What child isn't fascinated by the stars, the planets, and the idea of zooming through space in a rocket ship? Astronomy projects can be the perfect way to spark a child's interest in science. In rural and suburban areas, where the night sky is visible, children can study the stars for themselves. They can lie back on the lawn on a clear summer night and learn the constellations or count meteors. In urban areas where street lights blot out all but the brightest stars, there's still moonwatching, as well as indoor activities to learn about astronomy. Urban areas may also have a planetarium, observatory, or science museum to visit.
Try some of these activities with younger children to help them learn about the amazing world beyond our atmosphere:
An empty oatmeal box and a flashlight can be transformed into a homemade planetarium for learning constellations. Cut a hole in the bottom of the box large enough to admit the flashlight. Cut a large circular hole in the lid. Then cut circles of black paper that will fit inside of the lid. With a star chart to guide you, use a pin to punch holes in a paper circle in the same pattern as a constellation your child wants to learn. Make a paper disk for each constellation. When you insert the disk into the oatmeal box lid and shine the flashlight through the box, you can project the constellation onto the ceiling. Play a "guess the constellation" game until you and your child are ready to find the same constellations in the night sky.
TRACK A CONSTELLATION
Once your child knows a few constellations, such as the Big and Little Dippers or Orion, take your child out shortly after sunset to find the constellation. Sketch where it is in the sky in relation to earthly landmarks, such as a tree, roofline, or tower. Go outdoors at least an hour later and sketch where the constellation is. It's the turning of the earth, of course, that causes the apparent movement. For a great elementary science fair project, track a group of constellations every hour for several hours, and explain why they appear to move.
When is the moon full and when is it new? What time does the moon rise each night? Is the moon visible during the day? Many adults as well as children don't know the answers to these questions. Watching the moon every night for a month can help children and their parents understand how the moon goes through its phases. Use a calendar to find out when the moon is full, and begin your moonwatching then. Record what time the moon rises and where it rises. Then watch it for a month. Many children are surprised to learn that the moon rises later and later each night. Before the first week, the moon may be rising well past bedtime, and the child can watch for the moon to set early in the morning.
If you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, let your child look at the full moon through them. Have your child imagine walking across the face of the moon. Where are the mountains? Where are the valleys? What route would your child pick to cross the moon's surface? Older children can use their observations to create a hand-drawn map of the moon. A close study of the moon can become a good science fair project.
How far apart are the planets compared with each other? A child can go on a "planet walk" to get an idea of relative distances between the planets. You'll need a large open space, such as a school yard or a park. Get some index cards, one for each planet. To each card you'll attach a small object to represent each planet: Mercury is a tiny, round-headed pin. Venus, Earth, and Mars are slightly larger round-headed pins. Jupiter and Saturn are beads, such as plastic pony beads. Uranus and Neptune are slightly smaller beads, seeds, or split peas. Pluto, if you wish to include it for tradition, is a tiny pin. Get a plastic beach ball to represent the sun.
Tie or tape the "sun" to a stationary object, then begin your planet walk. Each step will represent one astronomical unit (AU), which is the distance between the Earth and the sun (92,956,600 miles). Here's how far from the sun to place each of your planet markers:
Mercury: 1/3 of a step from the sun
Venus: 3/4 of a step
Earth: 1 step
Mars: 1 1/2 steps
Jupiter: 5 1/2 steps
Saturn: 9 1/2 steps
Uranus: 19 steps
Neptune: 30 steps
Pluto: 39 1/2 steps
If your child likes to listen to stories, find some legends about the constellations you know. On a clear, warm summer night, take your child out to lie on a blanket in the back yard to look for the constellation. Keep your child entertained by telling the stories you know about that constellation. For fun, you and your child might make up your own constellations and create stories to go with them.
Meteors strike the earth constantly. Most of them burn up in the atmosphere, but a fine rain of tiny iron particles from iron meteors falls continuously on the earth. During a major meteor shower, try spreading a large sheet in an open area of your yard, where there are no overhanging trees. Pin the edges of the sheet down and leave it overnight. In the morning, take a magnet and pass it over the sheet. See if you pick up tiny iron particles. You may have to leave the sheet out several nights running to collect enough particles to see. If you can collect enough meteor particles, save them for a science fair project display.