I am a freelance writer based in Oregon. I'm a work-from-home dad of four amazing kids and husband to a true warrior.
Teaching Astronomy to Kids of Different Ages
We hadn’t even considered home school yet during the summer star-watching party, but we later realized we had been homeschooling our children all along. We just decided to do so full-time this year.
One of my favorite teaching moments came this past summer as I camped out in a tent on our lawn this past summer to watch the Perseids Meteoroid Shower with my three older children ages 8, 6, and 4. We talked and laughed as we ate snacks and waited for the sun to set. I had no formal agenda for the evening other than watching the celestial show.
It Prompts Interesting Questions
The changes in the sky prompted several interesting questions from my children. My four-year-old wanted to know why the sun went down and my eight-year-old, with a little assistance from me, answered the question beautifully. My six-year-old asked what a meteor was. My eight-year-old was fascinated with idea that the Perseids shower appears every year.
One of the best things about homes school is the freedom from time constraints and pedagogy it offers. School starts and stops at times best suited for the needs of your family. You can study things in any order and at any time. Astronomy is best done in the middle of the night. This means staying up past the traditional bedtimes “good parents” have for their kids. Homeschool allows you to add in these life-changing experiences.
The Night Sky Enchants People of All Ages
Children of all ages, like all adults, are fascinated by the night sky. There is something primal about gazing into the dark void until distant specks of light appear. Why not start teaching children, and maybe yourself, about what is really happening with all those stars that are moving around all the time?
Below are some tips for different ages on how to work astronomy into a home school curriculum. Each child is unique, let their interests and abilities guide your choices of activities and curriculum. The suggestions below can easily be modified to fit almost any age.
Children who can walk will have an interest in the sky. Like an attraction to fire, curiosity about the sky is somehow hardwired into our minds and seared into our souls.
Start with preschoolers by pointing out the Moon and the Sun. Talk about how they are always in different places. Their first lesson about the mechanics of the solar system can be the simple observation that the Sun seems to rise in the morning and fall in the evening.
Preschool is an ideal time to talk about what the stars are and what the Moon is. You don’t need any equipment. Just informally engage with your child about what he or she sees. Show them lots of pictures of the Earth from space and of our solar system. Let their questions guide your focus.
Kindergarten Through Second Grade
Children learn best by doing. As children get older the more doing of astronomy they will be able to participate in. But young children can still do a lot of science.
Keep a Moon Log
Have the children keep a Moon Log. In a small notebook have them observe the Moon every day, or several times a week for a month. Every night they need to look for the Moon and draw a picture of what they see. Children with adequate language skills can write a brief description as well. For bonus points have the children record the time they made their observation in the log as well.
Over the course of a month, they will see all the phases of the Moon. They may also notice the Moon appearing in different places in the sky. After the Moon log is complete discuss with the children what they learned. Let them present their findings. A Moon Log can also be the basis for making a report on poster board.
Introduce the Scientific Method
Along with the topic of astronomy, you can teach the Scientific Method. Children can learn to make a hypothesis, decide how to test their hypothesis, experiment, analyze the results, and report back.
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Teach Kids About Their Place in the Universe
During these years children start to learn about their place in the world and universe. You can teach them that they belong to a family, that lives in a city, that is in a state, that is part of a country, that is on a continent, that is part of the Earth, that is a planet in the Solar System, that is part of the Milky Way Galaxy, that is part of the Universe.
Astronomy helps children learn about their relationship to what they see and to understand they are a part of something small and something huge.
Third Grade Through Fifth Grade
Now is the time to get a telescope. You don’t have to get anything super expensive. A basic one can be bought for under $100 and will be adequate for most uses. This age can learn in more detail about the Moon and its relationship to Earth. With the use of a telescope and the Internet, children at this stage can be experts in lunar geography. They can learn the names of the craters and Lunar Seas. Teaching them about the Apollo program and space exploration will further trigger their imaginations.
Children at this stage area also ready to move beyond the Moon. Several planets can be seen with the naked eye or a simple telescope. Show the children Mars and Venus, or even Jupiter. They should know the planets and organization of the solar system.
An astronomy unit also works well with a unit on Greek mythology at these ages. Point out constellations at night and teach the stories of the constellations during the day. True learning shows children how to make connections between facts and areas of knowledge to solve problems.
What Can Be Seen Without a Telescope?
Here Are Some of Things That Can Be Seen in the Night Sky With the Naked Eye:
- Milky Way
- International Space Station
- Over 100 Different Satellites
- Andromeda Galaxy
- Uranus (very hard to see)
The Middle School years are a great time to learn about the sky and the contents of our galaxy in more detail. The concept of the light-year should be introduced. Middle school students can combine astronomy with math by calculating how long it takes light to reach Earth from a star given its distance in light years. Telescopes can be used to observe Venus and Mars, as well as a few bright stars.
Middle School is also a great time to introduce some the weird and strange phenomena in our universe. Everything from black holes and quasars to nebula and red dwarfs are usually of interest. Learning about the local moons of other planets in our own solar system is also a possibility.
Projects for this age group may include planning a long-term interplanetary trip. The student can design the ship and explain how to overcome the enormous distances that currently preclude human space exploration much beyond our Moon. Students could explain where they hoped to go and hypothesize on what they may find.
How to Make a Telescope
Students at this age are ready to not only understand how a telescope works, but to build their own telescope. There are many excellent online tutorials. The materials are relatively cheap. Understanding how the optics of a telescope work has a wide variety of useful applications.
Students at this age are often far more interested in happenings beyond the Moon and are usually mature enough to pick their own focus. Some possibilities are more advanced study of black holes and the theory of relativity.
In addition to spending time practicing spotting landmarks in the night sky, students can learn to navigate using the stars as ancient mariners did. Another great activity for high school students is to have them mentor younger students on how to use a telescope or how to find different objects of interest in the night sky.
© 2013 Jason McBride