Astronomy For Kids

John Herschel's Telescope
(image source)

Kids want something they can do by themselves.  Totally.

Many parents express a desire to expose their children to astronomy somehow, and try different approaches to accomplish it.  Buying a telescope at Wally-World as an introduction to exploring the heavens is a pretty common mistake.  Now don't get me wrong, I think buying a quality telescope is a great idea.  It doesn't have to be a real expensive telescope either.  But, it is way too easy wind up with a piece of junk unless you learn a little beforehand.  Check out my page on buying a first scope, and in 10 minutes you will be well equipped to make a selection that is right for you.  Really.  Seriously. Check it out. 

If you google "astronomy for kids" you will find many sites designed to cater to the budding interest of a young astronomer, and sell you something to do it with.  Now I don't have anything against someone making an honest buck.  I may monetize this website myself, someday.  I checked out some of these sites though, and the entry level telescopes they picture for sale (supposedly ideal for kids) are mostly bad ideas in my opinion.  I hate to see this because I want kids to get into astronomy for a lifetime, not for a week.  The goto scopes with all the bells and whistles are definitely here to stay, and I like some of them for a lot of reasons.  But not as a starter scope for kids.        

My site is aimed at both the novice and those with some experience as amateur astronomers.  I have kids, I know a lot about astronomy, and in this article I will share some good ways to spark an undying interest in astronomy for your children.  Picking out books about the solar system or universe is always a good idea for youngsters who like to read, but some parents (and most kids) prefer a more hands on experience.  This is where I can help you.

Buying a Telescope

If you read my "First Scope" article, you are well on your way to a good choice.  When you are buying specifically for a young person certain aspects of the choice become very important.  Let me explain.

The makers of the "entry level" goto scopes promise you the universe at your fingertips for under $200.  They make a terrific sales pitch that convinces you that modern electronics has brought the proffesional observatory to a 10 year old.  And, everyone knows how good young people are with technology now days, right?

So, it stands to reason that a high tech telescope will present little challenge for them to master, and they will know their way around the night sky in no time.  Sorry be the bearer of bad news, but I'm afraid it doesn't work that way.

Don't Let This Happen To You

Here's what really happens when that scope arrives.  Junior sees the box and says, "Wow, cool!".  Together you open it up and start to assemble things.  Then it's time to read the manual to figure out how to work it.  Guess who does that?  Junior goes off to play while you figure it out (s/he doesn't have time for that kind of thing).  Then you wait for a clear night (customary waiting time after an equipment purchase is about two weeks).  On a clear night you and junior head out to set up the scope.  You have your owners manual with you to follow along step by step with the set up procedures.  "This is taking a while", you think to yourself.  Junior is running around playing (it's boring watching you read a manual).

Okay, it's getting dark.  You have muddled through the "simple alignment procedure" (should be much easier next time, you're thinking).  You call Junior over to try it out.  There is a quarter moon out, looks promising.  You slew to the moon.  The scope moves right to it.  Success!  You check it out with both supplied eyepieces for a while.  Junior wants to try moving it to the next object.  Not knowing much about what there is to look at, or astronomy in general, you hit the "tour" button.  The scope selects M4 as your next object.  It tells you in the scrolling display that M4 is an " ex glob clstr", gives you the size, and magnitude of the object (numbers that don't mean much to you), and says it is an excellent object.  You hit the goto button.  The scope slews a little ways and stops.  Turns out it was pretty close to where the moon was, cool.  You look in the eyepiece and, nothing is there.  Okay, you see a couple of random looking stars but that's it.  What's up with that?

What you and Junior don't know is that M4 (a great object under the right conditions) is practically invisible near a brightish moon, from northern latitudes, in a smallish scope.  And you aren't going to know that for a long time, assuming you stick with this hobby.  All you know is you don't see anything resembling the description.  Next object on the tour then. 

The hand control indicates the next object is M7.  Ok, hit goto.  Telescope moves back towards the moon, passes it, and continues east and southward.  It stops.  You take a look through the eyepiece.  Great, you are looking through trees.  Too low in the sky. 

Next object, M6.  Slew. Stop.  Look in the eyepiece.  Wow!  This is more like it!  Nice bunch of stars just above the tree line (thank goodness).  "Take a look, Junior".  " Junior"?  Junior is running around in the dark playing.  "Hey, come take a look at this".  He runs over, takes a qiuck look.  Says, "Cool", and runs off.  Hmm.  This isn't going quite like you thought it would. 

An hour later, Junior is ready to call it a night and go inside.  "It was a lot of fun, though".  So, you pack it up for the night, just a little disallusioned.  Over the next few months you take the scope outside a few more nights, with similar results.  And the "simple alignment procedure" took just as long every time because you haven't done it enough to remember how. 

Six months later, another try.  Similar results.  You (and Junior) know little more about the night sky than you ever did.  The scope didn't teach you (or Junior) the universe.  Hobby over, it's not worth the time it takes to set up.  Scope gathers dust.

This story, unfortunately, is close to what happens for many people, especially kids.  It's a shame.  And, it is entirely avoidable.

How to do it right:

1.  Remember, kids want to do it themselves.  Totally.

2.  Forget the bells and whistles.  Plenty of time for that later.

3.  Keep it simple and intuitive.  That's the key.  Point it by hand while looking through a finderscope, then look through the eyepiece.

A young person with their first telescope doesn't need to "know the sky" to be fascinated by it.  They need to be able to grab the scope and aim it at the moon or something else they see, look into the eyepiece, and it's "in there".  All in few seconds of their very precious time.  A mundane star they found themselves and turns out to be a double star is way more interesting to them than most stuff you call them over to look at, because they "discovered" it. 

The rest will follow.  Just remember that a hands on approach with something really simple of decent quality is the key.  They should be calling you over to look at what they found.  Not the other way around.

Which Telescope??

A decent pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod can be the perfect hands on solution for lighting the astronomy fire in a young mind, but it won't be long before a little more power is desired on the moon and planets.  That's where a telescope comes in.  Please take a moment to read my article on binoculars though, and consider them as a modest cost addition to your telescope.  A decent set of 10x50's on a good camera tripod may total $150 or less, and even though you are the proud owner of a telescope, you will never quit using this setup.  It's just too easy to use to leave it alone.  Just make sure the tripod you select can handle the weight of your binocular choice.  Don't skimp on the tripod to save $30 or $40.  You will regret it.

Hand held binoculars are OK, but when you mount them on a tripod and they are rock steady, you can see so much more you won't believe it.  And two eyes really are better than one!  Don't believe it makes a big difference?  Next time your looking up at the stars, try closing one eye.  You lose a lot.

So, about that telescope.  No worries.  Read my article on buying your first telescope, if you haven't already done so, and you are on your way.  It's all there, sizes, types, costs, what to look for, and what to stay away from.  You want a telescope with quality optics, three good eyepieces, and a smooth, sturdy, simple to use mount. 

Just keep one overiding principle at the forefront and you'll be fine...YOU ARE BUYING THIS FOR A YOUNG PERSON, who will only stay interested by doing everything themself.

If they can pick it up, take it outside, plop it down, and start looking at stuff in about two or three minutes, it will get used a lot. 

Clear Skies,