There are few sights more wondrous than the pitch black of the night sky, spattered with stars radiating their ethereal light from millions of light-years away. The mysterious patterns of those stars, mingled with the light of the Moon and the planets, have called to man for explanation and guided him through countless nights. While you feel the interest; the question is, how to make astronomy accessible for kids, too.
The excitement of finding and recognizing the constellations is easy to share. Often, the first asterism children learn is the Big Dipper, which is part of the larger constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, named by the Greeks after a myth in which the mighty god Zeus hid the nymph Callisto and her son, Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. Commonly known in the United States as the Big and Little Dippers, these asterisms and the constellations they lay within shine out across the night sky for eager little fingers to trace.
But while almost everyone knows how to find these distinctive groups of stars, few remember their origins, which are steeped in American history. The Big Dipper asterism's resemblance to a drinking gourd was used most famously by Harriet Tubman on the long and arduous journey of the Underground Railroad, when she and others like her led thousands of slaves to freedom. Traveling only at night when they were least likely to be seen, the guides followed the shape of the Big Dipper to find his smaller companion, the Little Dipper, at whose tip the star Polaris, or the North Star, pointed the way north to freedom, night after night.
Sailors, too, used the stars of the night sky to guide them when the orienting sun had gone down. These brave men told the stories of the constellations so their children could easily find and remember these crucial guides of the night. Children often find it hard to imagine a world without electricity, without GPS or even simple compasses. Teaching them the stories of these night travelers while under the dark blanket of the sky yourselves, far from the brightness of modern life, will help get your kids excited about astronomy as they traverse time and imagination at your side.
The stars have been telling stories in the skies for thousands of years, and your children will be just as enthralled tracing the mighty figure of Orion, finding the Pleiades cluster of the Seven Sisters, and following the sweeping W shape of queen Cassiopeia as generations of children and adults have done before.
Orion, a mighty hunter, was the only man whose company Artemis, Goddess of the Moon, could stand. They traveled across the ancient world together, hunting the wild beasts that roamed the land. Apollo, the God of the Sun and Artemis' twin brother, grew jealous and set a giant scorpion after him who killed Orion with his sting. Zeus placed Orion in the sky to honor him, with Scorpius the scorpion on the other side of the sky so that Orion is never seen together with the scorpion under the sky. He is, however, set close by to the Pleiades, a tight cluster of stars said to represent the beautiful Seven Sisters whom Orion loved.
Not only will children love the excitement of these stories of mythological danger, adventure, and enduring love, the many other wonders of the night sky will hold them in thrall. They will examine the pocked and pitted surface of the Moon, who never turns her Dark Side towards Earth. They will wonder about life on other planets as they learn to distinguish the dull red glow of Mars from the shining rings of Saturn and imagine other, undiscovered planets in galaxies far away. Sharing your own discoveries about the universe will bring astronomy alive for kids, and will help foster a lifetime of appreciation for the nightly shows presented on the stage of the starry sky.