# Star Party... But with/for kids!
So, there you are: someone finally tricked you in hosting and organizing a star party for kids... Now, as the seasoned astronomer around, you know:
You probably are already listing everything that is going to go wrong, but worry not: I got you covered!
How exactly? Well, in this guide I am going to cover:
- What to not do and what to not expect.
- What to expect.
- The crucial moments and what to do.
- Gives you some feedback.
Why do I think we are well placed to write that kind of guide? Because we do that all the time for kids from 6 years old to 18+. So we have some experience...
In this article I am going to focus on kids from 6 to 10 as they are slightly harder to manage...
# Common fears and errors
# Don't be afraid
Astronomy is an expensive hobby. That's a fact. When an astronomer tells you "it's pretty affordable", what he means is: "oh, it's slightly less expensive than a new car".
So it's only natural that we are all very sensitive about our equipment. Most astronomers have the equivalent of the price of a small car just in their eyepiece case!
Now, you might think that kids + expensive hardware = catastrophic outcome.
Well, I have seen hundreds of kids around my telescopes by now and they never broke anything. So let's get that out of the way: they don't intend to do anything to your stuff, they might stumble on it if they are to dissipated but that's not pure evil expressing itself!
One thing important about fear and tension is that it's extremely easy to communicate around you: that's how we survived as a specie 😉
So it is useless to be tensed, it is only going make things worst.
So: breath, it's all going to be ok. The only attitude you need is: nice but firm.
# Set your expectations to a realistic level...
You might love the hobby (I do), but for most of them sticking their eye in an eyepiece is going to be a first. Or at the very least it's not so often that they do it.
Obviously they don't know what to expect so they are less thrilled than if you were offering a Super Smash Bros tournament. It's no use to be pissed at that, it won't help.
You have to take that in consideration and you have to do your part to get them excited. I'll be honest: if you are not willing to do that part, you might as well not do it at all.
And all in all, even if you successfully get these kids excited, your star party is not going to last more than 1h ~ 1h30. Reality is that kids that age are going to be tired and lose interest as they get sleepy.
And unfortunately there is no way around it:
- In Summer darkness is coming late.
- In Winter it's cold so they will last even less time.
- Cocaine is illegal in most places on Earth (and probably not advised for kids... or for anyone...).
That being said let's move to the interesting parts.
# What to expect
In my experience you have the following categories of kids:
- Those who don't care (like: not at all).
- Those who will be superficially interested.
- A small number that are going to be super interested, even by your criteria. It won't be more than one or two.
There is a last category: those who cares, are super excited, know the rules, respect the rules... Unfortunately, those are most probably your own kids!
The bulk of your group are going to be in category 1 or 2. Hopefully you have more of the second than the first.
You have to have a plan for all of them:
- Manage those who are not interested by trying to engage them and move them to the second category. Most of the times, they will look and go. Don't try to force them, as long as they respect your rules it's ok.
- For the kids in the second category, your job is going to keep their interest high as long as possible. To do so, use all the tricks: positive reinforcement, mobilization through questions, etc.
- The third group has to be managed to: you have to keep their excitement to a level compatible with the equipment and people around...
I always find that it's a good experience. You get to share your passion, they get to learn stuff and maybe pickup an amazing hobby!
With that being said, let's head to actual observations.
# Step by step
Before going to the step by step guide, I want to make sure that you get a fact real clear: doing everything by yourself is going to be more than tough, you should really be 2 adults at least. I am going to assume that for the rest of this guide.
First of all, preparation. There is one simple and easy to remember rule: do it by yourself. Unfortunately, kids don't care about the art of collimation or star alignment. While you set up the observatory, your partner in crime should take care of the second important thing: feed the kids. Unless they have been fed before. In all case make sure they are not hungry. You don't want apple sauce to fall on your primary mirror, trust me...
Before setting up your telescope(s) there is an even more important thing to do: prepare the night!
Decide beforehand of your targets, research them so you have enough material to tickle their curiosity. It's going to be very very important!
Research facts and anecdotes that you think are interesting to them. We usually know everything there is to know about our favorite objects down to their NGC code, but kids won't care about that kind of over technical information. They will however enjoy rather advanced explanations as long as they understand it and they are interested in it.
I have two quotes from Einstein that apply here:
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.
And of course:
I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.
Trying to get a kid excited about the definition of a parsec is going to be... challenging. But getting them interested in space travel is easy. Of course, all of this will depend on your actual targets. For example, let's say your are observing M13, you can say that's it's far (22 180 light-years), but they won't get how far it is, so tell them that with the fastest spacecraft we have in space (Voyager II), it would take 1 409 071 985 years to get there!
It does require to do some research before.
A part of planning is sequencing: you should know when your targets are the highest, when to look at them and in what order. Planets like Saturn, Mars or Jupiter are observable first and early in the night. You will need good darkness for nebulae and galaxies so take that in considerations.
Think about replacements, you could miss a target for many reasons: the tree in your backyard, non cooperative weather, optimism regarding light pollution, etc. So plan accordingly, prepare a list of objects that are observable across your visible sky.
KStars observation planner window
I personally find softwares like KStars extremely useful for that. KStars' observation planner is exactly what I need, for 2 reasons:
- It gives you all information you need about time, position, observation window, etc.
- The "What's up Tonight" wizard gives you a list of target per your criteria.
KStars "What's up Tonight" window
With all that, your observation plan should be ready in a jiffy!
Do not forget 2 pieces of equipment that will make the whole experience a lot more enjoyable:
- A ladder (particularly if you have a huge Dob with an eyepiece towering at impossible heights).
- A green laser pointer.
My telescope and ladder ready to (star) party hard!
Finally, one thing you also have to prepare is the rules! Mine are pretty simple:
- No running or pushing around the equipment.
- NO RUNNING OR PUSHING AROUND THE EQUIPMENT!
- The laser stays in my hands. You are not allowed to manipulate it.
- Listen to what I say, I am not a dictator so if I say something it's usually because there is a good reason.
- You are free to ask any questions about the rules, as a matter of fact I encourage you to seek the origin of the rules.
- First rule breaking is a warning, second a time out, third you go to bed.
- I do not negociate with terrorists. There will be no exceptions.
Rules are important, it sets the boundaries. But what's more important is that you stick by your rules, whatever they are.
We tend to promote science and critical thinking, so I encourage the kids to question the rules. It usually goes like this:
Kid: Can I have the laser?
Me: No, remember rule #3?
Kid: But why?!
Me: Good question, it's because it's a powerful laser as you can see and if you point it toward someone you can damage their eyes. That includes the houses on the other side of the hills. Now, I know nobody wants to do that, but it's way to easy to have an accident. So for your own safety, I'll handle the laser. Now, if you want to point something in the sky, you can point it as long as we both hold the laser. Is that ok for everyone?
As a side note, I usually take that moment (happens all the time, kids just want to play with the laser) to slip some scientific knowledge:
- Do you think the laser can touch the Moon?
- Do you think light travels straight and the laser beam remains sharp all the way to infinity?
- No it's not! It's travelling in a cone shape from the source. And no photon from that laser would hit the Moon.
- Did you know that there is actually mirrors (well: space mirrors, it's not your bathroom mirror) on the Moon that reflects lasers back to Earth?
- Do you know why? To measure the distance yes! And to do that they sends millions of billions of photons with extremely powerful lasers and only a handful of them comes back to Earth. Amazing hu!
It's almost not a digression: you need to have that kind of anecdotes it will help you keep them involved. And that my friend, is also part of preparation 😉
Oh, one last thing: you should know and anticipate that nothing is going to go according to your carefully prepared plan!
# Warm up
Now that you are prepared, it's time: kids are here, maybe parents too (in my case when it's in my backyard there is also a sleepover... and I wonder why I'm not phased by horror movies...) and they are all looking at you for an exciting night of Universe related delights! Hopefully the crowd is controlled: not more than 10~15 persons or you'll need more telescope.
Your first job is to introduce the night: we are going to look at space stuff with our naked eye and a telescope. No conference needed here, just the basics.
Then start with the boring stuff: rules! Be nice but firm, make it clear that these rules are absolute and no one is exempt. Make it particularly clear that the laser rule apply to adults too! You really don't want someone's dad or mum to accidentally discover that (s)he has no talent for laser eye surgery in your backyard with your laser...
Oh, and if parents are around, remind everyone that the rules are here for safety and equipment price reasons, you'll get instant attention from parents! Rules apply to everyone.
Once, that part out of the way it's time to respect rule #8: enjoy! I suggest to start with a quiz, usually here are some of my questions and answers:
- Q: So, what do you think we can see with a telescope?
A: The Moon, planets, galaxies, stars are going to be the immediate answers. Congratulate them and add (and define) clusters (a group of stars) and nebulae (a gigantic cloud of space gas). Nebula can be your one allowed fart joke: it can be explosive! It serve a purpose: kids will remember it.
- Q: Ok, can you rank them from closest to super duper far from Earth?
A: Whatever the answers congratulate them, you want them to think! So of course from our point of view (and unless you have access to a giant or space telescope), the answer is going to be: The Moon, SSO (planets mainly for tonight), near DSO (objects inside the Milky Way) like clusters and nebulae and finally galaxies. Take that occasion to add that the only objects that we are going to see that are outside of our own galaxy are other galaxies.
- Q: Talking about distance, do you know how we measure distances in space?
A: We use light years and it measure a distance not a time. It is the distance travelled by light in the vacuum of space for a whole year. And light travels fast: about 300 000 km/s!
- Q: Can you think of something cool about that? Like: how do you see and what does it means when we look at something 2.5M light-years away from us?
A: We are looking in the past! Because lights takes time to arrive to Earth, we see galaxies like they were millions of years ago! So tonight we travel in time and space!
- Q: So how far is the Moon in your opinion?
A: It's one light second away, approximately 380 000 km.
- Q: And what about the Sun?
A: It's much farther: 8 light minutes away or almost 150 millions km.
- Q: What is the biggest object in the Solar System?
A: The Sun of course, by far!
- Q: Ok so now, what's the biggest planet?
A: It's Jupiter. Jupiter is so big that you can put 10 Earth in its diameter!
- Q: How big is the Earth? Moon? Mars? The Sun?
A: Earth diameter is 12 742 km and its circumference is slightly over 40 000 km! It's a loooooong walk! The Moon is very big for a satellite with it's diameter of almost 3 500 km it's a bit over half the Mars diameter (~6 800 km / ~ 50% of Earth diameters). We said earlier that we could put 10 times the Earth in the diameter of Jupiter, well you can put 10 Jupiter in the diameter of the Sun! How many Earth is that? Yes 100!
- Q: Do you know other moons for other planets?
A: There is tons of them: Phobos and Deimos for Mars, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto for Jupiter (Jupiter has 79 moons!), Titan, Rhea or Enceladus for Saturn (Saturn has 62 moons!), Triton (which orbit retrograde, i.e backward), Nereid or Larissa for Neptune (which has 14 moons). As a matter of fact, it's pretty common to have moons.
- Q: What is an orbit?
A: It's a free fall, but falling so fast you miss the ground all the time. That's fortunate because Earth is orbiting the Sun...
- Q: If the Sun was suddenly transformed int a black hole, what would happen to Earth?
A: First it would be cold, really cold, but appart from that... Nothing. Earth would continue to orbit the black hole as the gravity well would be the same.
Obviously, the goal is not to go through all your questions in one go. The goal is to have them involved and start realizing the scale of the universe. It is going to be so much better after if they get a good idea of that scale. The quiz is also a moment where you build up their excitement. It is also an excellent moment to transition to manage their expectations.
Ask them what they think they will see in the telescope. For example will they see colors? And tell them why. If, like me, you are an astro-sketcher it is a really good moment to show them your work, it will help them get the right anticipation for the night.
It is a good moment to explain to everyone that they will need to let their eyes adapt to darkness or else they won't see a thing in the telescope.
It is also probably a good moment to educate them on the light pollution problem for astronomy of course but also for wildlife and human brain development.
Finally, before going outside, while they dress up, go for the rules once more. Get them to finish your sentences.
In preparation for dark adaptation, distribute the star gazing scavenger hunt papers. More on that right after.
Once everybody is dressed up, give them red lights if you have some spares. You never know, some kids might be afraid of the dark. Then turn off the lights if you are at a house, open the door and get out. The dramatic sudden darkness will help you build a favorable atmosphere.
# Dark adaptation
Dark adaptation is a tricky moment. At a star party with fellow astronomer you'd be eating or drinking coffee while talking to your friends but here it's not an option. Yet, kids have to be dark adapted or they won't see a thing. That's where the scavenger hunt comes in handy:
Get them to find constellations (asterisms really but I'll let that one slide ^^) in the sky. Do not help them to much, the goal is to last between 15 and 20 minutes to get a decent adaptation. You can do your own thing or use a pre-made one, like that one:
To complete the dark adaptation, give them a laser sky tour. Point the region of the night sky you are going to look into. If you are in a decently dark location try to get them to find clusters that you can see with the naked eye. Point Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Major to see if they can differentiate them (there's room for another anecdote here: did you know the ancient greeks where using Mizar & Alcor as an eyesight test?). Get them to count the stars in Ursa Minor and point Polaris. Explain how the sky is "rotating" around it.
If nobody flashed a white light (parents included), they should be ready.
Now it's observation time, it's your bread and butter. You know what to do.
Repeat the rules (be nice but firm), it never hurts but be aware of your group. If they behave very well just congratulate them and skip the rules. Just remind them that they can't touch your telescope! Also, a ladder is going to help avoiding people grabbing your truss tubes or mount to maintain their balance...
Just remember to execute in sequence : planet, open clusters, globular clusters, nebulae and galaxies (from the brightest to the dimmest).
Give them facts about what you are observing, question them on what you talked about in the introduction.
Let everyone have a look and then move to a different target. Kids won't last all night and the later it is the harder it gets for them to behave as they get tired.
Get them engaged as they are observing: what do you see? Do you see that feature? etc.
Help them to see: explain averted vision in simple terms. Like: look just next to it you'll get more details.
Finally, here is a very brief list of objects recommendation (it's non exhaustive, depend on the time of the year and completly personnal, I'm interested in your own list):
- Planets: Anything between Mercury and Jupiter, during summer Jupiter and Saturn are sure hit. Mars is a good candidate too.
- Stars: Mizar & Alcor (double double), Albireo or Cor Caroli (double stars). Antares, T Lyrae or R Leo for the red stars.
- Open Clusters: M11 (Wild Duck), NGC 869 & 884 (The Double Cluster) you pick one there is so many. The Pleiades are a good candidate if visible.
- Globular Clusters: M13 of course but really both Hercules globular clusters are good, M3, M5 or M22 are all excellent candidates.
- Nebulae: M57 (Ring Nebulae), The super novae remnant in Cygnus (Veil Nebula), The Lagoon and the Trifid (M8 & M20), M27 (the Dumbbell). Do not forget the filters! Oh and if it's up, finish by M42 😉
- Galaxies: M106 or M31 are sure to provide a decent spectacle. If you are in a dark site M51 and M101 (Whirlpool and Pinwheel) are awesome but wash out really quickly in moderate light pollution. M104 (the Sombrero) is also a good candidate as well as Leo's triplet.
Nebulae are a good moment to talk about the stars life cycle. They will be very interested in knowing that most nebulae are actually star explosion remnant, and the Veil Nebula makes it for a very good wow moment given its size.
Depending on the size of your group, give 10-ish minutes to each target and switch. If you only have a couple of kids, sketching is also an interesting exercise they appreciate most of the time.
In my experience (and I do my fair share of outreach events, even had 15 kids for an astronomy sleepover), they love it. It all falls on your ability to tickle their curiosity with the right anecdotes and the fine amount of pep talk and interesting facts. Even the not interested kids are often interested enough by the idea of looking in a telescope very far in both distance and time.
Making a rather technical discipline like astronomy understandable by kids is also a very good way of improving your skills and knowledge. Layman's terms are not enough, engagement and excitement are 2 of the most important part. I really like it because it allows me to re-connect with the feelings I had the first time I used a telescope to see Saturn's ring, it was awesome! And sometime, drown in our observations we forget about the simple joy of just looking at the wonders of our universe. It is good, occasionally, to just go to the eyepiece with no notebook, no pencil, no drawing board, no camera or computer and just enjoy these splendors.
I feel like kids gives me that simple connection to raw enjoyment.
Hopefully that guide gave you the information you needed. Organizing a star party for kids is a very different exercise than doing it with your fellow astronomers. They need to be engaged, interested and it requires a lot more preparations. However, it's really enriching, it's a blast to hear them gasp at the wonders of our universe and who knows: you might generate vocations and you might even learn stuff while preparing it!
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