location via GPS, and shows you a map of the night sky where you are currently. With the iPhone’s accelerometer, the phone can be held up to the sky and it knows the direction and elevation you are facing, and shows the objects in the sky where you are looking. There is no word yet if this application will be available for Android or BlackBerry smartphones. Please note that this is not a free app.
Once you have consulted a resource to get information on objects in the night sky for your area, head outdoors and start searching the sky. For grade school children start off by searching for very easily recognizable constellations like the big dipper. Gradually increase the challenge and search for more constellations and try to find planets.
If your children show a genuine interest in astronomy and are beyond the stargazing basics, you may consider investing in a telescope. With a telescope you will be able to spot star clusters, look at planets in far greater detail, and scour the moon for a detailed view of craters. Plus it is a great way to further bond with your children and discover new things together.
Whether you just want to sit on a blanket and relax while looking at the night sky, or you want to learn about the solar system in greater detail, take the time to get outdoors and will be surprised at how much fun stargazing can be.