How Do You Get Kids Into Astronomy?

Really… that’s not a title… I’m asking a question!

In all seriousness, I can give you a simple answer to this question – You Don’t!

Astronomy isn’t soccer, or baseball, or dance. There is an instant gratification of looking through an eyepiece and seeing Saturn’s rings, but it’s not a physical gratification of scoring a goal or getting a base hit. The only 10-year old who will be hooked by seeing Jupiter’s cloud bands is one who’s ready for it. Your average elementary school age child won’t be able to comprehend what they’re looking at unless their mind is already open and receptive to it.

I tried to get my kids interested, but I quickly learned that they weren’t ready. My imaging setup is complicated and never sees an eyepiece, so I bought a department store refractor to show them some stuff. That was a big mistake. The tripod was rickety and a slight touch would knock Saturn out of view. Breathing in the wrong direction would send it bouncing all over the field of view. The kids were already annoyed and tired and the neighbors were throwing a party, blasting their 1000-watt LED lights into my back yard. My $300 eyepieces couldn’t fix any of that! Less than ideal conditions was an understatement. I thought there would be better nights, and then they’d see the things that drew me into Astronomy.

Another opportunity came a week later, with a clear night, and no parties. I had fashioned a dovetail to the scope and positioned it to my tracking mount. It was solid, and tracking kept Saturn in-view. The kids were well rested, and Saturn was high right after sunset. The kids reaction this time “Wow, meh, can we go watch Disney Channel?” I wanted them to see what I see, but I was looking in the wrong direction. Of course I didn’t expect my four-year-old to understand anything about what I was looking at, but I thought the six-and-ten-year-old would have the same epiphany that I did when I was in my 20’s, first looking through a scope.

The department store scope has been in the closet since. The kids know that on clear nights, Dad is setting up the scope in the yard to image. They don’t ask to look, or see how I do things. But eight months later, they are anxious to see the pictures the next day. I’m letting them come to me, and I can see the interest growing. It’s something they have to come their own, and I’ll let them discover what they want to discover when they are ready. I still ask them if they want to see, but I don’t force the issue. If and when they are ready, I’ll help them along.

Sports and other activities are good for kids, but I don’t believe in trying to force the issue. Something like Astronomy, or other sciences, are on another level. The very basics can be relatively easy and kid friendly, but the answers to the questions that inevitably follow are much more complicated and difficult for a child to understand. If they’re interested, help them along in the most kid friendly way possible, and don’t throw too much at them too quickly. I use props (basketball for the earth, baseball for the moon) or the wealth of pictures on the Internet to help explain things. I don’t talk about the level of hydrogen gas in the universe compared to helium, oxygen, etc. They don’t care yet. I talk about the number of stars in a galaxy and how pretty it is, but that’s about it. Right now that’s about all they’re ready for. I do want them all to eventually understand our place in the Universe when they’re old enough to grasp things. If they come around and want to learn more, great. If they could care less, that’s OK too.

Right now, they’re dad is just a nerd staring at a computer screen inside at a computer outside. I’m OK with that too, because they’re pretty much dead-on.

Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA

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