My husband and I are raising NASA Nerds and we are not ashamed. I love the history of the men and women who raised their hands to volunteer being strapped onto a rocket and being sent into the unknown. My favorite movie is Apollo 13. I really enjoyed the book (and movie) The Martian by Andy Weir and the autobiography Failure Is Not An Option by Gene Kranz. As a family we have visited both Johnson and Kennedy Space Center. With all this space knowledge bubbling out of us, we get a little giddy when we get a clear evening under a sky full of stars.
You might not have a desire to join the NASA fan club, but there are so many cool activities to keep your kids engaged and the best part is they are learning without even realizing it.
Start with an app.
We love the Sky View app. For $1.99 you can enjoy countless hours of star gazing. All you have to do is open the app, point your phone to the sky and it identifies for you what you are looking at. The constellations, satellites, and planets are all there. First locate with the app, then close the phone and try to find it on your own.
Learn the names.
As a kid, I always wanted to be able to identify the constellations, but when looking up at the sky, I was lucky if I could find the Big Dipper. As an adult I’ve made it a goal to be able to recognize a few and to point them out to my kids. This simple activity is fun for even the littlest learners, because who doesn’t like stickers. Create common constellations, then let your kids create and name their own.
Celestial Navigation sounds a little romantic. Until you realize that many who used this form of guidance, were stuck on the open sea, in the middle of nowhere, in pitch black, for weeks on end, and if condition weren’t right (like say cloud coverage) you could easily get off course. While I have no desire to steer my ship based off the stars, I do think it is fun to teach our kids how to find North using Polaris.
If your phone runs out of battery, and you can’t just pull up the app, start by locating the Big Dipper. Once you have found the Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major), locate the top right star of the scoop. From there, draw a line straight out until you come to the brightest star. That is Polaris (The North Star). Now you know which direction is North and your kids can impress their friend at the next sleep over.
This summer we have been teaching our kids how to identify satellites in the night sky. Have you ever looked up to see a light moving at a steady pace? It looks like a star but it moves. It looks like a plane, but it doesn’t blink. You have found a satellite. Our family has spent hours this summer seeing who can find the first one of the evening and who can find the most. It’s our own version of I Spy and we always lose to Dad. Try to spy the International Space Station fly over head or a shooting star. There is more to see in the night sky than just a black background full of tiny white lights.
Jr Ranger Program.
One of our family’s favorite activities is to travel to National Parks and complete their Jr Ranger Program (usually geared towards kids 5-12). I was excited to learn that the National Parks Service also has programs to complete at home. One of these programs is a Night Explorer course.
You are able to print off the booklet and complete the course right in your backyard! In the past you could mail in your booklet to receive a badge and certificate of completion. Due to COVID, the NPS is not providing this option at the moment. They do offer a digital high-five. I have learned many things myself for helping the kids complete their booklets. This program and many others like it are a great learning tool and a lot of fun for the whole family.
You don’t have to be an astronomer or even a NASA Nerd, to enjoy the night sky. It’s not about being able to teach an entire lesson on the science of our solar system. It’s about curling up on a blanket in the backyard and making memories with your family. What will you see in the sky tonight?