Got a budding Brian Cox in the family? There’s plenty to keep children excited about the science of astronomy, says Katie Smith
Exploding stars, crashing comets, big bangs - astronomy is bursting with wild and fascinating events so it’s no surprise that children love learning about space. It's exciting and engages the imagination, providing a limitless canvas of possibility. If your child’s mind is full of stars, here are some ways to keep the kids keen on watching the sky at night.
With its bright and colourful approach to hefty astronomical facts, www.kidsastronomy.com is a great place to start for younger children. Sections on black holes, galaxies and the Solar System are peppered with games, jokes and puzzles to keep kids interested. There are even a few songs – and with lines like, ‘the sun is a mass of incandescent gas...’ they’re definitely worth a listen. A more challenging site for older primary children is NASA kid’s club (kids.msfc.nasa.gov) which is rich with stunning images, astonishing facts and engaging games. The next step up from here is free astronomical software Stellarium (www.stellarium.org). Download the 3D planetarium, key in the date and then you and your child can view the night sky as you would with binoculars or a telescope, zooming in on stars, planets and satellites
Every parent knows that presenting your six-year-old with a list of dry statistics isn’t likely to fire their imagination. Playing a game of Space Top Trumps (Winning Moves), however, should keep them engrossed at the same as they learn the diameter of Jupiter or the temperature of Venus. After bedtime, turn off the lights, switch on the planetarium, lie back and learn about the constellations. You can get portable planetariums from just €30 and they often come with an audio tape and a guide to the stars. Once they’re hooked, there are starter scopes from around €40 which are strong enough to view the Moon and its craters. If you’re ever stuck for a birthday present there are endless variations on space-related toys from a model of the Lunar Lander to Usborne’s fact-filled cards, 100 Things to Spot in the Night Sky.
Take it outside
Astronomy is immediate, accessible and available for everyone to enjoy and your child will love the excitement of wrapping up warm and heading outside for their first look at the stars. There are many astronomical societies around the country including Dublin, Galway, Midlands and Kerry and many host ‘star parties’ or stargazing events throughout the year. At these sessions, societies bring along a telescope for everyone to share so your child will get a good look at the planets or even deep-sky objects such as distant galaxies. April is Global Astronomy Month so look out for local events. Other great activities for children include visiting observatories and planetariums such as The Armagh Planetarium (www.armaghplanet.com) or Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork (www.bco.ie). Check their websites for shows, family friendly activities, school workshops, stargazing events and space related exhibitions. Astronomy Ireland’s Education Officers run an education programme giving talks on astronomy in schools (primary & secondary) and both Armagh Planetarium and Blackrock Castle Observatory have portable StarDomes which can travel to schools around the country. So the next time your child asks how far is the Sun or why the Moon changes its shape, grab the moment and get your child engaged in some astro-related fun.