I am a bit of a self proclaimed space geek. I went to Space Camp in high school and our family has a pretty big telescope. Educating our son about space was a subject that I knew I wanted to start early on but I had a hard time finding activities for young kids. I’ve connected with my local planetarium guide, Katy, for some tips and ideas for solar system education - and I can offer a few of my own as well to help spark some interest and enthusiasm for learning about our solar system.
Look at the Stars - Outside
This might be too obvious but when you’re outside in the dark with your kids, look up. Talk about the Moon, the stars, the Milky Way - whatever you can see where you are. Orion is a winter constellation that is usually pretty easy to spot as is the Big Dipper. Venus and Jupiter are very bright in the night sky. Use binoculars or a telescope and a sky map to aid your viewing. There are many smartphone apps that can show you exactly what you’re looking at. Katy tells me that kids under seven aren’t really going to understand constellations so sticking with stars and planets is best with the littles.
Look at the Stars - Inside
Find your l ocal planetarium and visit often! I have been lucky to live close to one my entire life. I’m even luckier now because we’re 40 minutes from a planetarium that has star shows tailored for the littlest of learners - even infants! A multi-media presentation from an expert will have a bit of a different effect than your own backyard presentation. Planetariums also often run special programs in the evenings during meteor showers, eclipses and so forth.
Make it Present
At our house, our Hugg-A-Moon and Hugg-A-Mars pillows are always on one of our living room couches. Our little man had glow in the dark space jammies and had a solar system poster on his wall before he could even say Jupiter. This stuff was just there, ready when he was. Invest in space learning tools just like home education materials on shapes, colors, letters and other basics. I can recommend this super fun gigantic blow up solar system kit and I think this magnetic system looks like a great resource as well.
Kids Love Astronauts
Katy teaches kids about space all day long - from infants to high schoolers. She says that the little people LOVE astronauts! Introduce kids to Neil Armstrong, the International Space Station and astronaut Scott Kelly who has spent an entire year in space. Here’s a video Katy recommends of astronauts falling while walking on the moon! It’s funny stuff! She tells us to remind kids that the Moon does have gravity - just less than Earth’s - which makes it hard for astronauts to walk around but makes it easier to carry a heavy load. In fact, they’re carrying 400 pounds of equipment to keep them alive and perform their studies! Katy says that it’s important to remind youngsters that there are no astronauts on the Moon now - and no aliens!
Solar System Basics
I’ve liked to introduce each planet in our solar system with one special fact to start my little guy’s understanding. Easy stuff like Mars is red, Venus has no moons, Jupiter’s storm and so forth. He knows too that poor Pluto was demoted from official planet to dwarf planet like the dwarfs on Sleeping Beauty. He now also knows some other dwarf planets: Eris, Makemake, Ceres and that they are all smaller than our own Moon. I like to think of the planets as characters akin to Sleeping Beauty’s dwarfs for him to get to know and love.
Other Resources and Activities
PBS offers a space show called Ready Jet Go that introduces space concepts and solar system education.
Do a “ planet walk” by showing how far each planet is from the next and their dimensions. Earth is the size of peppercorn next to a bowling ball sized Sun! And you’ll need a half a mile of space between the Sun and dwarf planet Pluto.
Use star stickers to create dot to dot pictures of constellations.
NASA has a great wealth of games, facts, contests and more fun stuff at their students page.
Star Child is another website devoted to teaching young kids about space.
Have fun with it and learn something new yourself! Katy says “If you grow up around a love of learning, you will love learning.” Are you introducing space concepts early in your own child’s life? Tell us in the comments or Tweet with hashtag #BeAnAstronaut!