If you’re looking for fun just as the weather begins to turn colder, you need search no further than the night sky. Share some memorable stargazing with your child, and don’t miss these celestial events happening now and through the rest of the year.
Help your child spot the highlights. Kids as young as preschool-age can learn to identify constellations. “I like to teach them the North Star, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion and the best one of all, the brightest star in the sky: Sirius,” says Holly Winter, a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher in George Washington School in Kingston, New York. “After I ask them to repeat what it’s called I say, ‘Are you serious?’ It’s a guaranteed learn.”
Catch these planets! It’s a perfect time in the astronomical calendar to see several planets with your naked eye. Mars, for instance, is visibly red! “The planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars are easily viewed,” says Michael Reed, Ph.D., astronomy professor at Missouri State University, who also suggests using a telescope if you have one for even better viewing. Spot Jupiter and Saturn by this fall, before both planets become obscured by the sun’s glare. Add to the learning experience by encouraging your child to draw her own star map, compare the color differences among the planets, and draw her impressions of Saturn’s rings. See if you can spot any of Jupiter’s four bright moons together, and map their position from one night to the next.
Save the dates, Mark your calendar to view any of these meteor showers, best seen from a dark place and without any telescopes or binoculars, says Dr. Reed: October includes the Draconids meteor shower and the Orionids, and in November, the Taurids. But the most exciting meteor shower to view, the Geminids meteor shower. The Geminids can produce up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak! Bundle up and choose a dark place outdoors to view this spectacular event, and make a game of counting those bright streaks of light—the debris from comets hitting our atmosphere long ago. If your kids happen to be early risers, lucky you! “Early morning, pre-dawn viewing will be best,” says Dr. Reed.
Follow the moon. The moon is especially easy to view at almost any time, except when it’s a New Moon and too close to the sun. Chart the moon’s progress together. “Children can make daily observations of the moon and draw diagrams of what they see on a large calendar,” suggests Janet Briggs, Ph.D., professor of science education at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota. “They will discover patterns of change as the moon approaches the full moon phase, with a larger portion, lit each night. After the full moon, they can see that a smaller portion of it is lit each time.”
Have children record the time of sunrise and sunset each day. “On September 23, the hours of sunlight should be almost exactly 12 hours, and the hours of sunlight continue to lessen until December 21, which has the least amount of daylight,” says Dr. Briggs. Depending on how far they live from the equator, children may notice a change of six to eight minutes a day (say in Alaska), or three minutes a day (in the Midwest).
Show kids the Milky Way galaxy. “It appears as a band of light from the constellation Sagittarius to the North Pole,” says Dr. Briggs. “You’ll be looking at the central bulge of our Milky Way where most of the stars are located.” If you need an assist in locating stars, try the SkyView Free app (for Android or iOS).