Backyard Guide to the Night Sky

If there is one thing my children love, it’s science and the world around them. With warmer temperatures on the way, one thing I am looking forward to is nighttime stargazing and talking about the stars and planets that make our sky so beautiful.

If stargazing is on your bucket list too, here are a few fun ways to teach kids about the night sky.

Find a Place to Gaze
Before beginning, find a great place to stargaze. It’s ideal to find a spot in your backyard, so start paying attention to where the sky is wide open and make it the spot.

Tip: Make it more fun and set up a tent to camp out after stargazing! Gather some snacks and astronomy books to enjoy as you wait for the sky to darken.

Explore With Smartphones
Take advantage of the many learning tools right at your fingertips. There are many phone apps to purchase, but Starmap ($4.99) is the one that comes highly recommended on iPhone by other users, with over one thousand positive reviews.

The app creates its very own virtual sky display based on your GPS coordinates. The display rotates and pans as the phone moves, so you can hold it up in front of you and figure out which stars or galaxies you’re viewing. The display can also be switched to night mode, which darkens the graphics to red so you can still enjoy the real-life nighttime show.

Tip: If you desire a 3-D experience, download Solar Walk 3-D ($2.99). The app offers 3-D models of man-made satellites. You will need cyan-red 3-D glasses to see them, but it definitely makes astronomy more interactive.

Make a Constellation Box
When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to make was a constellation box — an easy-to-build craft that displays constellations on the wall. The best part about this project is that you probably already have many of the materials in your home.

Materials: Shoebox, scissors, flashlight, pencil, tape, constellations to trace, chalk, black construction paper

Instructions

  1. Cut a centered 3-by-4-inch rectangle on one long side of the shoebox with scissors.
  2. Trace the base of a flashlight on the center of the opposite side with a pencil, then cut it out.
  3. Place the flashlight through the hole, leaving the handle and power switch extended outside the box.
  4. Tape the lid securely while holding the flashlight in place, and seal all the way around the edges to prevent light from escaping.
  5. Choose a constellation (from a book or online), and cut a black piece of construction paper slightly larger than the cut-out 3-by-4-inch rectangle.
  6. Draw the constellation outline on the construction paper with white chalk, marking the main stars as you go.
  7. Poke a needle through the black paper at the center of each marked main star. Tape the construction paper constellation over the cut-out rectangle on the side of the box with the chalked side facing inside of the box.
  8. Turn on the flashlight in a dark room, and point the planetarium toward a blank wall or the ceiling to display the constellation.
  9. Encourage your child to take part in the process and create new chalked constellations.

Paper Mâché Planets
Paper mâché is an enjoyable project that can keep kids busy for hours. It’s a great craft to set up outdoors on a nice day, and I purchase shower curtains at our local dollar store to cover surfaces and make clean up easy when tackling a project like this.

Materials: Balloons, newspaper, paper mâché paste, paint, small needle and string

Instructions

  1. Blow up balloons to a variety of sizes.
  2. Cover them in paper that has been dipped in the paste.
  3. Once covered, repeat the process with three more layers.
  4. Hang balloons to dry, then paint them.
  5. Pop the balloons with a small needle when dried.
  6. Hang the planets with string.

Have fun exploring the night sky together, and happy stargazing!

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